In the last decade, China’s fast-paced urbanization and construction boom has made a visible impact on its urban and rural landscapes. Cities have overtaken agricultural lands and greenfields. A monotony of residential slabs and a steady competition for uniquely shaped, ever-soaring towers perpetually remake skylines in every city.
Map of China’s interstate expressway system (blue indicates completed sections, and red indicates those under construction). Source: newgeography
Less visible, but just as dramatic, is the country’s highway expansion. In 2011, China’s intercity motorway system surpassed that of the United States to become the longest in the world. Remarkably, most of this 53,000-mile network has been built in the last 10 years. And it is ahead of schedule — the Chinese government has already met its goal for 2020. By comparison, the 57,000-mile U.S. highway system was largely built over the course of 30 years.
This rapid highway roll-out has enabled the expansion of cities and powered economic growth. It has also brought development to remote areas and increased the mobility of the country’s migrant workers. Of course, road infrastructure always comes with environmental degradation, increased traffic and pollution.
Construction of an interstate expressway over villages in Yunnan Province, China (above and below). Source: Skyscrapercity
On a recent trip through Yunnan, it was not uncommon to see entire mountainsides blasted away just to create a narrow perch for a new four-lane road. The vision of an endless thread of highway splitting the landscape no longer belongs just to the U.S. or Gernany. The Chinese versions take the uncompromisingly straight axis of high-speed travel to laser-like extremes. Topography is conquered by bride-to-tunnel-to-bridge sequences. A highway coming out of the mountains to cross agricultural plains floats on towering columns for miles, gradually descending to the villages on the valley floor.
Steven Holl’s Vanke Center is sold as a “horizontal skyscraper as long as the Empire State Building is tall.” The mixed-use building, which includes a hotel, service apartments, and offices, removes the ubiquitous commercial podium and allows vegetated landscape to occupy the entire site. Most of the building seems to float on glass and steel piers. As public space, the open ground provides direct connections from the city to the adjacent lake. To achieve this largely open ground, Holl uses a long-span structural system more common in bridges. The result is an unusual but impressive architectural space that unfolds in dramatic ways. Holl realizes ideas that had been simmering in his sketchbook for years, but that were always too impractical to build. This project can also be read as a revival of 1950s and 1960s modernism.
Shenzhen, until now, was the city of imitation. Tourist go to buy fake Gucci bags and Polo shirts or visit theme parks like Windows of the World and Splendid China, where the main attractions are miniature imitations of other global tourist centers. But Shenzhen is also a city that never stops reinventing itself. As a “City of Design,” it is making convincing moves toward becoming a center of creativity and cultural sophistication, following in the footsteps of cities like Barcelona, Berlin, and Rotterdam. We hope this phase proves lasting.