From mountain-shaped apartment blocks to the centre of braised chicken reinventing itself as Solar Valley, Chinas second (and third) tier cities are hiring big-name architects to get them noticed
From egg-shaped concert halls to skyscrapers reminiscent of big pairs of pants, Chinas top cities are famously full of curious monuments to architectural ambition. But as land prices in the main metropolises have shot into the stratosphere, developers have been scrambling to buy up plots in the countrys second and third-tier cities, spawning a new generation of delirious plans in the provinces. President Xi Jinping may have issued a directive last year outlawing oversized, xenocentric, weird buildings, but many of these schemes were already well under way; his diktat has proved to be no obstacle to mayoral hubris yet.
From Harbin City of Music to Dezhou Solar Valley, provincial capitals are branding themselves as themed enclaves of culture and industry to attract inward investment, and commissioning scores of bold buildings to match. Even where there is no demand, city bureaucrats are relentlessly selling off land for development, hawking plots as the primary form of income accounting for 80% of municipal revenues in some cases. In the last two months alone, 50 Chinese cities received a total of 453bn yuan (54bn) from land auctions , a 73% increase on last year, and its the provincial capitals that are leading the way.
At the same time, Xis national culture drive has seen countless museums, concert halls and opera houses spring up across the country, often used as sweeteners for land deals, conceived as the jewels at the centre of glistening mixed-used visions (that sometimes never arrive). Culture, said Xi, is the prerequisite of the great renaissance of the Chinese people, but it has also proved to be a powerful lubricant for ever more real estate speculation even if the production of content to fill these great halls cant quite keep up with the insatiable building boom. From mountain-shaped apartment blocks to cavernous libraries, heres a glimpse of whats emerging in the regions.
The likes of Doug Aitken have decamped to the outskirts of Palm Springs to exhibit large-scale works that challenge the history of the western expansion and appear along the route to a certain music festival
Speeding down the Gene Autry Trail, a Palm Springs desert road named after the singing cowboy, there are mountains to the north and south, and billboards on each side. Somewhere between the ads for milkshakes and legal counsel, there are large-scale images of mountains, and from three exacting positions on the road, they suddenly snap into place; for a few brief moments, they perfectly align with the jagged scenery. And just as quickly, theyre behind you. Perhaps you had imagined it, or perhaps you didnt notice them at all.
This fleeting mirage is LA-based artist Jennifer Bolandes new work, Visible Distance/Second Sight, a site-specific homage to the landscape. She and 15 other artists have come to Palm Springs and the surrounding area as part of Desert X, a new exhibition of large-scale installations that stretches across 45 miles until 30 April. (Not coincidentally, theyre sited along the path leading from Los Angeles to behemoth music festival Coachella, which also takes place in April).
I live in New York, so I was interested in this sort of manifest destiny of the migration west, English-born artistic director Neville Wakefield explains, citing a 19th-century idea that divine sanction validated the United States merciless, violent westward expansion, regardless of who was already living there.
Yeah, no, it was awful, Wakefield concedes. But in terms of New York having evolved or devolved into a marketplace, I was a little bit disillusioned at having watched wealth evacuate art from the city center. It was interesting to do a show that recognized whats happening on this coast.
He invited the artists to search for their own sites in the desert, offering little in the way of curatorial direction in order to allow the place itself to become the curator. In the rich tradition of 1970s land art, it would be the myriad conditions unique to the desert the pristine daylight, the untouched expanses of land, the brutal climate that shaped the work.
After a bit of research, trial and error, Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan found himself an unused, 100,000 sq ft plot of land to use down a little dirt road in Rancho Mirage, a desert town where the population hovers around 18,000. He has carved an alternative landscape into the sand: 4ft deep craters and trenches in vaguely celestial shapes, lined with bars of cool yellow neon. From above, the lights spell out the simple proclamation, I Am, amid exploding shards of light, although youd only see that online via images captured by drones. Standing inside this work during an inky black desert night is like standing on a glowing planet.
With a set of wheels and a decent 4G connection, anyone can come visit these sites, which have been conveniently plotted as Dropped Pins on Google Maps courtesy of the Desert X website. The best work engages the viewer with a dialogue with the land, including Sherin Guirguiss One I Call, a clay bird refuge with glittery bits of gold in the open roof, nestled in the shadow of a steep cliff in the serene Whitewater Preserve. Theres also Lita Albuqerques hEARTH, a cobalt sculpture of a woman lying inside a circle of white sand, ear pressed to the earth as a low, looped reverberating chorus rhythmically repeats the question, Why did you come here?, which turns out to be an excellent question in the context of this show.
The scene in the Bay Area was never chronicled in the same way as New York or Los Angeles. Now a new crop of photography books and projects are bringing San Franciscan punk into focus
In early 1979, photographer Jim Jocoy attended an auction at the Peoples Temple in San Francisco. More than 900 of its worshipers had died in a mass suicide-murder which came to be known as the Jonestown massacre, led to their deaths by activist-turned-doomsday cultist Jim Jones. When Jocoy saw some of the followers left-behind luggage, he saw a symbol of Jones hollow, empty promise, and took a picture. Jonestown, the assassinations they worked into the fabric of San Francisco, and unraveled its tapestry, Jocoy says. It was quite gloomy, that summer of hate, and punk was the soundtrack.
