If there was a signal moment when Chinese cities began to transform into the shiny, modern (and some might add soulless) conurbations that one sees today, then 1985 might be it.
That was the year China built its first ‘glass curtain’ building – the Union Friendship Tower in Shanghai.
The media of the day described the new tower as “dazzling” and it became a symbol of China’s modernisation drive.
Soon other major cities were putting up a building, or buildings, like the Union Friendship Tower. Glass became the material of choice for a new legion of urban architects.
Twenty-seven years on and the cost of a wholesale shift in urban architectural practice is becoming clear. Experts say that, aesthetically, glass buildings lose their impact when yet another mirrored tower reflects of its neighbour. High concentrations of reflective glass can also cause light pollution and alter a city’s climate.
But more worryingly glass buildings have become a safety issue too.
Last week the People’s Daily reported that the first wave of Chinese glass curtain buildings were reaching the end of their design lives – the period of time that a construction is expected to remain structurally sound without major maintenance.
Around a quarter of Shanghai’s 4,000-plus glass structures are in that category, the newspaper said.
The problem is that the maintenance for such buildings is expensive. Nor is it clear who is legally responsible for completing it: the current owners or the original developers.
“Who should be responsible for the large sum? The problem is there, but there’s no efficient solution yet,” asked Li Dexiang, a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Architecture.
The newspaper also said that there has been increased incidence of glass shards falling from buildings.
Last year a young woman from Hangzhou lost part of one of her legs after a building’s glass facade exploded and fell on her. Other newspapers have also reported shards of glass burying themselves in vehicle roofs or injuring passersby.
“The threat of glass rain hangs like the sword of Damocles over our heads,” Shanghai’s Wenhui newspaper wrote last year.
Worryingly it also suggested that the problem was not confined to just the first generation of glass buildings.
“Companies are not mandated to buy the more expensive laminated, shatterproof glass as they are in countries like the US and Japan, and so they opt for the cheaper tempered glass,” the Deputy Chief Engineer of Shanghai’s Academy of Building Research told reporters.
With about 85% of the world’s glass curtain buildings now constructed in China, it might be time to invest in a hard hat.
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