In China, is bigger really better?
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In China, is bigger really better?

Mammoth building projects yield mixed results

As it happens ever more often, the latest “world’s biggest something” happens to be in China. The New Century Global Centre, a 500 meters long, 400 meters wide and 100 meters high building in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, is now the largest freestanding building on the face of the globe. Its staggering 1.7 million square meters of floor space make it about three times the size of the Pentagon in Washington.

The complex opened its doors on June 28, and according to a 2012 Agence France-Presse (AFP) article, it will “house offices, conference rooms, a university complex, two commercial centres, two five star hotels, an IMAX cinema, a “Mediterranean village”, a skating rink and a pirate ship, among other attractions.” The agency also noted that “the complex has a marine theme, with fountains, a huge water park and an artificial beach, accented by the undulating roof, meant to resemble a wave.”

Despite its superlative dimensions, the New Century Global Center is not all that tall. But if you broaden your view to other Chinese cities, the desire for height can easily be satisfied. The People’s Republic is already home to five of the 15 tallest buildings in the world and may come top of the list by the end of this year if Sky City, in Changsha, Hunan Province, will take shape. The tower will touch 838 meters, 10 meters taller than the current record holder, the Burj Khalifa. In fact, it will be more than just a building: it is reported to be a vertical town housing 30,000 people built with various innovative technologies.

Broad Sustainable Building, which is in charge of the project, had announced last year it would take only 90 days to complete the work, but was stopped by authorities for safety concerns. The plan received the green light in June, and should be completed in seven months. Still an amazingly short time, but not that unusual for BSB, which a couple of year ago finished a 30-storeys building in 15 days. They literally put it together by producing the pieces in a separate location and assembling them on the spot.

If big is surely impressive, is it also the right way to go? For a country of almost 1.5 billion people it may seem a necessity, but architect Wang Shu begs to differ. In an interview with the Guardian, Mr Wang said he does not think the model on which China operates is good: “usually they just copy some model from Japan or Hong Kong or Singapore or United States. They destroy very large pieces of cities and replace them with closed districts with walls and policemen. It bears no relation to real Chinese life. Maybe we should find the real reality.”

Sometimes, too big is not so good from an economic point of view either. In recent years, some Chinese developers have been building large blocks and even cities which are yet to be populated and may turn out to be big losses for investors. Among them, the giant South China Mall of Dongguan, in Guangdong Province, stands out as an example of what can go wrong with oversized, expensive projects.

(READ MORE: Analysis: China walks tightrope as it tackles runaway property prices)

The mall boasts a building area of 890,000 square meters with 8,000 parking spaces and cost RMB 2.5 billion (US$407.5 million). According to its developers’ website, “it has been actively responded by a large number of international traders and all walks of life. Some of world top 500 enterprises including German OBI, British Teletubbies, Canadian IMAX, Shenzhen Causeway Bay Department Store and OMOMO, have become its allies.” Recent media reports, however, tell a different story. As of 2013, CNN claimed that the place is pretty much empty and is beginning to show the scars of time: guilty of being too far away from the city center and lacking a consumer base, the mall has joined the ghost towns’ club.

Yet, judging from their advertisement, developers seemed to be totally unaware of potential threats to the future of their creation. So much so that one of the most hubristic lines of their statement looks now as an omen to others: “South China Mall will be the most beautiful commercial scenery in China, and will become a fashionable symbol of the new century, new consumption and new life on the basis of its unique consumption culture.”