It’s curtains for glass buildings - Monocolumn | Monocle


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26 October 2011

Residents and visitors to any city in China should take care when passing glass buildings. Faulty installation of glass panels, or “curtain walls” as they are known, has led to a spate of glass shards raining down in the country. In Hangzhou, 19-year-old Zheijiang was hit by one such shard and one of her legs had to be amputated. Following typhoon Muifa in August, 30 panes of glass fell on Shanghai’s Central Business District. Elsewhere the glass dome of a shopping centre in Zhejiang province imploded, injuring several children in the process.

It’s not great news for the Chinese construction industry. Bad installation and worse maintenance is being blamed and Shanghai authorities have reacted by banning the use of glass curtain walls in new constructions as a result.

A lot can be said about China’s approach to construction from this sequence of events. While the rest of the world marvels at the sheer speed, height and scale of China’s urban development, speak to any firm who has built in China and they say the same thing: the Chinese build extraordinarily quickly but they build shells that replicate a plan or existing structure elsewhere, they don’t build buildings with long-term ageing in mind, nor quality of life for those who will occupy it, whether to work or live.

The Chinese like things that look like the things they like. Authenticity doesn’t always matter. Cast your minds back to the unauthorised replica Apple stores that were discovered in Kunming earlier this year. The same can be said for the nation’s approach to design – there’s little conscience involved in carbon copying designs and churning them out in their millions, selling them for pence.

There’s no denying this is bad practise but morality aside it’s served the Chinese economy very well. But while it’s one thing to copy chairs, magazines and electronics – it’s another thing to copy buildings and construction methods with little regard to safety or maintenance. But is slapping a ban on using sheet glass really the answer?

My problem with the banning of glass curtain walls in Shanghai isn’t anything to do with looks. In fact I really don’t like wall-to-wall glass – it’s a nightmare to clean and there’s something so depressingly 1980s about it. It’s that the authority’s approach is so heavy handed – “ban rather than learn how to do it properly”. It’s eerily controlling – that’s no surprise really.

But the real problem is that it smacks of sticking a plaster over the wound. This could be an opportunity to reveal the nation’s commitment to and investment in quality building by teaching proper installation and maintenance not by eliminating glass altogether. Much as I’m no big fan of giant glass buildings, particularly if there’s a chance of a rogue windowpane falling every now and then, Shanghai’s skyline 50 years from now will be a hulking mass of concrete skyscrapers – bleak, imposing and faceless – and that really is a depressing prospect.


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