Rome; painting by Rudolf Wiegmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Steven Leuck is one of the owners of Contractors Electric LLC here in Eugene. He’s also a past-president of the Willamette Valley Chapter - Construction Specifications Institute, and like me a member of the Emerald Executive Association. He’s also one of the nicest guys you could ever meet, with a tirelessly curious mind.
Steven recently passed along a link to a CNN article about young architects from Europe who chose to pursue their careers in China immediately upon graduating from architecture school. What the article said did not surprise me. What was most startling (and telling perhaps) is how much misplaced trust was laid at the feet of mere babies (architecturally speaking). Designers right out of school do not know what they don’t know. The Chinese boom-era predilection toward “xenocentric” buildings, as President Xi Jinping called them, exacerbated problems. Those projects betray a certain insecurity toward more traditional or conservative design approaches in favor of shiny new objects as if to proclaim how “modern and progressive” China’s contemporary culture is. As the article says, that trend is now being tempered. I’m no expert, but my sense is China has been through a period of excess, over-speculation, and profligacy that had to end at some point. China is maturing and will increasingly focus on making its new cities more attractive and coherent: cleaner, people-friendly, with vibrant streets and neighborhoods, as opposed to assembling collections of anti-urban, Jetsons-like trophy buildings that clamor for attention.
As the article goes on to say, the end of the Chinese “gold rush” has been accompanied by a lessening reverence toward Westerners and an exodus of the young European architects drawn to China by the promise of creative freedom and the projects to lavish it upon. The legacy of this period includes eerily empty and vast, instant “ghost cities” such as Ordos New City (Kangbashi) devoid of not only people but also of any sense of place or history.
Changfeng footbridge on Fen river and Shanxi theater, Taiyuan, Shanxi, China. Photo by Emdx (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
What lessons, if any, should we here in Oregon take from the Chinese experience? Certainly, the scale of development there dwarfs anything that might ever occur here, so perhaps we needn’t be so concerned. On the other hand, it does not take especially large projects to have an outsized impact in a community like Eugene. The recent wave of large student housing developments is a case in point. For better or worse, projects like The Hub and the Capstone apartments (13th & Olive) have irretrievably transformed downtown Eugene. Even much larger American cities, such as the would-be Amazon suitors, should be wary of the potentially destabilizing impact of massive projects drawn from whole cloth.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. No city aspiring to greatness or simply mere pleasantness can be. I’m not exactly sure what the best mechanisms are to ensure future development occurs in easily digested increments; however, we can avoid repeating the mistakes of others. Wisdom is a byproduct of experience, something most twenty-something architects lack. The Chinese undervalued prudence as well as its own history and culture, paying a heavy price for doing so. Growth may be inevitable but Eugene can achieve the grace and style we hope for, even as it grows. What’s important is to value experience, whether it is our own or comes from others far away.
Thank you Steven for sharing a thought-provoking article!