The image is in Order of Appearance, a new book of Jocoys photography from the San Francisco punk scene of the late-1970s. Its an intimate, diaristic view of an incipient youth subculture as Jocoys punk subjects primp and sneer while the city crumbles around them. Theres a yellow Volkswagen upturned in the street, freshly applied blue hair-dye, and allusions to the imminent outbreak of Aids.
Manhattans avenues stretch north like tracks through a forest, eventually disappearing into Harlem. Below me, Central Park is laid out like a picnic blanket, its largest trees rendered shrub-like. To the south, the Empire State Building pierces the citys canopy of stone and iron, and the blue glass of the new World Trade Center glints beyond it. Between them, the Statue of Liberty is almost lost in the haze.
This is the view from the worlds highest home, as enjoyed virtually, using Google Earth. Because to enjoy it in person would require knowing the unnamed owner of the 800 sq m penthouse at 432 Park Avenue or buying it for more than the $88m (71m) it sold for last year.
But there are alternatives for those with a head for heights and the money to match. Next year, the 426m Park Avenue tower will lose its title to 111 West 57th Street, rising two blocks to the west. Meanwhile in India, the 442m Mumbai World One will push higher still, its Armani-designed penthouses on level 117 offering airliner views of the Arabian Sea.
Once, only offices reached so high. In 2000, there were 215 office towers worldwide above 200m high (the first, the Metropolitan Life Tower in New York, was completed in 1909), but only three residential towers that high. Today, there are 255 residential towers above that height, with a further 184 under construction. Mixed-use towers, with apartments as well as offices and hotels, include the Burj Khalifa, still the worlds tallest building, at 828m. The Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, due to be completed in 2020, will be the first to break 1,000m. Its highest apartments will be on the 156th floor.
What is life like up there? For decades, tower blocks typically comprised social or affordable housing in crowded cities or on new estates. Hundreds were built in the postwar social housing boom, in cities across Europe. But today the highest residential towers are overwhelmingly luxury developments, and many remain empty, weeks after selling. If skyscrapers broke ground as barometers of corporate hubris, increasingly they now stand for personal excess, applying gravity to the wealth divide.
Jason Gabel, an urban planner at the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which keeps a global skyscraper database, says advances in building technology partly explain the trend. Lifts can now travel at more than 40mph and climb for hundreds of metres, thanks to lightweight carbon fibre ropes. Sophisticated dampening systems at the tops of towers mean slender buildings can rise higher, on smaller urban plots, without toppling in a storm or swaying to the point of causing nausea.
For a growing number of city dwellers, day-to-day life can be a little different. The payoff for peace and endless views can be five-minute waits for the lift at rush hour and even sunburn. You could get tanned in winter if you sat right by the window: theres a bit of a greenhouse effect, the owner of a 64th-floor apartment above Chicago tells me. Vertigo can be another danger. At the top of a tower in east London, former taxi driver Sammy Dias rarely uses his balcony: I dont like heights, and if people go out and start messing about, I can get quite angry, he says from a safe distance inside.
I spoke to residents around the world, and many reported feeling uplifted by their elevated perspective, but there are hidden downsides: a Canadian study of heart attack victims showed survival rates dropped markedly on higher floors, because they were harder for paramedics to reach.
Skyscraping homes have always held an allure; a house with a view, a life in the sky. They frequently evoke dystopian imagery; Ern Goldfingers troubled Trellick Tower in west London, completed in 1972, is thought to have inspired JG Ballards dark thriller High-Rise. It was originally entirely owned by the Greater London Council, and rented out as council flats. Now social tenants of the Grade II*-listed building, and its sister, Balfron Tower in east London, are being displaced by upwards gentrification. Less desirable council towers are reaching the end of their habitable lives, facing decay, demolition or expensive repair.
Meanwhile, the upper floors of many new luxury skyscrapers serve as foreign cash stores: giant briefcases with views. The highest homes in Britain are the 10 luxury apartments between floors 53 and 65 of the Shard. They are among the most opulent in London, yet almost five years after their completion, none is occupied or even for sale or rent. The reason remains a mystery.
Stacking people on shelves is a very efficient method of human isolation, says Jan Gehl, a veteran Danish architect and renowned urban design consultant. A critic of residential towers even where they are fully occupied, Gehl likens them to gated mansions in the sky. Humans, he says, did not evolve to look up or down: We have seen, in the past 20 years, a withdrawal from society into the private sphere, and towers are an easy way to achieve that.
Is this the experience of those who live above our rising cities? Finding out isnt easy; even when or if they are home, residents of the most rarefied apartments in the world are hard to identify, much less reach. But all human life is there, way up on the 64th floor.
Mike Palumbo, 50, trader; Water Tower Place, Chicago