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8 Aug 2018 / by Cole Roskam

Strange Days

A sunny Beijing skyline with the CCTV Headquarters in view amidst other buildings. The sky is a deep blue, sparsely populated with wispy clouds.

The Beijing skyline with the OMA-designed CCTV Headquarters in view. Photo: Iwan Baan. © OMA/Iwan Baan

Cole Roskam looks at the questions of boundaries and taste that shape China’s contemporary architectural condition. In this context, what is strange?

In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping lamented the rise in China of what he termed ‘weird architecture’ (奇奇怪怪的建築).[1] It was a brief remark without specific examples that was left open to interpretation—a single line in a much more substantive, prepared speech on the role of art and literature in contemporary Chinese society.[2] Xi’s critique quickly reverberated through the architectural discipline, both within China and abroad. Designers, academics, and pundits scrambled to determine the specific aesthetic, material, or scalar parameters of this so-called architectural weirdness. In the subsequent effort to clarify the term, a general set of standards emerged, namely, that buildings should engage local climates and culture while not relying on ‘excessive’ materials.[3]

Less than two years later, in February 2016, China’s State Council, the chief administrative authority in the People’s Republic, issued a more specific directive concerning the country’s built environment. The statement reiterated Xi’s calls for an end to ‘oversized, xenocentric, and weird’ constructions in favour of buildings that are ‘suitable, economic, green, and pleasing to the eye’.[4] As part of the initiative, the State Council also released a set of guidelines concerning China’s gated communities, which followed the December 2015 Central Urban Work Conference—the first to convene since 1978. Thirty-seven years had elapsed since the conference last met, and a period of unprecedented, largely unrestrained architectural and urban change had taken place, during which thousands of urban enclaves had materialised, fuelled by a burgeoning Chinese middle class hungry for the perks and security of privately run accommodations. Under the government’s new urban policy, these developments would be pried open to the public over time in the name of more comprehensive urban planning measures and improved traffic circulation.[5]

If there are weird objects to be found in contemporary Chinese architectural expression, where might we find them, why must we see them as weird now, and what does resistance to these objects signify with respect to architectural and urban culture in China today?

Both pronouncements—the ambiguous gesture towards the local on the one hand, and the call for greater urban cohesion on the other—signalled a change in tack on the part of the Chinese government, which previously endorsed and funded ambitious, large-scale international architectural commissions. These include, among many others, the China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters designed by OMA and completed in 2012, and the Beijing National Stadium, otherwise known as ‘the Bird’s Nest’, designed by Herzog & de Meuron with Stefan Marbach, Ai Weiwei, and Li Xinggang, chief architect of China Architecture Design & Research Group (CADG), and completed in 2008. This shift has generated anxiety as well as acclaim within the architectural industry at home and abroad. More generally, Xi’s comments prompted questions surrounding the meaning of concepts like the abnormal, strange, ugly, monstrous, and disgusting in contemporary Chinese cultural production.

An aerial view of the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing illuminated by the setting sun. Buildings can be seen stretching off into the far distance beyond the CCTV Headquarters.

OMA. CCTV Headquarters. Photo: Iwan Baan. © OMA/Iwan Baan

Historically understood in negative contrast to idealised truths like beauty, terms such as ‘ugly’, ‘weird’, and ‘disgusting’ have recently undergone critical reassessment worldwide in fields including aesthetics and art history, comparative literature, and philosophy, as consequential forces in subject–object relations, the social production of the self, and the establishment of political and cultural boundaries.[6] With that in mind, what insights might such terms reveal in relation to the state of architecture in China? If there are weird objects to be found in contemporary Chinese architectural expression, where might we find them, why must we see them as weird now, and what does resistance to these objects signify with respect to architectural and urban culture in China today? A brief architectural ancestry of the weird in China offers several clues.

