Since China entered the global free market in the 1990s its city centres have come to look more and more like those of the other free-market economies. As Chinese cities expand at breakneck speed, the government now sets quotas to ensure that a high percentage of buildings are designed by architects from Europe and the Americas.
History tells us, however, that culture follows power. Will China soon switch from importing the cultural products of the western world to setting a new cultural standard in those same countries? Will our cities start to be influenced by Chinese architects and urban designers? This seems extremely likely. But what form will this influence take? We might start by looking at a cultural phenomenon that I call “hybridised returns.”
It has long been observed that cultural influences, taken from one country to another, change to suit the local culture—and a hybrid emerges. This how the romance languages developed from Latin, for example, and also the way in which institutions were westernised in Japan after 1853.
What is less often identified is the return of these hybrids to influence their place of origin. We can see some of these returns in action today. Bhangra rock music is a synthesis of western popular music and traditional Punjabi music and was created by British bands from Punjabi immigrant communities. It became so successful that it became popular not only in Punjab but around the world.
Halloween was a part of the ritual calendar in Catholic Europe. Protestant reformers in England banned the practice and replaced it with the ritual burning of a Catholic, Guy Fawkes. Halloween survived in Ireland and Scotland and was taken by immigrants to the United States where it took on a distinctive character. At some time in the 1980s it returned to England in its American form and is now no longer thought of as an import.
Hybridised returns are also found in modern architecture. Modernism, the dominant artistic style since the 1950s, began life as a social reform movement in central Europe in the 1920s and 30s. It was suppressed by Nazi governments and its major exponents fled, many to the United States. In a culturally liberal environment their brand of modernity became influential but there was no place for their radical social objectives. Modernism was adapted for America’s postwar commercial boom and its glass and cubic forms came back to Europe as standard office blocks.
There is early evidence of hybridised returns in architecture today. In Europe and the US, where modernism is long established, the design alone is enough to sell it to a client—there’s no need to provide some other story. This is not so in the wealthy emerging economies. Western architects famous for their abstract compositions have had to describe their buildings in a new way.
Lord Foster describes the plan of his Beijing Airport as “dragon-like” and the inspiration for the atrium of a new office in Hangzhou as an ancient Chinese ding jar. The design for the Arabian Performance Venue by the international architects Aedas is described as surrounded by a series of “petals or leaves” housing apartments and hotel accommodation. The Danish architect Henning Larsen’s design for the Batumi Aquarium in Georgia is a very literal “iconic rock formation” washed up on the lake shore.
Although metaphors have been used to describe architecture for some time, these literal descriptions would have been considered risible less than two decades ago. They are now part of the standard architectural vocabulary as much in the west as in the booming cities of the east. This may be just the first evidence of an architecture increasingly transformed as power and influence move east.
Robert Adam is an architect and author of The Globalisation of Modern Architecture: The Impact of Politics, Economics and Social Change on Architecture and Urban Design Since 1990