Sun Jiwei: Major Forces [2011]

Major Forces | Sun Jiwei | MARK Magazine#31

Sun Jiwei 孙继伟, the mayor of Jiading New City 嘉定区, trained to be an architect at the city’s Tongji University. At the beginning of his career, he supervised the construction of Xintiandi, a pedestrian shopping area in Shanghai 上海. Afterwards he became the vice director of the Qingpu District of Shanghai, where he commissioned China’s most promising young architects – Atelier Deshaus 大舍建筑, Scenic Architecture 山水秀, MADA s.p.a.m. 马达思班 and Liu Jiakun Architects 刘家琨, among others – to design a number of public buildings. Today he is fully engaged in public administration and plotting the future of a district with 1.2 million inhabitants, about an hour’s drive from the heart of Shanghai. Jiading is no Curitiba, Bogotá or Ljubljana, where mayors with architectural aspirations – Jaime Lerner, Enrique Peñalosa and Zoran Janković, respectively – have been given mandates by the people. In Jiading, as in towns and cities all over China, the mayor serves the People’s Government.

What challenges is Jiading facing today?

Sun Jiwei: The strategy we’re using for urban development is slightly different from earlier ones, as today we face a lot of problems in the central area of Jiading. These are related to excessive population density, traffic and pollution. They are similar to the ones other international cities need to deal with. On a larger scale, the Shanghai municipality and government realize the importance of new satellite towns as part of a larger urban development strategy. A major problem is how to build an attractive extension to the city that includes public-service infrastructure and supports social structures. Failure to solve this problem in Jiading New Town will leave the old core of Jiading overwhelmed by traffic. If we build the right kind of infrastructure, though, people can live in cities farther from Shanghai – such as Suzhou, Kunshan and Wuxi – and have a commuting time from home to central Shanghai equal to that of people living in Jiading.

Generally speaking, Chinese cities are assessed on the basis of GDP growth rate and speed of development. You focus on the quality of architectural design. Was this the reason for your promotion from Qingpu to Jiading?

Sun Jiwei: Coming from Qingpu to Jiading was a normal job transfer, since my term in Qingpu District was ending. The fast speed of urban development and the excessive pursuit of GDP and economic efficiency have resulted in a series of serious problems. Furthermore, China’s rapid urbanization has led to a decline in the quality of construction. In Jiading we hope to avoid this by tackling problems related to economic and industrial development and population concentration.

Were these problems also part of discussions on urban topics when you were a student at Tongji University in the 1990s?

Sun Jiwei: Urban planning is subject to a continuously changing dynamic. During my years at Tongji University, what I learned was based on knowledge and skills. After I left Tongji, I did a great deal of work in the fields of urban design and construction. I experienced the rapid development of Shanghai from many perspectives. My engagement isn’t focused solely on acting on our urban condition, but also on thinking and reflecting on it – and figuring out how to make it better.

Do you think that the general public knows what good architecture can do?

Sun Jiwei: It’s difficult. The Chinese educational system pays too little attention to aesthetics and general information on architecture. Inevitably, this results in the inability of the public at large to appreciate the aesthetics of architecture.

Kindergarten at Jiading New Village | by Atelier Deshaus

You’ve been selecting Chinese architects who combine a deep knowledge of China’s cultural traditions with a modern attitude towards design. Does their work represent your idea of how Chinese architecture should be at this moment?

Sun Jiwei: Yes. That’s the reason why, in both Qingpu and Jiading, I have constantly chosen young Chinese architects with lofty ideas and provided them with the opportunity to display their talents. It is also important to collaborate with foreign architects, though. In Jiading, we have worked with Tadao Ando, Jacques Ferrier and Thomas Heatherwick, among others. But our choices are not based only on an architect’s popularity or fame. In my opinion, selecting an architect to design a building is similar to choosing the right doctor in a hospital. He or she should properly solve the problem at hand.

In Qingpu, some of the projects you were instrumental in building are rather small, whereas in Jiading you have a whole city to deal with. Has it been difficult to make such a large step in scale?

Sun Jiwei: My ambition nowadays is larger, but it’s based on previously accumulated experience. Qingpu was the beginning of my urban explorations – I call it ‘the beginning of the construction of an ideal city’. My career is aimed at building an ideal city. That’s not possible in just several years, or even in a decade, but it’s my ambition nonetheless.

Why is it impossible – because you have to work with property developers with different tastes?

Sun Jiwei: That’s one reason. Urban construction is always accompanied by arguments about money and by conflicting interests between builder and client. As a city manager working for the government, I have to make sure I persist in my goals.

One of your ambitions for Jiading is the introduction of energy-saving vehicles. From what I understand, the plan is to have 30,000 of these new vehicles on the streets before 2015. What are you trying to achieve?

Sun Jiwei: Historically, Jiading was an industrial district with a focus on automotive manufacturing. If we keep focusing on this type of industry only, we will face problems that typically plague industrial towns, like weaknesses in areas such as public infrastructure, modern services and social initiatives. We need to think about how to integrate the old industries with the new economy. Urban planning in China has long emphasized functional division. In the past, a lot of people lived in central Jiading but worked in the industrial quarters, a situation that caused serious traffic problems. The new cars you mention should reduce pollution, but we hope to improve the city in such a way that people are willing to live in the same area in which they work, making motorized transport less necessary to begin with.