A cursory look back through recent Chinese history reveals the emergence of what may be considered strange architectural objects at specific moments of rapid economic and social change, when questions of political legitimacy have been at stake and the identification of oddness in architecture has suited particular ends. Certain qualities may be discerned in these projects, including a perceived foreignness deriving in part from particular sets of aesthetic, scalar, and material properties that may defy or distort any relational link to the context of China, and which are thus identified as existing outside some imagined boundary of appropriate and permissible Chinese cultural expression. Focusing on these qualities and the criticism they have inspired helps us understand the importance of aesthetics to design and construction in China. Doing so also reveals discursive patterns that offer a new conceptual foundation for the study of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Chinese architecture.


The first ideological component of Xi’s condemnation of China’s architectural abnormality concerns China’s well-documented anxiety over foreignness. Calls for more appropriate, localised forms of architectural expression constitute the latest salvo in China’s century-long search for an appropriately modern yet distinctly ‘Chinese’ architectural aesthetic in the face of foreign aggression that has, at times, seemed to have been designed with China’s own exploitation in mind. Such anxiety may be traced back to the prying open of Chinese ports to foreign trade after the first Opium War in 1842—a violent defiance of Qing dynasty sovereignty, and one in which architecture played a contributing role.

The Chinese term for architecture, 建築 (jiànzhú), is itself a strange neologism that likely originates from kenchiku, the Japanese translation of ‘architecture’, which dates back to the late nineteenth century.[7] After 1842, in international treaty ports like Shanghai, Fuzhou, and Xiamen, foreign merchants and missionaries relied on Chinese builders to realise mercantile compounds, social clubs, civic buildings, and churches, among other structures. The cross-cultural, collaborative nature of these projects often produced combinations of foreign and Chinese architectural aesthetics, materials, and structures.[8] Chinese contractors and businessmen worked in similar fashion by taking advantage of exotic foreign building forms, materials, and practices to distinguish their constructions and attract customers, resulting in a range of amalgamations of Chinese building traditions and foreign technologies that evinced the awkward, forced opening of the Qing Empire itself.[9]

A monochrome plan for a proposed pagoda structure in Shanghai. The plan’s text is in Chinese.

Design for a proposed pagoda in the International Settlement in Shanghai, Shanghai Municipal Council, 1910. Published in Shenbao, 20 March 1910. Courtesy HKU Special Collections

These acts of appropriation transformed the structural and aesthetic principles of China’s architectural traditions into something familiar yet oddly new. For example, a 1910 proposal for the construction of a massive, reinforced concrete pagoda by a Norwegian engineer and a Chinese entrepreneur in the heart of Shanghai’s International Settlement excited and unnerved foreign officials and residents, insofar as it embodied an unprecedented if lucrative form of cosmopolitanism.[10] Dismissed by at least one foreign resident as a ‘monstrosity’ that debased both China’s architectural culture and Shanghai’s foreign-designed monuments, the proposal’s transcultural weirdness caused discomfort in part because it was emblematic of the geopolitical ambiguity and ethnic amalgam at the heart of the treaty port system.[11] Although the Shanghai Municipal Council authorised the design, it was never realised, as opponents to the project insisted that it be constructed on the north side of Nanjing Road, where land proved too expensive.

Following the demise of the Qing Empire in 1911 and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, architectural hybridity was reframed as an appropriate expression of the young Chinese nation’s nascent position within a modern world order. China’s first generation of professional architects, many of whom were trained in the Beaux-Arts curriculum in Japan, Europe, and the United States, returned home to participate in the construction of modern China.

The Greater Shanghai Civic Centre’s Mayor’s Building, completed in 1933, was designed by Dong Dayou, a Chinese-born, American-educated architect. The building’s domestication of cutting-edge building technologies through imperial-era Chinese decoration and spatial composition is emblematic of the entwined political and architectural agendas at the time.

An illustration of the Shanghai Civic Centre, a large multi-story structure consisting of a green roof, yellow upturned eaves and with a prominent staircase at the front.

Dong Dayou. Shanghai Civic Center, Shanghai, 1933. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, the majority of noteworthy Republican-era architectural monuments were civic- and state-level edifices. Such integration demonstrated the struggles of a Chinese state eager to define modernisation on its own terms in the face of mounting global pressure to capitulate to the competing imperialist agendas of powers like Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and the United States, among many others.


