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Icon 177 – The China Issue

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Icon is a monthly magazine focusing on the best, most inspiring buildings, interiors, furnishings and fittings. It also celebrates the design process and the talented designers behind the most innovative work. It can be enjoyed equally by architecture and design professionals, and the design-literate public.


Icon 177 – The China Issue

Icon 177 – The global politics of Chinese eco-cities, Ou Ning, Shanghai deco, propaganda posters and the V&A in Shenzhen.

Following an irritable European tour last year in which President Trump questioned the United States’ role in Nato and, perhaps more significantly, pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, political commentators suggested that the US was ceding its position as global leader to China. In a barometer of the priorities of our times, it was Trump’s well-documented scepticism regarding the validity of climate change science that provoked the most ire, rather than his intransigence on world security.

With the global roles reversed, we now live in a world where Chinese premier Xi Jinping feels sufficiently emboldened by the apparent vacuum that he can lecture the US on environmental issues. As we discuss in this issue, a key component of China’s soft power armature is the eco-city – the country claims to be developing nearly 300 such settlements. From this vantage point, it is hard to determine whether the eco-city bears serious scrutiny. Rapid industrialisation has, after all, contaminated large swaths of farmland. But the government clearly acknowledges that if society is to progress, then the smog-filled mega-cities associated with China’s rapacious development are not a realistic or desirable status quo. A curious by-product of modernisation is the sight of a newly emergent middle-class drifting back to the countryside in search of cleaner air, even as rural poverty continues to drive urban migration.

Indeed, the juncture at which China has arrived is prompting extensive self-scrutiny. Shenzhen, which once sported the dubious, almost legendary reputation as a hotbed of copyright violation, is reinventing itself as a centre for design and innovation. Central to this repositioning is the new Design Society, launched in partnership with the V&A. In an echo of the venerable British institution’s original remit, namely the education of the lower orders in what constitutes good taste, the V&A is lending some 250 objects from its permanent collection to a Chinese audience apparently hungry for a greater understanding of Western consumer goods. Such is the speed that China moves, how long will be it before the student usurps the master?

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