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Torus-shaped building by Italian architect Joseph di Pasquale in Guangzhou

There is disappointing aesthetic news from the internet today: The People’s Republic of China is trying to reign in weird architecture.  A CNN article provides the basic facts, “A statement from China’s State Council Sunday, says new guidelines on urban planning will forbid the construction of ‘bizarre’ and ‘odd-shaped’ buildings that are devoid of character or cultural heritage. Instead, the directive calls for buildings that are ‘economic, green and beautiful’.”

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The great teapot of Wuxi. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Based on this language, one might hope for a future of soaring super pagodas covered with solar cells and hydroponic forests, however I think it is much more likely that we will see lots of boring giant rectangles designed by committees (like the new World Trade Center…or Freedom Tower…or whatever it ended up being called). Communist China had its own history of creating dull monoliths.  This was interrupted by a spate of crazy fun building projects, but it seems like the party is cracking down on the architectural effervescence (probably as a symptom of the vast market correction now under way).

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The China Central Television building in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.

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Sheraton in Huzhou

During the last quarter century China has seen outrageous economic growth.  Along with this boom, strange giant edifices popped up all along the Chinese coast like weird mushrooms from outer space.  I have put pictures of some of my favorites in this article.  I particularly like the Shanghai World Financial Center (which has always reminded me of a broken off piece of some cool mystery awl) and of course the many torus buildings.  However the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” Stadium and the Shanghai Tower and the “Giant Pants” and the huge teakettle were all good too.  There were some less famous but more charming sculpture buildings at a local level which I have also included here.

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Rendering of the Shanghai World Financial Center with the Jin Mao Building at right

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I did not realize how much I liked these buildings until I read the news today and found out they now belong to the past.  These buildings went hand in hand with eye-popping double digit growth percentages for the Chinese GDP.  I wonder if, now that the buildings are going to stop going up, the stupendous growth will cease too.  Mandarins from all cultures have a way of forgetting that just as art reflects society, society reflects art too.

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The Emperor Hotel in Yanjiao may legitimately be counter-revolutionary

 

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We have bogged down somewhat in our trip across Sub-Saharan Africa. After starting in Madagascar, crossing the channel to Mozambique, winding our way through Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia, we got lost in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s time we resume the trip and push on west to Angola. Like The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola is tremendously rich in mineral wealth (plus the Angolan people are notable for their great physical beauty!), but also like the Congo, Angola has suffered greatly from exploitation, greed, and long decades of bitter war. First there was war between the Portuguese colonialists and those who sought a free Angola. When the struggle for independence ended in 1975, the “liberators” fought a brutal war with each other over who would control and exploit the populace. This war became a proxy war for the Soviet Union and the United States. After the Soviet Union fell, the Angolan civil war became entangled in the greater Congolese war of the 1990s.

Flag of Angola

Flag of Angola

As you can tell, despite all of its beauty, wealth, and magnificence, Angola has been a sad and divided land for the last four decades. Yet, of course there is much more to the country than just fighting (and I’ll describe some of its culture and biodiversity next week), but I am going to finish this introduction to Angola with the story of its rather horrible flag. Naturally this story involves another fight! The flag of Angola, as you can clearly see, represents its long status as the puppet of the Soviet bloc. The red represents the endless blood which must be spilled to make a perfect communist state and the black represents the people of Angola. The broken gear represents unfulfilled aspirations of industry. The machete speaks for itself. Finally, the gold star represents Angolan obeisance to Soviet ideals (indeed the shattered gear and the genocidaire’s machete are meant to evoke the hammer and sickle). This flag was the flag of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the dominant faction of the three factions during the long internecine civil war.

 

Proposed Flag of Angola (2003)

Proposed Flag of Angola (2003)

When the war ended in 2002 and Angola finally began to try to repair the terrible damages done to its citizens, its infrastructure, and its society, some people looked askance at the flag. In 2003, the Parliament’s Constitutional Commission of the National Assembly gently recommended the adoption of a new “more optimistic” flag which features brighter colors and a solar design based on ancient petroglyphs. Unfortunately, the resolution was not taken up, so Angola maintains its violent, scary, and anachronistic national colors–although there is no disputing that the flag is visually and historically interesting (and not a little bad-ass).

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