The Chinese Museum Boom

One of the more visible characteristics of the Chinese frenzied construction boom has been the equally frenzied but less talked about construction of museums across the country. All over China, from smaller cities to the  megacities museums are becoming a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape. The constructions are initiated by institutions and people as diverse as the museums themselves. There are museums of contemporary  art commissioned by local authorities, developers, banks, the wealthy elite and many other institutions in China. In 2010 alone, some 395 museums were built in China. This number increased to 400 in the following year and hundreds more are being added annually as China embarks on an impressive construction of cultural infrastructure.

Chinese Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo

China Art Palace

This obsession with museums and other cultural infrastructure reflects the tastes of the new Chinese middle class elite, freshly minted from the economic boom. The museum exhibits are inspired by broad themes ranging from contemporary Chinese art to Western art, ethnological, historical and the rich cultural heritage of China. One of the most  impressive of these museums is the China Art Palace housed in the iconic Chinese Pavilion of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. It offers over 600,000 square feet of exhibition space, comparable to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Another  impressive and really spectacular Chinese Museums is the  Power Station of Art, it is housed in a 19th century power station.  The gigantic China Art Palace exhibits works from 20th century Chinese modernism.  While China’s impressive museums are an expression China’s great ambition, the bulk of China’s over 3020 museums are actually much smaller in scale and offer thousands of diverse displays. They range from the privately funded museums to the vanity museums of some of the Chinese wealthy elite. It is expected that some of these museums will become brandable domains of their own.

Yinchuan Art Museum

Yinchuan Art Museum

China’s museum construction boom however seems to outstrip the supply of art goers.  Art education is still very low in a culture that places great premium on academic excellence so the museums are still relatively empty in spite of the very low charges for exhibitions, sometimes as low as $1.30. Is China risking developing thousands of “ghost museums”?  Another key challenge faced  by developers of China’s museums is the general lack of curatorial talent in the country. Many Chinese art schools are currently on a crash program on museological courses to plump up the country’s talent and increase administrative oversight.  For the foreseeable future however, it seems the museums will keep on coming as the economy revs on. China like Japan, which at its peak had over 3000 museums down to today’s 900 museums, will eventually hit a plateau and then a dip to a sustainable number of museums which are well managed and which offer substantial and more valuable exhibitions.

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City: Greener Urban Development in China

The Tianjin Eco-City is located some 140 km from Beijing, and is a product of collaboration between the Chinese and Singaporean governments to construct a sustainable and harmonious city that will be home to some 350,000 people and will generate its own power from green energy sources.

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City

The rate at which China is adding new cities is simply mind-boggling and it is estimated that hundreds of new cities are being constructed across the country including the country’s famous “ghost cities.” But this development has rarely been sustainable. Chinese cities are amongst the most polluted in the world. In the gold rush to meet the massive housing demand for the millions streaming into the cities, there’s little regard for the protection of the environment. But some developers and urban planners are beginning to think green.

Amongst the thousands of urban development plans in China, there are a few green plans and even more elaborate Eco cities and smart cities. The Tianjin Eco-City is not the first Chinese eco-city however. One such vaunted smart city, the Dangton eco-city located in Chongming Island has seen construction come to a sudden halt over corruption and funding issues. It was a big blow to many who wished that the rapid Chinese urban development would embrace more sustainability instead of simply green washing massive construction and destruction of the environment with piecemeal green building initiatives.

The Sino Singapore Tianjin Eco-City promises a greater degree of success as it is an initiative by the governments of the two countries and it is also being built on a massive scale. Construction will be completed by 2020. The city will be carbon neutral with energy efficient buildings, “green trips” through greener transportation modes such as walking, cycling and the use of electric powered vehicles and efficient recycling of waste and water.  But the Tianjin Eco-City is an exception in a country where many such initiatives have been shoved aside for “more realistic” real estate and urban development projects. Chinese policy makers are however making efforts towards more sustainable urban development by funding several renewable energy initiatives in the country although it is still a drop in the ocean. Learn more about the Tianjin Eco-City here.

Iskandar Malaysia: Malaysia Smart City of the Future

The “Smart City” is now a fairly popular concept in urban development with the myriad of smart cities in Europe and around the world but Malaysia is pioneering one of the most extensive smart cities in Asia-the Iskandar Malaysia. This is a massive urban development project which will incorporate several facets of 21st century urban life and is built on the three key pillars of the economy, the environment and social factors.  The project aims to create sustainable and inclusive communities that live in a smart, connected and technological ecosystem and assures residents of a very high quality of life along with social cohesion.  The Iskandar Malaysia is located in Johor, a key growth Corridor in South East Asia, facing Singapore and the smart city is expected to accommodate some 3 million people by 2025.