A second, constitutive strand of Xi’s weirdness may be traced back to China’s post-1949 architectural culture. Notably, many commentators drew parallels between Xi’s 2014 speech on artistic expression in China and Mao Zedong’s 1942 talk on literature and art, which aligned both fields with the project of national liberation.[12] Following the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Party ensconced itself as the sole source of truth in Chinese society. Mao understood the risks of political and social destabilisation posed by forms of cultural expression, and he worked to subsume all high and low art under one source: the people. Abstraction of any kind was to be avoided, and a uniform communist aesthetic was applied to architectural production throughout the country. With so-called advanced and elementary forms of Chinese culture collapsed into a single state-sanctioned theoretical model, the collective act of making, ideally at a monumental scale, was privileged as the root of true artistic value.[13]

Architectural ‘bigness’ was particularly influential for Mao-era Chinese architectural production and representation during this time; an emphasis on scale helped give shape to a new cultural logic based on the latent proletarian power of China’s masses. During the Ten Great Buildings campaign (1958–1959), which celebrated the tenth anniversary of the country’s founding, this logic was made manifest through a set of monumental buildings, collectively celebrated for their size, material usage, and construction speed. The quantifiable fundamentals of such architecture were crucial to their meaning, insofar as they represented measureable indicators of the purportedly feverish levels of production at work in the socialist Chinese economy.[14]

Take, for example, the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, home to the National People’s Congress, which was completed in 1959 and designed by Zhang Bo and others from the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design. The complex encompasses a much-publicised total floor area of 171,800 square metres, a total volume of 1.6 million cubic metres, 127,700 cubic metres of reinforced concrete, 400,000 square metres of plastic surface, and 24,000 square metres of marble, with twenty-three provinces and municipalities contributing material to its construction.[15]

A landscape scene of the Great Hall of the People with Tiananmen Square in front, dotted with groups of people. Trees line the street in front of the square.

Great Hall of the People and Tiananmen Square. Photo: Zheng Zhou via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Like many forms of communist Chinese cultural production, the Great Hall of the People underscores the representational significance of scale to Mao-era governance.[16] Quantifying the material and labour involved in a project as monumental as this, and disseminating these statistics to the general populace, provided vital evidence that the building was a true product of the people and their nation, in contrast to imperial-era projects like the Forbidden City, located northeast of the Great Hall, which both testified to China’s storied cultural history and served as an architectural relic of a feudal past.

Mao-era monuments have never been, nor will they likely ever be, publicly dismissed as weird architecture under the Party’s watch, but it is in the exceptional emphasis placed on size, materials, labour, and the speed of construction that we begin to understand how new practices and standards took root in communist Chinese architectural culture. By subverting pre-existing notions of the normal, these projects enabled new architectural ideals to take shape, transforming Chinese society in the process.


If Republican-era reliance on classical models for national legitimisation and Mao-era celebrations of scale provide two theoretical antecedents for today’s weirdness, it is in the odd, catalytic coupling of reform-era centralised planning and free-market economic policy that began to take place after 1978 that we can witness conclusive, concrete evidence of weirdness itself. The new forms and practices of economic exchange ushered in by reform were radically different from the economic policy of Mao’s era, and they risked delegitimising the Party’s core socialist identity. Publicly, Deng Xiaoping urged party leaders to learn from foreign partners without blindly copying ‘foreign models’, while arguing that integrating ‘the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China’ was crucial.[17] Privately, however, Deng assured top CCP leaders that there was no need to fear ‘a little capitalist stuff’.[18]

Ultimately, we may understand weirdness as the direct result of the constant interplay between the order and disorder that is ever present within the Chinese state

Architecturally speaking, reform demanded new sets of ideological objectives and appropriate aesthetic expressions. Party officials were acutely aware of the delicate ideological manoeuvring required for such dramatic economic change, but they struggled to prepare the country’s architects accordingly. A 1980 article published in Architectural Journal, China’s pre-eminent architectural journal, acknowledged the ‘strange objects’ endemic to foreign architectural production.[19] Chinese architects were encouraged to learn from them, rather than copying or rejecting them outright, as might have been the case in the past.

