Liberation from the everyday;

This essay results from an excursion to Wuhan China in 2013 to present two projects to local and central authorities, and the introduction of a third project whilst in the country.

All three development proposals are enormous in scope and ambition. They are related to leisure and culture and are quite extraordinary in comparison to common projects experienced back in England.  This differentiation sometimes led us to question the reality of these ambitions – they were quite literally unbelievable and however outrageous the design proposals the client’s appetite was never quite satisfied. 

Our experience in China; being treated like dignitaries and hosted with extravagance, was exceptional and in stark contrast to the way we work with some clients at home. The contrasting treatment and ambition to those experienced in the everyday was disorientating, certainly not un-pleasant but dislocating. We began to feel a need to contextualise the phenomena in a way that would enable us to better understand and appreciate the experience.

The media in England over the last decade has illustrated the stark contrast in architectural expression between the depressed economies of the west with the rise in popularity of restrained integrity and eschewing of decadence with the burgeoning economic growth of the Arab Emirates and China with their salacious exuberance and proliferation of mega-structures.  There is almost an institutional cynicism and a feeling that this is so far removed from our reality that it lacks meaning and therefore relevance.

In an attempt to contextualise the projects and their exuberance we compared them to the grand gestures associated with the world fairs of Paris 1889 and London 1851 with their iconic structures; the Eiffel tower by Gustave Eiffel and Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton.  In both circumstances the architecture resulted from huge economic growth, growing urban population and the potential exploration of international markets.  

On returning home I decided to explore this parallel to determine whether this comparison was just and whether the outcomes of the industrial revolution bore any relation to the new architecture emerging in China and to the projects that the office was involved with.  It is with some trepidation that I have attempted this as I am aware of the complexity surrounding development in China and also of the Industrial Revolution in 18thCentury Europe.

Crystal Palace, The Great Exhibition 1851.

Cremorne Gardens, Fulham 1843 balloon ascent.

Blackpool Tower 1894.

Beacon Tower Dreamland, New York.