Iskandar Malaysia Smart City

Iskandar Malaysia Smart City

Smart cities optimize the use of resources to deliver sustainable and livable cities. In case of Malaysia’s Iskandar Smart City, there are several factors that will be synergized to deliver South East Asia’s first smart city.  For example, the concept draws on smart economy, smart governance, smart environment, smart mobility, smart people and smart living in a holistic approach to a urban development.

A smart economic development will be realized through innovation in economic development, entrepreneurship, an equitable distribution of wealth, and value creation in economic development.  Iskandar Malaysia hopes to be the catalysis that will attract global businesses to this South East Asian economic corridor and also ensure that these businesses operate in a smart way in congruence with the vision of the city.

On the environmental front, the Iskandar Malaysia is planning to roll out a set of incentives for developers who conserve the environment and incorporate green technologies in urban development.  Under its smart environment program, the Iskandar Malaysia hopes to simulate a green economy, create a clean environment, support environmental protection initiatives, develop green infrastructure and ensure a smart growth underpinned by socially and environmentally responsible approach to development and business.

Iskandar smart mobility involves creating a greener and more efficient urban infrastructure to facilitate smooth and environmentally sustainable flow of traffic and information.  Smart mobility in Iskandar Malaysia will mostly be about connectivity and ICT development. This will entail the development of efficient public transportation systems and road accessibility, non motorized accessibility for city residents and the building of a sound IT infrastructure for the city residents.

There are is also a key human aspect of Iskandar Malaysia smart city development. The city plans to create smart people and smart living, but how will it achieve this? There are several proposed initiatives which will make Iskandar a great place to live in. For example, there is great emphasis on cohesion, skilled human capital and a caring community. The smart living aspect will aim at creating a secure low-carbon lifestyle, quality housing, education and cultural institutions.

The Iskandar smart city model is expected to accelerate growth in the Johor economic corridor and even complement Singapore, transforming this region into a key global business corridor with a high standard of living and innovative approaches to economic development. The ultra modern project has already received $30 billion in commitments.

The 2010 Shanghai World Expo to be Redeveloped into a green business district

The 2010 Shanghai World Expo Centre hosted one of the largest expos with the theme “Better City-Better Life” and attracted some 73 million visitors. Three  years later, the glitter of the pavilions is long gone and most of the pavilions have been dismantled but the centre is about to get a fresh lease of life with a new redevelopment program which will transform the expo centre into a sustainable and green business district.

Dubbed the “Green Valley”, the project will see several buildings being converted into green office spaces, public parks, gardens and lots of vegetation. The Green Valley is once again designed by Danish architect Schmidt Hammer Lassen, who designed the Shanghai Expo Centre. The new development is located next to the iconic Chinese Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.  You can check it out below:

Chinese Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo

Chinese Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo

Much of the detail regarding the new redevelopment plans are available on Lassen’s website but from a quick glance, it will involve the creation of restaurants, office spaces and parks and the redevelopment initiative certainly adheres to the Shanghai Expo theme of sustainability.  The site has the advantage of a highly developed infrastructure, park system and promenades which provides a great base from which to build the site into a more permanent business centre. The center’s green spine will form the heart of the new green business district. It has lots of greenery, soft landscaping and buildings on either side and will guide the redevelopment on either side.  This is a good example of utilizing event areas long after the events are over. There are hundreds of underutilized little “ghost towns” around the world which could borrow from this example and breathe some life into the areas with a little innovation.

Urban Renewal Project in Duisburg

Duisburg was once a booming industrial town in the German industrial heartland but a series of economic shocks in the 80s, unemployment and the flight of the young talent had seen the town go through several decades of decay.  That was until recently when a new urban renewal program has given the town a fresh lease of life. The project has involved an inner harbour development by Forster and Partners to connect the city to the old waterfront.  The new harbour redevelopment has seen the company put up a penthouse and apartment buildings. The company has also created public spaces and rebuilt the neighbourhoods so as to encourage the footloose residents to stay longer and build their lives in Duisburg.  This will also encourage new businesses to come up in Duisburg and help in the urban renewal of the city.

Duisburg Inner Harbour Development

Duisburg Inner Harbour Development

The project is not only employing creative urban planning and development but also beautiful architecture to keep the residents in. And the results are already trickling in. New businesses are coming up in Duisburg including a new restaurant that was recently launched in the redeveloped area.  There is a local market, several events being launched in the city, and lots of socials attracting residents of all age groups. The neighbourhood currently has a total of 13 restaurants. From the 80s low when Duisburg inland harbour supported some 200 jobs, the town currently supports up to 4000 jobs thanks to the urban renewal program.