The era’s first built experiments were a series of Sino-foreign joint ventures—new international hotels, exhibition centres, and trade halls with little architectural resemblance to China’s imperial era or the Mao period but that nevertheless captured the Party’s unabashed commitment to modernisation with international characteristics. Over time, however, such cosmopolitanism was tempered by an overtly Chinese formal literalism. Projects such as the Shanghai Museum by Xing Tonghe, completed in 1995, and the Jin Mao Tower, designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill in collaboration with the East China Architectural Design Institute (1997–2000), ostensibly represent more localised responses to the demands of economic liberalisation, with forms inspired by ding (abstracted bronze vessels), or pagodas.

People walk towards the entrance of the Shanghai Museum under an overcast sky. It appears it has been raining. The museum building consists of a circular top element, sitting atop a square base, reminiscent of a cauldron.

Xing Tonghe. Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1995. Photo: Cole Roskam

These architectural gestures, like their Republican-era equivalents, seem to obscure the conflicted impulses at their core by demonstrating a degree of national and cultural inheritance. At the same time, however, they essentialise China’s past in an effort to domesticate the international forces at the heart of the country’s new economic reality. The seamlessness with which these influences—state-sanctioned cultural referents and the loose capital of the market— are interlaced in design makes such constructions evocative physical amalgamations of what Susan Stewart has framed as the giganticism of official architectural spectacle: a ‘celebration of licentiousness . . . and [the] underbelly of official life’, understood as the grotesque.[20] In their displays of physical and material excess, these projects offer the first indications of the Party’s struggles to maintain control over its own cultural and economic narrative.


Despite growing evidence of architectural immoderation produced by China’s embrace of foreign capital and traditional Chinese forms, the Chinese state’s desire to realise internationally legible architectural models capable of capturing its own experiments with economic exchange and political control reached a crescendo between 2001, when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games, and the games themselves. OMA’s CCTV Headquarters, completed in 2012, is generally understood as the epitome of such production. Project architects Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren recognised the creative potential in the increasingly tense interplay between the so-called gigantic and grotesque in Chinese architectural production, to say nothing of the image making required by state propaganda to balance these seemingly opposed forces.[21] By channeling such energy into architectural form, they sought to redirect the speculative forces altering China’s economy towards China Central Television, the ‘voice of China’—the world’s largest media broadcaster, and the Party’s central mechanism for the dissemination of public knowledge.[22]

A wooden wardrobe constructed in a looping configuration that borrows its form from the CCTV Headquarters building, complete with drawers and shelves.

Li Naihan. I AM A MONUMENT—CCTV Wardrobe, designed 2012, made 2016. Bubinga, stainless steel, and mirror. M+, Hong Kong. Image courtesy of Gallery ALL and Naihan Li. © Naihan Li

These goals are most clearly expressed in the building’s cantilevered administrative bridge: the ‘overhang’ and the circulatory loop intended to suggest a loosening of the Party’s authoritarian grip on power through greater transparency and openness. This loop links all of CCTV’s administrative and production facilities together while offering visitors glimpses of the inner workings of a major Party apparatus. This enthusiastic embrace of contradiction, coupled with the complex’s raison d’être as the Party’s major media platform, distinguishes the CCTV Headquarters from other major cultural and recreational edifices realised by foreign architects in China at the time, including the National Centre for the Performing Arts by Paul Andreu, completed in 2007, as well as the Beijing National Stadium.

A cover of the OMA publication, “Content”, designed in a collage style, featuring Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il photoshopped to resemble Rambo and The Terminator (T-800) respectively. George W. Bush, also featured, brandishes a crucifix of a gun-strapped Jesus. The CCTV Headquarters appears in the background behind the trio. Text snippets plastered across the cover read: “Perverted Architecture”, “Sweatshop Demographics”, “Homicidal Engineering”, “Slum Sociology”, “Paranoid Technology”, “Martha Stewart Urbanism”, and “Big Brother Skyscrapers”.

