Driving out of the city, we soar through a sea of towers and peaked roofs. The pollution is painted across the fog as a wash of yellow watercolor. As the sun burns through the vapor only the haze is left. Pylons march beside me—monuments that will become another highway. For the moment, flags mark the topping off of each tower. Flags for half an hour, stretching through the suburbs and into the countryside. Gradually the remnants of farms and thatched roofs are knit into the city—it is as if one is coming to the edge of the universe, finding the soup of creation strewn about: towers, houses, farms and huts: billboards and bridge building machines: high tension lines and highways.
The driver flips through the radio station as we leave the reach of one tower or another, and I drift into my thoughts. All around me is evidence that China is an economy built on massive energy consumption. That consumption per capita is low is a statistical fluke of including nomads and city dwellers in the same count, and the lower standard of thermal comfort accepted by the Chinese people. The proliferation of uninsulated concrete buildings under construction is testimony enough that the current recipe is simply more: more building, more energy, more transmission lines, more power plants. The desire and need for improvement is so great that there is literally no room for pause.
After a glorious dinner last night, Hau Ru, Junichi and I sat down with one of Hau Ru’s friends. Even with the language barrier, it is clear that he is wildly intelligent. A stock trader trained as an architect, and a collector of traditional paintings. He is reputed to be able to tell an original from a forgery on sight. I am sure that he would be able to teach Wang Shu something. I put before him Ed Mazria’s platform that containing the energy consumption of buildings was the most important component of an energy policy. I run through the statistics of energy consumption, electricity consumption, and resource use. Paraphrasing Mazria, the construction and operation of buildings accounts for about 50% of all energy used in the United States when not separated by sector. Buildings further account for 70% of electricity consumption. I add to that my own appraisal of the cost of technology, and the way in which simply reducing peak demand for electricity saves infrastructure. In Hangzhou, one must build enough power plants to supply all of the air conditioning on the hottest day of the summer: how much more electricity is that than is consumed on a mild day? Junichi and I both remember summer days so stifling that one would not walk an inch further than absolutely required out of self preservation.
There are many obstacles to incorporating insulating construction in China, not the least of which is the National Building Standard: the construction paradigm by which all buildings are built. It is more than a code, it is an agreed upon constructional system: a standardized concrete frame and infill system. It is this system that allows Chinese Architects to work so fast. Architects like Wang Shu essentially riff off the system—manipulating it, playing it artfully, to suit there needs. Anything that is not specially designed is left to standard. For the majority of their works, Hau Ru, Wang Shu, and other Chinese architects take their designs to a level that American architects would call design development; a point in which the appearance of a building is determined. Engineering and construction drawings are left to the national building institute: a point of negotiation. Wang Shu, and most other architects postpone many decisions for the field. The agreed upon basis of construction ensures through economy of scale and simplicity that everything is relatively inexpensive. The absence of insulation, vapor barrier, or any of the other technicalities of hollow wall construction only adds to the initial economy of the system.
My sketchbook is filled with tweaks to the national building paradigm. Considering that even in China building stock will be around for many years, it is critical to consider how to improve the nature of the thermal enclosure. A small improvement to the National Design Standard could have a profound impact on the energy consumption of the entire nation for the next century. I am told that the government has required air entrainment in mortar—a very small gesture. Hau Ru’s friend immediately grasped the importance of the discussion and its implications for the future: what kind of energy requirements was the nation saddling itself with? That the government is loathe to change anything that might impede China’s progress is clear. The proliferation of the current construction standard is ultimately going to create a very large impediment when requirements or demands for greater thermal comfort become the norm.
For my own part, I would add that one of the great beauties of the National Design Standard is its soulful connection to the country. The column and infill paradigm is as ancient as China itself. That there is still a paradigm of construction that every tradesman shares in common is similarly beautiful. I do not wish to see it replaced by polystyrene forms or appliqué insulation. I do not wish to see the conventional stucco replaced with synthetic plastics. What is required is a re-imagination of the system, not the marketing of a replacement. That concern, I understand, might run contrary to the wheels of business. It is is my own plea for what to keep: that which is real and grounded, and thoroughly of this place.
The clock turns over and the bus begins to roll. It is like clockwork every day. The morning ride is a good time to think, as I watch the buildings and the landscape flash by, listening to the sound of conversations I can not understand; they sound like the pleasant musings of old friends.
There is a simplicity to my life here; more than being released from my own routine. It is the simplicity that comes from having to communicate ideas across a language barrier. There is no time or space for digression, one must simply get to the point. There should be emphasis on the word simply.
Some of the most profound ideas are very simple, if we are willing to see them.
I have been thinking a great deal about Xiangshan campus. There are two very important points to consider:
First, the landscape is constructed from a place that had been previously disturbed,, with little record of the distant past. Wang Shu worked with the nearby mountain, the drainage canal, and what remnants he had to construct a landscape that reflects and enriches culture. The generative nature of this act should not be underestimated.
Second, the campus draws from cultural references by incorporating aspects of traditional building design, and by incorporating close cultural references, such as the vegetable garden. The campus does not rely upon an image of a cultural landscape, it constructs a cultural landscape.
The Xiangshan Campus is thoroughly modern, in the sense that it is invented in place; it is also culturally specific, in its integration of landscape and culture. It is an achievement. Inherent in that achievement is the notion of progress—that we can construct culture where there was nothing but erasure.
This embrace of progress stands in stark contrast to two trends much more evident in the world today: nostalgia for a pre-modern condition, and the construction of images—virtual worlds made real. It also raises a strong challenge to the notion that modernity and cultural dislocation are synonymous.