How the Ruhr was Reclaimed

The renewal project in Duisburg and other post industrial towns in the Westpalia were initiated by the Land of Westphalia. The authorities established the International Builders Exhibition (IBA), a think tank composed of planners, architects, government representatives and created new institutions,forums, and seminars to explore new ways of reviving Ruhrgebiet’s old industrial towns. These forums and exhibitions generated lots of ideas many of which have been applied in towns like Duisburg with considerable success.  The IBA ideas have been used to create several mixed-use communities in the former Ruhrgebiet and have been a core part of the urban regeneration program in these cities and towns.

Apart from creating neighborhoods and communities, IBA has also led to the creation of several cultural resources such as museums, events and performance centres and new office spaces which are attracting businesses to these post industrial towns. IBA has managed to preserve the identity of the Ruhrgebiet while recreating it to meet the demands of a modern city.  Between 30-40% of the old buildings have been preserved, refurbished and adapted to modern living and office spaces.  Back to Duisburg, the redevelopment will see 700 new apartments built in the town. The key landmark of Duisburg will be the remarkably designed Eurogate building that will be constructed in the coming years.  The public investment in the project has also seen an injection of a great deal of private capital. Duisburg shows how much can be achieved with a little initiative.


Duplitecture: Architectural Mimicry Thrives in Chinese Cities

China’s construction boom is still revving on and the country is expected to add whole cities in the next decade that will be homes to hundreds of millions of people. But as China’s real estate market and construction boom grows in leaps and bounds, one significant characteristic of the Chinese urban expansion has been the scrupulous and in some cases unethical mimicry of the architectural models of several famous buildings, street, neighbourhoods and villages from the West, a practice that has been aptly named “duplitecture”. Chinese duplitecture has seen several functional replicas of Western architectural facades built in China. In some instances, architectural models that are still under construction have been replicated such as the famous Wangjing SOHO design by Britsh architect Zaha Hadid which was replicated by Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century. The company has even gone ahead to develop the architectural model ahead of the original concessionaire. This is certainly the darker side of Chinese architectural mimicry but Chinese builders have gone to remarkable lengths to import Western architectural facades into China. One of the most popular duplitecture projects is the Shanghai’s “One City, Nine Towns” project where the city is ringed by 10 replica communities, each  representing major European cities ranging from English cities to Dutch, German, Scandinavian, French, Italian and many others with each of the replica communities having the distinctive architectural language associated with those European and to some extent American cities.


The Replica European Cities in Urban China

China is replicating European cities on a very impressive scale. Examples of this include the little city of “Paris” in Tianducheng with its Parisian Boulevards, landscaped gardens, the Arc de Triomphe, a little Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles! Hallstatt is a beautiful Austrian town which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site but the Chinese have also built an exact “functional” replica of Hallstatt based in Guangdong province. A Chinese real estate mogul fell in love with Hallstatt so much that they decided to replicate the city in China!  Other remarkable cases of duplitecture include the Thames Village outside Shanghai and the “Chinese Manhattan” in Yuijapu.

The “Paris” in Tianducheng

The “Paris” in Tianducheng

What drives Chinese Duplitecture?

China has had a long going fascination with West just as many Westerners have had an intense fascination with the Orient but is the remarkable Chinese duplitecture a mere manifestation of this fascination with all things Western? One writer has at least delved deeper into this intriguing phenomenon in Chinese Urban development. In her book, Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, Bianca Bosker delves deeper into Chinese duplitecture, the people who live in the themescapes and tries to enter the minds of the Chinese  developers who build these massive replica copycat cities and communities.

Highlight in Urban Planning: Beijing’s Outdoor Gyms

Photo courtesy of Alex Balfour, London


Here in North America, the concept of an outdoor gym is pretty foreign (I can only think of ‘Muscle Beach’ down in Los Angeles), yet in Beijing, China, outdoor gyms are a common sight.  Since 1998, the government has built approximately 4000 outdoor gyms throughout the city.  These gyms create a free and convenient alternative to the rather expensive and often-inconvenient indoor gyms.

The equipment at these outdoor gyms is rather simple: instead of each machine having it’s own weight stack, these machines use the individual’s own body weight to create resistance.  And apart from the look of the machines (they are generally in bright colours), they look quite similar to what you would find in a normal indoor gym.  You can read more about this excellent urban development here.