OMA. Cover design, Content (2004). © OMA; Photo: CCTV/OMA Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren; Courtesy OMA

Since opening, the CCTV project has been mired in controversy. The 2004 publication of OMA’s Content, described as ‘a follow-up to S,M,L,XL, an inventory of seven years of OMA’s tireless labour’, coyly referred to the CCTV building as ‘perverted architecture’ on its cover, with rejected cover images—caricatures of OMA’s past projects—re-circulating online in China following the publication’s release.[23] These images fanned populist flames and prompted the Party to summon Koolhaas to Beijing for an explanation. The firm has since stated that the CCTV building was featured in Content as a ‘positive and shining symbol of a changing world order’ that reflects their ‘sincere intention with the design’.[24] In 2009, the Beijing Television Cultural Center (TVCC), located next to CCTV’s headquarters, caught fire and was severely damaged following an illegal fireworks display. CCTV, which owns TVCC, worked to limit publicity of the unplanned spectacle, thereby undermining OMA’s conceit that their design would somehow inspire more transparency on the part of the world’s largest state-run broadcaster.

The awkwardness of institutional ambition writ large through the CCTV complex helps to contextualise the unease over identity and excess currently at work in Xi’s weirdness campaign. Although official efforts to reassert uniquely ‘Chinese’ values and traditions as central to socialist Chinese ideology and cultural expression have been interpreted as a veiled attack on international design, the campaign also illuminates the Party’s difficulties in reasserting its authority over an increasingly fractious and spendthrift Chinese body politic following years in which cadres and entrepreneurs were encouraged to pursue their own individual ambitions. The underlying motivation for this policy shift derives from the issue of control: years of concentrated governmental spending on construction has transformed China’s cities into showy demonstrations of the country’s ballooning economic clout.

Over time, however, and much to the government’s chagrin, these new landscapes have begun to look less like the urban showcases of contemporary architectural innovation that they were intended to be and more like discomforting physical expressions of budgetary bloat, administrative recklessness, and official ostentation. Notions of taste in contemporary Chinese cultural production have shifted accordingly, resulting in a preponderance of glittery, outsized spectacles of architectural expression that seem to have little connection to the socialist values still hypothetically at the government’s ideological core.

A hotel building modelled in the shape of three large, bearded figures resembling Chinese deities. The figures wear ornate robes which comprise large sections of the building’s facade. Cars are parked at the base of the building.

Tianzi Hotel in Hebei, China, 2000. Photo: Lei Han via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Over the past several years, China has contended with a pervasive creep of corruption that has tested the Party’s moral authority and threatened its ability to maintain social order. The simultaneous proliferation of outrageous, localised forms of architectural heterogeneity in second- and third-tier municipalities all over the country—most of which were endorsed by various officials—has provided additional evidence that the Party can no longer effectively control its own ranks. Colossal imperial-era bi coins, Eiffel Towers, Confucian figures, pagodas, French châteaux, teapots, and dragons collectively represent an inadvertently radical spectrum of vernacular literalism that has frayed the aesthetic and physical constraints previously at work in socialist Chinese architecture and urbanism. The imperviousness to aesthetic or formal decorum on display is revelatory, in that these projects underscore the rapid decentralisation that has taken place within China’s built environment and cultural sphere. More than indicating ‘an architect’s right to use and abuse cultural signifiers’ or an openness to the world at large, as Mark Jarzombek has suggested, these buildings index the deterioration of socialist Chinese architectural expression.[25] The Party’s efforts to stifle such fiscal and formal extravagance speaks directly to the political threats it now sees in losing control of what may be characterised as China’s new architectural populism.


