Society

Life is short

A nation that’s obsessed with bulldozing old buildings

The Ark Hotel: the world took seven days to create, this went up in six

Exactly how long Noah took to build his Ark is a matter of some conjecture. When he gets his first mention in the Book of Genesis, Noah is 500 years-old. The Ark was completed after his 600th birthday.

How many of the intervening years were spent building is not clear. But the time the job took looks like being at the other end of the spectrum to the time taken to build the 15-storey Ark Hotel in Changsha recently: yes, just six days.

Of course, Noah had at least one eye on the weather for much of his project. In Changsha, the natural hazards are different. But no need to be concerned: the Ark Hotel has been built to withstand a level nine quake, according to the Arch Daily.

Not a claim that too many of its guests will ever want to see stress-tested, for sure. To be fair, the hotel wasn’t built from the ground up like most tower blocks. Rather it was assembled entirely from prefabricated materials and bolted together. Still, it says something about the warp speed of modern China that a building can go up in less than a week.

Construction speed does not always grab such positive headlines. In June last year, a newly erected 13-floor apartment complex in Shanghai toppled over before any of its residents had moved in. A few months later, a new six-storey apartment block also collapsed in Wuhan. The building was discovered to have cut some rather serious corners in its steel supports.

But even when they don’t fall down of their own accord, buildings in China have a good chance of being bulldozed. The country now suffers from a mania for redevelopment that has led media commentators to coin the term ‘short-lived’ buildings – meaning those demolished well before the end of their natural life.

Earlier this month, the Gloria Plaza Hotel, once a proud landmark built in 1990, was knocked-down because it had “lagged behind the progress of society,” said CCTV.

‘Short-lived’ buildings are now a major problem, say the experts. They are also creating 30-40% of the total urban waste in China, says the China Daily. Some statistics: the construction of a 10,000 square-metre building creates 500 to 600 tonnes of waste, while the demolition of that same building will create 7,000 to 12,000 tonnes more.

Alongside poor construction standards, inconsistent urban planning bears some responsibility for the many short-lived buildings. Critics say some small-and-medium-sized Chinese cities pay little attention to building age as they make space for new property developments as symbols of modernisation. As a result, buildings are tore down even though they remain useful (see WiC18).

Nor is older architecture spared. Though there are no official figures on the number of potential cultural heritage sites demolished, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage revealed that the number of historical buildings potentially in the category has decreased sharply since the 1980s, when an extensive urbanisation campaign kicked off nationwide.

Take Beijing, the country’s capital. The explosion of construction activity that has transformed the city into a modern metropolis over the past decade also seen many of its historical neighbourhoods — known for their narrow alleyways, or hutongs — reduced to rubble. In the 1950s, Beijing was home to 7,000 hutongs. But by the 1980s, their numbers had shrunk to 3,900, and they have been vanishing at an annual rate of 600 since, says China Architecture News.

Beijing is not alone. The Dali municipal government of southwest China’s Yunnan province destroyed a segment of its 1,300 year-old city wall to make room for a new expressway this May. Similarly, in Tianjin, the Five Avenues area (formerly the British Quarter) and its mix of grand houses and offices, is also under threat of redevelopment.

Conservationists do their best to protect older buildings. But it can be tough to know exactly what is safe from the wrecking ball. According to one government tally, 2,138 buildings in Shanghai are considered “excellent historical buildings” worth protecting. But Ruan Yishan, a conservationist affiliated with Shanghai’s Tongji University, says only about 1,400 buildings in Shanghai are assured of protection from demolition.

China’s top cultural heritage administrator has condemned the state of affairs. “Bulldozers have razed many historical blocks,” says Shan Jixing, head of State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) in early November. “Much traditional architecture that could have been passed down for generations as the most valuable memories of a city has been relentlessly torn down.”

There are also those who worry about the broader social implications. As China’s urban landscapes transform, the old and familiar is being torn down too. Psychologists fear an unsettling effect on local communities. Peter Hessler touches on this sense of potential disorientation in his recent book Country Driving. Hessler observes: “China is the kind of country where you constantly discover something new, and revelations occur on a daily basis. One of the most important discoveries is the fact that the Chinese share this sensation. The place changes too fast; nobody can afford to be overconfident in his knowledge, and there’s always some new situation to figure out.”

Or a new part of town to get to know too…


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