Earlier this week I visited Taiyuan, the capital city of Shanxi, a province in central China renowned for its mineral wealth and extreme pollution. I was playing a role that I’ve become accustomed to since coming to China – the token foreigner. My friend had been asked to design the masterplan for a new real estate development there, and so I went along to support and impress the client with my abundant whiteness.

There’s a lot of speculation among my western architect friends about what it’s like to be an architect working in modernizing China. There are so many crazy statistics floating around about the rate of building here that it’s hard to choose one, but my personal favorite is this: Between the time that Beijing was announced as host of the 2008 Olympics and the opening ceremony later this year, the equivalent of 3 Manhattans will have been added to the city.

So with all these opportunities to build, one might assume that being an architect in China is a thrill ride, but, from what my friends here have told me, it’s actually pretty bleak. The trip to Taiyuan only confirmed this for me, so I decided to make a little photo essay about the trip, so that those of us on the outside can get a better sense of what it’s like in the Fastest Urbanization In World History™…

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You exit the terminal to find that the airport is unfinished. There are no workers anywhere. A bad omen?

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You are whisked off in a German car. A DVD of Chinese vaudeville plays from inside the dashboard.

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As you approach the city center the air perceptibly grays.

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You arrive at a generic business tower and are led up to the client’s office, a large room with a huge desk and an encyclopedic collection of talismans – laughing Buddha, golden crocodile (with mysterious marbleized sphere in its mouth), cactus, 1 meter-tall bullet, James Bond villain globe, porcelain vases of various sizes and shapes, ceramic statues of ferocious animals emasculated with decorative bows and ribbons, enlarged snapshots of various dinners and jubilant signing ceremonies….

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After a brief overview in which the client explains that there is already a scheme for this project – designed by a nameless “Canadian” firm – but that nothing (including the program) has been decided, you are brought to the site. It is in the middle of nowhere. On the drive over the client might say something like, “People say we won’t be able to get buyers for this, because it’s 25 minutes outside of the city, but I don’t think so.”

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You are shown some hand-painted billboards that depict the scheme that you’ve been told to ignore and are encouraged to imagine a 21st century industrial-office-residential wonderland teeming to hip, prosperous people.

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Then you turn around and face this.

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You head off into the wilderness.

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Welcome to the badlands. The vibe post-nuclear.

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Any sign of life at all is surprising, relieving.

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Then, suddenly, a construction site.

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You’re brought to see the “sales office,” a dire looking rectangular building that, strangely, is displaying a bright red banner expressing “Warm welcome to the China Weapons Industrial Group”.

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You leave the office, dreading the long walk back through the wasteland when you find the client’s car has magically appeared!

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You head back into the city where the client is keen to show you the company’s latest development, a residential complex that he describes as the most expensive in the city.

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You arrive and try to ignore the discrepancy between the jubilant billboard and the dreary reality.

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The sales office for this project is much better equipped than the other one. A small army of salespeople buzz around a telethon-style phone bank. You’re told that the price per square meter isn’t yet fixed for this complex. They’re going to meet with a lot of prospective buyers first, and if there’s a lot of interest, they’ll raise it.

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You’re brought up to the office’s upper level where there is another, more formal meeting room. You make a PowerPoint presentation of your most relevant work.

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After a lot of confident talking and expressions of competence, you are taken to dinner at a lavish restaurant where your future entrees are presented in various states of freshness.

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By the time you get out it’s dark, and it’s difficult to remember what the city looks like.

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Everyone says hearty goodbyes and expressions of thanks and then it’s back to the soothing environment of the airport and on home…

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