Ultimately, we may understand weirdness as the direct result of the constant interplay between the order and disorder that is ever present within the Chinese state. For a government still defining the operational and ideological parameters of its centrally planned market economy, architectural objects pose significant challenges and risks. Buildings sustain political and economic systems in ways few other forms of expression can match. They dictate how we live, work, recreate, and transact. At the same time, they embody bigger questions about who we are and what we do. The extent to which architecture’s representational agency often intersects with questions of political authority makes it a powerful and potentially dangerous index of governance itself—a point underscored by Xi’s critique in 2014, which also chastised Chinese artists for subverting history and failing to establish clear distinctions between ugliness and beauty.[26]

Architecture, once tasked with projecting little more than the all-inclusive power of a centralised state to dictate truth, now performs a dizzying variety of practical and representational functions to a diverse population composed of different classes, different standards, and different values

Today, China’s new architectural objects and urban fields—intensely urgent and well intentioned, but seemingly unsustainable efforts on the part of the state to fuel economic growth and legitimise itself as a global power through form—have radically transformed the country’s built environment while providing new amenities to an increasingly affluent population. However, the unabashed ambition and autonomous nature of these projects has clearly upset the formal and spatial logics of classic, socialist-era construction, planning, and governance in ways that have proven increasingly unsettling to more conservative segments of the Party’s elite. Weird buildings expose the slippery heterogeneity of contemporary Chinese cultural production and raise questions of subjectivity in relation to taste in ways that demonstrate the rapid decentralisation that has taken place in China’s built environment and cultural sphere, thereby awkwardly illuminating the physical effects of the Party’s slackened control over standards of cultural expression.

Architecture, once tasked with projecting little more than the all-inclusive power of a centralised state to dictate truth, now performs a dizzying variety of practical and representational functions to a diverse population composed of different classes, different standards, and different values. This, then, is the motive behind Xi’s directive—to rally and re-centralise architectural production around a specific, Party-approved vision and authority. Ironically, however, China’s strange architectural objects point to the impossibility that some coherent, national Chinese style both exists and is achievable. In this respect, Xi’s campaign has inadvertently broadened the public’s attention to China’s expanded field of architectural production, while highlighting the subjectivities at work in architecture’s shifting social and political role within the country.

An exterior view of the Ningbo Museum. Thousands of tiles cover the facade. Green, reed-like foliage surrounds the building.

Wang Shu. Ningbo Museum, Ningbo, 2008. Photo: Cole Roskam

Not surprisingly, few architects, Chinese or foreign, have publicly responded to Xi’s critique. One exception is Wang Shu, the first Chinese citizen to be awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2012, who acknowledged that Xi was addressing a substantial problem but did not feel that such ideologically loaded regulations would necessarily produce ‘good’ architecture.[27] Wang, along with other Chinese designers like Liu Jiakun and Ma Qingyun, is often held up as the standard-bearer for some new, culturally specific contemporary Chinese architecture rooted in a localised experimentation with materiality. Whether such projects meet Xi’s expectations for ‘suitable’ architectural expression is difficult to tell, but the rush to canonise Wang’s work as exemplary of ‘good’ Chinese architecture speaks to the stubborn belief that some undetermined and latent ‘Chinese’ value lies embedded in certain architectural projects but not in others.

As the loose and easy days of market liberalisation in China and elsewhere give way to a more authoritarian reality, architects around the world face difficult but important decisions. China can and should be a global platform for such debate

Wang Shu’s work draws attention to a recent disciplinary turn taking place to what the architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne has termed ‘boring’ architecture, or the ‘quiet style’—buildings shaped by restraint, slowness, disengagement, and a measure of reserve and austerity.[28] The movement, prompted by fatigue with our bombastic, frenetic, digitally rendered age, comes as established political and cultural norms and values shift dramatically, in China and around the world. In the case of Wang’s work, for example, we can identify a certain muted quality in his use of elemental materials—stone, brick, concrete, wood—and basic geometries that presents a stark contrast to, say, an oversized gold coin. But does that make it quiet, or alternatively, an emblem for the new desired normative in Chinese architecture today?

