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Late last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping rose to his bully pulpit to denounce the surfeit of “weird architecture” that has become so visible on the Chinese skyline, calling instead for an art that would “disseminate contemporary Chinese values, embody traditional Chinese culture and reflect [the] Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuit.” While there’s something heartening about a national leader who actually cares about architecture, a wave of disquiet rapidly spread among both the Chinese and foreign designers (including yours truly) whose work might be implicated in its failure to embody the latest, unspecified version of the eternal verities. Whenever I hear that word “tradition,” my trigger finger gets itchy; “weird” is one of the signatures of experiment and the new. But “weird” also signifies the surreal juxtapositions that are second nature in our televisual universe: not just the daffy thickets of solipsistic starchitecture that mar so much prime real estate, but also the commercials for hemorrhoid creams following an ISIS beheading on CNN.
Xi, however, obviously had this rash of “modern” buildings in mind—including the CCTV tower in Beijing (universally referred to as “the big underpants”), several much-publicized vertical doughnut-shaped structures built around the country, and doubtless some of Zaha Hadid’s swoopier product. But is any of this weirder (or less Chinese) than the sublimely bizarre reproductions of Ye Olde English Villages and Die Kleindörfer in Deutschland that checker the suburbs of Shanghai, or the cherub-and-swag-encrusted apartment buildings that line every avenue? Xi remains mute on this particular kitsch. Besides, one must be wary of a China preoccupied with a “Chinese values” crisis—especially after the Cultural Revolution, when errors of preference and expression had consequences well beyond the aesthetic.
Speaking of the anxious defense of tradition, not long after Xi’s pronunciamento, Prince Charles checked in with a virtually identical position: a ten-point manifesto on the future of the city that also called for the restoration of timeless harmonies to architecture and a return to royal family values in the form of… Olde English Villages for all! What can be the explanation for this weird case of parallel dis-invention? Is some geopolitical magma on the move between Beijing and Balmoral, coordinated from the Bilderberg by the Illuminati? I’m reminded of the discussions in my ’60s groupuscule about so-called “convergence theory”: the idea that industrialization and the permeabilities of the global village were causing two great systems—capitalism and communism—to meld into one, putting an end to the class warfare we were so valiantly waging in the back rooms of the West End Bar.