Modernity in Chinese Design / by David Hu

"Contemporary architects tend to impose modernity on something. There is a certain concern for history but it’s not very deep. I understand that time has changed, we have evolved. But I don’t want to forget the beginning. A lasting architecture has to have roots.” - I.M. Pei

I.M. Pei, a Chinese-American architect—perhaps best known for his glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris—revealed a sentiment that I have held for modern Chinese design: that there is a massive push towards creating new Chinese design in the name of modernity without first understanding the past. But before we discuss how this is affecting Chinese design, we first need to understand what modernity is.

Modernity, ideally, describes the best of what the present offers in technology, methodology, and knowledge; that is, taking things that quantitatively or qualitatively surpass their equivalent predecessors and then applying them to an artistic endeavor. This, in effect, requires a knowledge of the past, because history provides the reasons for which and the context in which something has been done, and how well those ideas had served their purposes until the present.

However, as is often the case, modernity can also be unsatisfactory when it is of-the-moment and strictly individualistic. This application of modernity has actually little to do with what is modern and more to do with what is today. There is little consideration to its influence on the future, much less any understanding of its past. This notion of modernity fails because it forgets that it soon, too, will become the past. The fact that it offers nothing progressive makes it unremarkable and meaningless to future generations. This is modernity in its absolutely most short-lived sense.

Mr. Pei was likely critical of the latter interpretation. The imposition of a superficial modernity, then, is the action of taking of what is trendy and then calling the result the best of today's design. Worse, it often claims to be a modern interpretation of the great works of the past. Sadly, this is found everywhere in current Chinese-derived/influenced/inspired designs, and it threatens to strangle the few genuine attempts at creating modern Chinese designs. It creates artificiality in place of authenticity; rewards emotionally-driven ideas rather than true understanding; and reinvents the significance of history and culture according to wavering personal preferences. This is a step that Chinese design must not take if it seeks to be taken seriously and if it truly wants the world to better appreciate Chinese culture.