September 12, 2010

Green China? It's complicated...

david greenberg, architect, Zen, China

"China provides a free environment for architects. We're not impeded by the complicated regional planning and bureaucratic red tape. Most importantly, China has great craftsmen who can help me visualize my architectural concepts."

That's how American architect David Greenberg sees it, whose work for the past 12 years in China has been heavily influenced by his Zen practice. Greenberg was introduced to Zen in Hawaii by a Chinese master, who also suggested he learn the Tao. A recent work of Greenberg's is a treehouse "eco resort," overlooking the South China Sea, at the Nanshan Buddhist Culture Zone, Sanya, Hainan province.

Greenberg is no fan of the Western-style buildings springing up across Chinese cities like mushrooms. As he tells xinhuanet.com:

"I don't think architects care about people today. They just put people in ugly monstrosities and boxes...." Chinese urban designers should start looking at their traditional courtyards and not merely copy Western architecture, most of which takes away from nature."

In recent years, Western architects have flocked East Asia, where the cities of the future are being built. Although China has a bad eco rep, they are nonetheless leaps and bounds ahead of the US in developing green technologies. Yet their grand plan to build the world's first "eco cities" was met with dismal failure. The China Digital Times reported:

Dongtan and other highly touted eco-cities across China were meant to be models of sustainable design for the future. Instead they’ve become models of bold visions that mostly stayed on the drawing boards — or collapsed from shoddy implementation. More often than not, these vaunted eco-cities have been designed by big-name foreign architectural and engineering firms who plunged into the projects with little understanding of Chinese politics, culture, and economics — and with little feel for the needs of local residents whom the utopian communities were designed to serve....

Shannon May, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley who has studied the troubled eco-city of Huangbaiyu, wrote in comments posted on The Christian Science Monitor’s Web site, “While such highly lauded projects garner fame and money for the foreign firms, and promotions for the local government officials, they leave the population they were supposed to serve behind.”

Hopes were high in 2006, when the Guardian Weekly imagined the first such project, "Dongtan Eco City," which was to have been completed by 2040 ("China to Build First Eco City"). The picture's pretty and sustainable-looking enough (see below) but it never happened, and by 2009, the Guardian and others were reporting that it was all greenwash. Building in China, it turned out, was not at all the way Greenberg described it, at least not for Peter Head. Head, who was the man behind the project at the London-based consulting engineers Arup—and who drew up the eco-city master plan—told the Guardian,

"China does everything by the rules handed down from the top. There is a rule for everything. The width of roads, everything. That is how they have developed so fast, by being totally prescriptive. We wanted to change the rules in Dongtan, to do everything different. But when it comes to it, China cannot deliver that."

Maybe they're a lot more like us nowadays than we thought. Still, I wish we had their trains!

dongtan eco city, china, peter head

Images: China Daily (top); Chinese Evening News/File (bottom)

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