I would argue that it does not. Wang’s designs might strike some as boring, but it is not disengaged, particularly in terms of its approach to labour. For the Ningbo Museum (2008), for example, Wang instructed workers to produce their own brick and tilework patterns on the building’s facade using recycled building materials, resulting in a textured index not only of urban redevelopment, but of the anonymous labourers involved in the building’s construction. The intimacy struck between architecture and construction through this gesture stands in stark contrast to the CCTV complex, in which OMA maintained a different social relation to its project’s workers.[29] In this respect, Wang’s work monumentalises both the process of dislocation and a massive workforce whose social and material well-being has often been overlooked amid the party’s ongoing push for economic growth.[30] The building’s sensitivity to the various connected practices that compose architecture offers one—but by no means the only—way through the strangeness of China’s contemporary architectural condition.

As the loose and easy days of market liberalisation in China and elsewhere give way to a more authoritarian reality, architects around the world face difficult but important decisions. China can and should be a global platform for such debate. Despite official efforts to silence the perverse messiness of contemporary Chinese culture, architectural objects still have the potential to destabilise, in large part because they still serve as indices of creativity and labour, and are thus still capable of bearing significant cultural and political weight. Similarly, formal and material expressions of spareness and solidity may convey detachment, but they also possess a disruptive agency depending on their particular deployment. Architecture can still challenge standard notions of culture and taste in weird ways, even as some architects seek shelter within the autonomy of their own discipline. But will it proceed quietly or not?

This article was first published on Podium, M+ Stories.

Cole Roskam is Associate Professor of Architectural History in the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong. His research examines architecture's role in mediating moments of transnational interaction and exchange between China and other parts of the world. His work has been supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA), the Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), and the University Grants Committee of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, among others. His articles and essays have appeared in AD (Architectural Design), Architectural History, Artforum, Grey Room, the Journal of Architectural Education, and the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. His first book, Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843–1937, is forthcoming from the University of Washington Press. He is currently at work on a second book, tentatively titled Designing Reform: Post-Revolutionary Architectural Culture in the People’s Republic of China, 1973–1989, which is under contract with Yale University Press.

  1. 1.

    See Alyssa Abkowitz with Ma Si, ‘Xi Jinping Isn’t a Fan of Weird Architecture in China’, China Real Time Report, The Wall Street Journal, 17 October 2014,; and Cao Li, ‘China Enacts New Regulations to Stop “Strange Buildings”, New York Times Chinese edition, 23 February 2016,

  2. 2.

    Subsequent Chinese and English language press releases included examples such as the Twin River Bridges in Chongqing and Beijing’s China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).

  3. 3.

    Cao Li, ‘Under Xi, China’s Wave of “Weird Architecture” May Have Peaked’, New York Times, 19 December 2014,

  4. 4.

    ‘Zhonggong zhongyang guowuyuan guanyu jinyibu qiang chengshi guihua jianshe guanli gongzuo de ruogan yijian’, Xinhua, 21 February 2016,

  5. 5.

    ‘The new urban-development regulation declares that internal roads in private housing estates should “gradually open up” to the public in order to ease traffic congestion. In addition, no new gated communities can be built in the future.’ See: Hannah Beech, ‘Gate-Crash! China's New Housing Rules Irk the Gilded Classes’, Time, 23 February 2016,

  6. 6.

    For analysis of these concepts in relation to forms of cultural production in other parts of the world, see Mark Cousins, ‘The Ugly [parts 1, 2, 3]’, AA Files, 28–30 (Autumn 1994; Summer, Autumn, 1995): 61–64, 3–6, 65–68; Gretchen E. Henderson, Ugliness: A Cultural History (London: Reaktion Books, 2015); Carolyn Korsmeyer, Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Ugliness: The Non-Beautiful in Art and Theory, ed. Andrei Pop and Mechtild Widrich (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014).

  7. 7.

    Gregory Clancey, Earthquake Nation: the Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity, 1868–1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 22–23.

  8. 8.

