Book Review: Chinese Megastructures

By Michael Webb 

Urban Hopes: Made in China by Steven Holl. Edited by Christoph a. Kumpusch (Lars Müller Publishers, $49)

In the 19th century, “Go west, young man” was an invitation to settle the prairies or prospect for gold in Colorado and California. Now, architects fly to China to realize their dreams on a scale and at a speed that’s unimaginable  in the West of today. Few have achieved more spectacular success than Steven Holl. When I was in Beijing in 2008, his Linked Hybrid was a construction site; now those towers have been matched by Sliced Porosity in Chengdu and Horizontal Skyscraper in Shenzen. To come are a pair of new museums near Tianjin, and a porous city within the fast-growing city of Dongguan, a neighbor of Shenzen.  All five of these vast projects are explored in a masterpiece of miniaturization that is elegantly produced and fairly priced for a book of this quality.

Lars Müller is a Zurich-based maverick who defies the conventional wisdom of his peers. He forges relationships with architects as demanding as Peter Zumthor and Zaha Hadid; this is his fifth collaboration with Holl. As a graphic designer, he creates works of art that delight the senses, while celebrating the best creative talents. His concerns as a political animal are expressed in timely books on climate change, human rights, and urban living. Each volume offers a haptic experience and several have become collectors’ items.

Urban Hopes embodies this humane and holistic approach to publishing. The cover, embossed with plans and highlighted in red, sets the tone for a book that contains as many seductive images and perceptive texts as a volume three times as large. And yet, there’s no sense of compression. Like the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who was under five feet tall and made everyone around him seem oversized, this book makes its inflated cousins look pretentious. The tiniest illustrations leap off the page, and there’s a rhythmic alternation between color and monochrome, papers of different weight, drawings, essays, and photography. Holl’s projects are book-ended by brief accounts of earlier mega schemes, including Rockefeller Center, El Lissitzky’s Horizontal Skyscrapers, and Buckminster Fuller’s Triton City. Those visionary projects provide context for Holl’s achievement in fusing art, architecture, light, and open space to enhance the experience of urban living. One can only imagine how eagerly Le Corbusier would have embraced such an opportunity had he lived a century later. 

In parallel to Urban Hopes, the MAK Center is presenting an exhibition, City in a City: a Decade of Urban Thinking by Steven Holl Architects, in the Schindler House, West Hollywood, through March 9. Models and sketches illustrate the five projects covered in the book and one more, with a video in which Holl takes viewers on a tour of each. It’s a brilliant installation that distills a mass of information into a small space and achieves a sense of intimacy that brings each project alive. I cannot remember an architectural exhibition that has bridged the gap between reality and representation so successfully, and my first impulse was to book a flight to China to explore the three completed buildings. It’s a long flight, so I’ll wait a year or so and see all six. Information at makcenter.org

A view from the exhibition’s installation. Image Courtesy Michael Webb.

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