Jiading New Village | Land use plan (2004-2020)

Jiading New Town | SBA

Jiading New City, a lotus blooming in the land of Jiading

Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of China’s Ministry of Construction, famously stated that Chinese cities all look the same. Can Jiading distinguish itself from the others?

Sun Jiwei: We have confidence that we can stand out from other large-scale urban areas in China – and thus avoid the problem of uniformity. We have the advantages offered by good quality control and equally good professional skills. We work together with excellent architects. I always feel a certain regret regarding China’s national large-scale development projects. Many leaders and participants involved in urban development have rushed to the fray without care or consideration. I like to compare the current urban development in China to an inexperienced driver speeding down the motorway in a car with broken brakes. As a result, the number of casualties in our urban development is very high.

To improve its public image, many a Chinese city has erected a beautiful, iconic building that makes the rest of the city look dull in comparison. In Jiading, however, you seem to have rejected the idea of one or two standout buildings in favour of an attractive collection of good projects. Do you see Jiading as a model for the way Chinese cities should develop?

Sun Jiwei: Yes. I always insist on this point of view. Architecture projects must play a leading and exemplary role in the city, but you can’t build one good building and then say you’re done. It happens too often that a famous architect is invited to build some weird project only to attract attention. This is not the right direction to follow. When we select an architect for a school or hospital, for instance, we want a design that corresponds to the local environment, not one that is conspicuous or abrupt. A good example is the Jiading Poly Theatre, designed by Tadao Ando, who realized a very meaningful project at an important location. I asked Ando to consider not only the specific site, but also the existing development in this area of Jiading.

How do you guarantee projects that also display fine detailing and finishing? I see this as a major problem. Many of China’s beautiful buildings do not stand up to close inspection. Poor execution of a good design often results in a building that starts falling apart only a few years after it’s been completed.

Sun Jiwei: This is indeed a widespread problem in China, but nowadays our government is emphasizing – slowly but surely – the quality of ‘Made in China’. Originally, ‘Made in China’ was an international symbol of cheap, low-quality goods. Today, ‘Constructed in China’ has the same connotation that ‘Made in China’ used to have. To improve the quality of our buildings, we have still a long way to go. Two factors are important. One is the improvement of quality, standards and technology during the construction process. The other is a need for better maintenance of completed buildings.

Major Forces | Sun Jiwei | MARK Magazine#31

The opportunities you’re giving to Chinese architects in Jiading could be described as an experiment that can be repeated on a larger scale if successful. Is that the aim?

Sun Jiwei: I don’t think of it as an experiment or a test. A city cannot be a testing ground. Some of my colleagues – mayors of other cities – invited architects for experimental real-estate projects. I have published an article strongly opposing such initiatives. Although well-known architects have built projects in Jiading, we have never regarded these people as stars, their activities as performances or their projects as tests. We believe these designers are suitable for our projects because we have studied their ideas and come to understand their past projects.

What kind of foreign architects would you like to see working in Jiading in the future?

Sun Jiwei: We are willing to provide work to any talented architect who respects and understands Chinese culture, China’s geography and Chinese lifestyles. Designing for Jiading has nothing to do with implementing crazy ideas that would be impossible to realize anywhere else. An architect has to consider the project as a contribution to this city and not as an isolated object in an open wilderness.

You work for the government. As an architect, could you have the same influence on this city? Do you miss designing?

Sun Jiwei: I made a very deliberate decision to become involved in public administration. I was an excellent architect, but I think it’s too difficult for Chinese architects to realize the full potential of their ideas; in reality, they face too many constraints. Personally, I wanted to change the methods that were at my disposal. As mayor of Jiading, I have succeeded in making those changes, and my government position may provide me with even more possibilities to achieve my professional goals. China’s urban development is led by the government. If more excellent architects can gain access to governmental authorities, we can build better cities.

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Pictures by

Sun Jiwei 孙继伟 interviewed by Bert de Muynck
(assisted by Vivian YU Tianzheng 于天正). Pictures by Mónica Carriço
Jiading District,  Shanghai, China | October 27, 2010
Major Forces | Sun Jiwei published by Mark magazine #31 | April-May 2011

Other Bert de Muynck | MovingCities articles in MARK Magazine:
A Letter from Beijing | #09 (Jul-Aug 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | #12 (Feb-Mar 08)
Olympic Architecture | #14 (Jun-Jul 08)
Babel for Billionaires | #15 (Aug-Sep 08)
Mongolian Private Meadow Club by MAD | #16 (Oct-Nov 08)
Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker | #17 (Dec-Jan 08-09)
Local Hero | An Interview with Wang Shu (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
The Importance of Slowness | Wang Hui (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
Mr. Blunt | Keiichiro Sako | SAKO Architects | #20 (Jun-Jul 09)
Green and Tidy | mamostudio | #21 (Aug-Sep 09)
Learning from CCTV | An interview with Rory McGowan | #24 (Feb-March 10)
Illegal Copying | #24 (Feb-March 10)
Zhang Lei: I am a Simple Man | #26 (June-July 10)
Deshaus: Slow Down | #28 (October-November 10)

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