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Politics

Banning knockoff buildings might bring a renaissance in Chinese architecture


Calling time on copycats

In bad news for postmodern ironists, the People’s Republic of China has announced a ban on “plagiarising, imitating and copycatting” foreign architecture. For a good quarter of a century, Chinese developers have been entertaining the world’s urban theorists and architectural pontificators (as well as good number of the country’s own people) with imitations of western buildings. It wasn’t just a case of make-believe English villages and multiple Eiffel Towers but also new-minted icons, fresh from the pages of architecture magazines. Norman Foster’s Century Tower in Tokyo, for example, popped up in Shenzhen, with somewhat less crisp detailing. Sometimes Las Vegas hotels, themselves knockoffs of historic monuments, would in turn be knocked off.

It was reverse-chinoiserie, a playback of the 18th-century European fondness for pagodas and willow pattern porcelain. What took the breath away was the disregard for the treasured notion of originality – the very insouciance was in itself original. But now the fun is apparently over. Public buildings, says the Chinese government, should “reveal a city’s culture”.

This attitude, to push the historic parallels further, is like that of 19th-century Britain, when the gothic revival was adopted in part as a statement of rising national pride. Mediterranean classicism and other alien styles, Chinese included, were out. Something sort-of indigenous (if French-influenced) was in. I only hope that the PRC’s edict leads to architecture as exhilarating as gothic revival at its best.

Market forces

London estate agent's window with NHS poster
Property sales are restarting in England. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Proof, if proof were needed, of the permanent derangement wrought by the property market on the body politic and the soul of the nation: last week’s easing of the lockdown in England included the news that the buying and selling of homes could restart. It takes a few seconds to realise that this is not a business conducive to containing the virus. Sellers have to open their homes to unlimited numbers of strangers, who will want to examine every room. Also a little mysterious is who would want to sell and buy right now, except perhaps those made desperate to sell by financial pressures and buyers looking to exploit that desperation.

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As several people have pointed out, it can now be more difficult to see members of your own family than prospective buyers and sellers of property. If you want to visit both your parents in their home, they’d have to put it on the market first, and arrange an appointment via an estate agent. But then, since the 1980s, the state of the housing market has dominated all other measures of economic and social wellbeing. Why should a pandemic change the habits of four decades?

Democracy at work

There’s concern among community groups and conservationists that local authorities will use the lockdown as a pretext to grant planning permission to contentious developments without going through the due process of a public meeting. The concern is well founded, but there’s also an upside. Given that participation in planning usually requires the time and determination to attend long meetings on weekday evenings, the possibility of having online meetings means that a larger and broader range of people can get to see how their councillors are deciding their futures.

A lethal equation

The Washington Post reports on Kelley Chagolla, a Colorado bar owner reopening her business in defiance of the state’s governor’s order. She is not doing this as a gesture of libertarian defiance but because she has severe rheumatoid arthritis, which means she has to find $1,650 (£1,400) a month to pay for the health insurance that pays for the medication that keeps her out of a wheelchair. So to keep herself healthy she has to risk the health of others. In what universe is her predicament anything other than monstrous?

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