    Jeffrey W. Cody, ‘The Woman with the Binoculars: British Architects, Chinese Builders, and Shanghai’s Skyline, 1900–1937’, in Twentieth-Century Architecture and Its Histories, ed. Louise Campbell (London: Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, 2000), 257–258.

  9. 9.

    Jonathan Hay, ‘Painting and the Built Environment in Late-Nineteenth-Century Shanghai,’ in Chinese Art: Modern Expressions, ed. Maxwell K. Hearn and Judith G. Smith (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001), 61–77.

  10. 10.

    ‘The Proposed Pagoda’, North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette, 11 March 1910, 548. See also: Cole Roskam, Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843–1937 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, forthcoming).

  11. 11.

    ‘The Pagoda,’ North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette, 25 March 1910, 680–682, 690.

  12. 12.

    See Patrick Boehler and Vanessa Piao, ‘Xi Jinping’s Speech on the Arts is Released, One Year Later’, New York Times, 15 October 2015, See also Mao Zedong, ‘Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art’, 2 May 1942, transcription,

  13. 13.

    Bonnie S. McDougall, Mao Zedong’s ‘Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art’: A Translation of the 1943 Text with Commentary (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1980), 75.

  14. 14.

    Yu Shuishan, Chang’an Avenue and the Modernization of Chinese Architecture (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), 83; Zhu Tao, ‘Building Big, with no Regret’, AA Files, no. 63 (2011), 104–110.

  15. 15.

    Yu, Chang'an Avenue and the Modernization of Chinese Architecture, 83–84.

  16. 16.

    Joan Kee, ‘Why Chinese Paintings Are So Large’, Third Text, 26:6 (2012): 649–663, DOI: 10.1080/09528822/2012/734481

  17. 17.

    Deng Xiaoping, ‘Opening Speech at the Twelfth National Congress of the Communist Party of China’, 1 September 1982,

  18. 18.

    An-chia Wu, ‘The Theoretical Study Campaign in China’, in Changes and Continuities in Chinese Communism, ed. Yu-ming Shaw, 2 vols, Westview Special Studies on China and East Asia (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1988), 155; Deng Xiaoping, ‘Speech At the Third Plenary Session of the Central Advisory Commission of the Communist Party of China’, 22 October 1984,

  19. 19.

    Yang Yun, ‘You xifang xiandai jianzhu xin sichao yinqi de lianxiang’, Jianzhu xuebao 1 (1980), 33.

  20. 20.

    Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, and the Collection (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press 1984), 81.

  21. 21.

    Ole Scheeren, ‘Made in China’, A+U (Architecture and Urbanism) Special Issue: CCTV by OMA (July 2005), 4–5.

  22. 22.

    Ole Scheeren, ‘Made in China’, 4.

  23. 23.

    ‘Content’, OMA, updated 7 May 2018,

  24. 24.

    ‘Content’, OMA. ‘Radical Post-Modernism and Content: Charles Jencks and Rem Koolhaas Debate the Issue’, AD (Architectural Design) 81, no. 5 (September/October 2011), 38.

  25. 25.

    Mark Jarzombek, ‘The Shanghai Expo and the Rise of Pop-Arch’, Log 31 (Spring/Summer 2014), 158–159.

  26. 26.

    ‘Xi Jinping’s Talks at the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art’, a summary of Xi Jinping’s speech originally published by Xinhua, sourced from China Copyright and Media, edited by Rogier Creemers, 16 October 2014,

  27. 27.

    Cao Li, ‘Under Xi, China’s Wave of “Weird Architecture” May Have Peaked’, New York Times, 19 December 2014,

  28. 28.

    Christopher Hawthorne, ‘Boring architecture? Yes, please’, Los Angeles Times, 16 November 2017,

  29. 29.

    William Thomson, ‘Encounters with Labour: Migrant Workers, Architects, and Building Sites in China,’ arq: Architectural Research Quarterly 21, no. 3 (September 2017), 285–289.

  30. 30.

    For more on Wang Shu, see Cole Roskam, ‘Structures of Everyday Life’, Artforum 52, no. 3 (November 2013), 252–261, 312.

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