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Chinese cities II (Solar Symbols)                          



It is a commonplace that Beijing, Shanghai and Xiang Gang (HK) form an architectural continuum (also in market penetration and governance), with Beijing employing the most new buildings marked by vernacular tops and Historicist styling; Shanghai showing a mix of the latest vernacular tops, together with low-cost high modernism and modernist remainders from an earlier phase of its architectural history, and HK now beginning to put up some marked buildings, with the majority still following the basic pattern laid down by the modernist cube.


In Shanghai (and increasingly in the new high-rise architecture going up in Beijing and all over China) we might further note the contrast between new buildings designed for accommodation and those intended for offices. High-rise buildings destined for accommodation employ (i) more of the vernacular (a variety of eye-catching tops showing Chinese stylistic references) and (ii) different colour schemes, or the use of 'lines', to differentiate the parts of a building. This is particularly true of the top (the sense of a discrete ‘top’ to a building) when differentiated from the middle. This latter constitutes something of a proof, as it features decoration on a (steel, concrete and glass) multi-storey block or cube, which 'finishes' it. A classic case of ‘wasteful’ decoration transforming a building. Of there being no logic to the addition of, what is often at bottom a coat of paint, to alter or mark out a part of the building, than consideration of its perception, of its contribution to and place in the urban visual field. A recognition of its role in collective visual life as beyond mere rationalist accountancy. Many apartment blocks have their upper part marked out by colour or form (mimicking the ‘city in the sky’, or ‘house on stilts’ effects) a marking which contributes to a distinct solar sense and forms a pleasurable visual spectacle in the cityscape, in the perusal of its horizon - a positive contribution to the symbolism of the urban visual fabric.


By contrast the office blocks (and in the main both of these developments are variations on the tower block, the high rise) still appear modelled upon the modernist cube. Albeit in practice these too show (as does most functionalist-inspired architecture these days and perhaps did even in its heyday) some kind of differentiation between the three parts, top, bottom, and middle (illogically, but pleasingly, indicating that symbolic rationale is now in the ascendant and has pushed aside economic, or ‘pure’ rationale). Again a coat of paint, a 'daubing' in ceremonial colouring, is added to the topmost portion to differentiate it from the rest, and to mark its addition, or belonging, to the other members of the city's collective solar (the perception of the topmost layer of architecture as of particular symbolic value).


It is these markings which mark out the part of the building which is offered up to the city, offered as a gift (and not just a contribution to the individual profit of the owners) - a portion which is felt to be joined-on to the city's upper regions. The part consecrated to public view, to help adorn the neighbourhood of the heavens and praise the proximity of the stars.




                                                            Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk