Form China coverA book review by Michael Webb

The Berlin firm of DOM publishers is consistently producing the best architectural guides in the world—well researched and illustrated, authoritatively written, and handsomely produced—as previously noted in this column. The new volume on China may be the summit of this achievement: a tightly focused survey of eleven Eastern cities from Beijing to the Pearl River Delta where much of the most significant new building has been concentrated, and brief summaries of remoter connurbations, from Chengdu in the West to Harbin in the Northeast. The selection makes sense: these are the most developed and visited cities, and any attempt to be comprehensive would result in an unmanageably large volume. It would take years to research and be out of date before it was printed.

I checked the entries for cities I’m familiar with and carried it with me on a recent trip to Guangzhou, Shenzen and Hong Kong. Almost every recent building of note was included, with just enough evaluation to decide whether it was worth a long detour or a thorough exploration. Maps and addresses are printed in Chinese and English and each building is additionally located by its geographical coordinates and a QR code containing further information. That’s crucial in sprawling, heavily trafficked cities where taxi drivers cannot keep up with newly developed zones. With the China guide, I was able to hone in on a dozen Shenzen sites in a day, from landmarks like Steven Holl’s Vanke Center to a well-concealed pocket park by Urbanus. It was thrilling to see so much in so short a time and to appreciate the visionary planning of a city that has grown two thousandfold in just 30 years.

One questionable chapter is Macau, a Portuguese outpost that has recast itself as Asia’s answer to Las Vegas; it deserves no more than a footnote to Hong Kong. Jinhua is also overrated: an architectural zoo curated by Ai Wei-Wei, which has become a neglected folly and is no longer worth traveling to see. I was pleased to see an entry for Kris Yao’s theater in Wuzhen, a marvel of good design and enlightened patronage in an elaborately rebuilt canal town. Chengdu gets a spread, but deserves more complete coverage as the most important metropolis of the interior. These are minor objections, and no guide as ambitious as this could satisfy every user. One wonders if the publisher will attempt a three-part guide to new architecture in the United States—a country that is poorly served by domestic guides, aside from a few major cities.

China Architectural Guide, Evan Chakroff, Addison Godel and Jacqueline Gargus; DOM Publishers, 48 Euros.

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