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Design School Exhibit Challenges Perceptions of Modern Chinese Architecture

By Alison W. Steinbach and Sarah Wu, Contributing Writers

A glass-roofed opera house, a collective housing building, and an organic farming commune are just a few of the 60 models at a Graduate School of Design exhibit that aims to challenge perceptions of modern Chinese architecture.

Curated by GSD visiting professor Xiangning Li, the exhibit is on display in the main gallery of GSD’s Gund Hall from Aug. 24 until Oct. 14. Physical models and written descriptions of a wide variety of innovative Chinese architecture from the 1980s and onward extend the length of the hallway.

Melany Park, a GSD doctoral student who helped curate the exhibit, said the exhibit seeks to challenge perceptions of Chinese architecture as completely state-controlled and defined by low-quality urban development. Since the economic reforms of the 1980s, private firms began pursuing experimental projects that she called “the birth of contemporary Chinese architecture.”

Models range from a sugar production workshop to schools and museums, and they are organized by the five general categories of “cultural, regeneration, digital, rural, and residential,” according to the exhibit’s description online.

Park described the exhibit’s theme, “critical pragmatism,” as “critical of economic speculation—the skyscrapers that go up and get sold for millions of dollars—but then it’s also pragmatic in dealing with the real conditions of China.”

“It’s highly imaginative but not not trying to deal with the realities of the social conditions as well. It’s critical but also pragmatic,” Park said. “Prior to this exhibition, Chinese contemporary architecture has been considered from an economically speculative, financially-burdened, and about property developers and brought more of the money-making side of buildings.”

Li’s team began planning in May and commissioned the New York-based architecture firm SO-IL to design the exhibit. The models were physically constructed and mailed from China by the architectural firms that designed the original buildings.

One of the exhibit’s goals is to spark dialogue about contemporary architecture in China, according to its description. The GSD has hosted seminars and lectures on Chinese architecture this fall, in tandem with the collection in Gund Hall.

Tairan An, a masters student in Design Studies at the GSD, echoed the far-reaching influence of the exhibit.

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