For fifty years following the communist take-over of China, all buildings were designed by big state institutes in ponderous official styles and individual initiatives were unknown. Then the authorities permitted small independent partnerships to be established, and a new wave of talent, trained at Chinese or Western universities, competed for smaller jobs, while larger projects were reserved for the institutes or foreign firms. SOM has built more than 70 corporate towers, ZHA has three vast commercial projects in Beijing and is constructing the capital’s new airport. MAD is the only Chinese firm that has yet secured major commissions at home and abroad, but the independent scene is bubbling over with talent and is sure to achieve much more.

Austin Williams, a British scholar and critic, plus a team of researchers have selected 20 firms headed or co-partnered by women, and the range of their achievement is impressive. On a recent visit, I met Qi Shanshan who was educated in the US, got her master’s from Harvard, and interned with Renzo Piano and Foster + Partners. In the seven years of her Chinese practice she has designed a succession of rural guesthouses,  from Hangzhou province to Tibet, abstracting the local vernacular to create an appealing fusion of new and old. I also explored the work of Xu Tiantian (inexplicably omitted from this survey) who has designed 25 structures to enhance the villages of Songyang County. They range from workshops to a visitor’s center, a tea house, and a bamboo pavilion and each is a badge of pride for the locals and a lure for cultural tourists.

I’d love to explore the work of the other 19 firms but I would need months to reach all of the scattered locations. This book is the closest most of us will come to the architects who are helping to transform the Chinese countryside and smaller cities, as well as the metropolises of Shanghai and Beijing.  Most have decades more to enlarge the scope of their practices, but Williams includes the octogenarian Zhang Jinqui, who clings to traditional models in her large provincial museums.

New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future. Austin Williams. Thames & Hudson. $45

Michael Webb

Author: Michael Webb

Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.

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