Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.
A violin-shaped church, an “upside down” house and a hotel modeled on a Russian doll are among the entries in a poll to name this year’s “ugliest” Chinese buildings.
Half a decade after President Xi Jinping’s government issued a directive calling for an end to “oversized, xenocentric, weird” structures, Chinese architecture website Archcy.com has identified almost 90 contenders for the 12th edition of its annual Ugliest Building Survey
The shortlist spans skyscrapers, museums, hotels and sports facilities, bringing together some of the unusual shapes and tactless ornamentation that have contributed to the country’s reputation for bizarre architecture.
The public poll, which at the time of writing had attracted more than 30,000 votes, is currently led by a five-arched gate
at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province. It is closely trailed by a glass bridge
in Sichuan province that is suspended between statues of giant men and women in traditional costume.
Other nominees include a museum
that has been compared to pots of instant noodles, and a 1.5-kilometer (0.9-mile) stretch of Shanghai towers connected by a single undulating roof
The G60 Science and Technology Cloud Gallery under construction in Songjiang Science and Technology City, Shanghai, China. Credit: Costfoto/Barcroft Media/Getty Images
Voting remains open until December, at which point a judging panel comprised of architects, critics and academics will weigh in. Entries will be evaluated based on nine criteria, including whether the building is deemed “inharmonious” with the surroundings, or if its design is thought to have been plagiarized. A final selection of 2021’s 10 “ugliest” buildings will be announced at the end of the year, with public polling accounting for 40% of the final decision, according to organizers.
Poll “winners” in recent years have included a cultural center shaped like a crab
and a pedestrian bridge
embellished with a series of six oversized “diamonds.”
There is clearly no shortage of questionable designs in a country that has rapidly urbanized and now builds more skyscrapers
than the rest of the world combined. But while there are still plenty of candidates for the tongue-in-cheek competition, the country’s architects and developers now face tighter building codes and urban planning regulations.
A ring-shaped pedestrian bridge in Kunming is among the 87 shortlisted structures. Credit: TPG/Getty Images
President Xi has long voiced his concern about China’s reputation for odd architecture. In 2014, he openly criticized the construction of unusual buildings at a Beijing literary symposium, according to state media reports, and his government has since sought to regulate the country’s skylines.
In June 2020, China’s housing ministry and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), a powerful economic planning body, issued a circular calling for an end to “copycat” buildings and skyscrapers taller than 500 meters (1,640 feet). The NDRC reiterated
the height restriction earlier this year, with a policy document that also “strictly prohibits” the construction of “ugly” buildings, in favor of those that are “suitable, economical, green and beautiful.”
The ban on 500-meter-plus buildings will, in practice, affect very few of the country’s architects: there are only five skyscrapers of that height in the country, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats
. But the new government communiqués have included a slew of less eye-catching — but potentially far-reaching — proposals.
Suggestions have included appointing a chief architect for each city, as seen in many Western countries, as well as a credit system that could blacklist designers who do not comply with planning regulations. The government has also warned against demolishing historical buildings, while encouraging designs that “highlight Chinese characteristics.” For example, the American architects behind Beijing’s tallest skyscraper, China Zun, told CNN in 2019 they had been forced to modify their design mid-construction after the vice mayor’s office suggested it “wasn’t Chinese enough.”
The Xiangyang Science and Technology Museum, one of several museums named in the annual Ugliest Building Survey. Credit: Li Fuhua/VCG/Getty Images
Of course, China’s bureaucratic governance means new regulations can be slow to take effect. According to Fei Chen, a senior architecture professor specializing in urban policy at the UK’s Liverpool University, new guidelines provide a broad framework for cities, but finer details must be resolved at a local level.
“Architects and urban designers may benefit from quite specific guidance on what good design is,” she said at the time of the housing ministry circular. “But this needs to be related to the local context, so I wouldn’t expect the national government to produce guidance like this. What works in one context may not work in another.”
There is also, she added, huge variation in architectural standards around the country.
“In east-coast cities, or more developed areas, architects have better design skills, so they produce better buildings. But in inland cities you still see buildings that copy others’ styles or architectural languages, and that doesn’t result in very good design,” she said.