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China's Top Architect Has a Plan to Make Beijing More Livable

This weekend the New York Times ran a fascinating profile of Wu Liangyong, the most powerful architect and urban planner in China. After a career spanning some seven decades, Wu is now "widely seen as a counterweight to the Communist Party officials who wield almost unchecked power at the local level to redesign cities," the NYT writes. The 92-year-old architect is currently speaking out against what he sees as long-running infrastructure mistakes copied from abroad, like wide streets and enormous buildings (he also passionately despises many of the structures built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with particular ire reserved for Rem Koolhaas' HQ for China Central Television, which he calls "a tragedy"). For a quarter century, Wu has been pushing to link Beijing with cities in the surrounding provinces, and recently published a master plan for the Chinese capital, which was endorsed by President Xi Jinping.

Wu's professional life has often been tumultuous. In the 1940s, he was was one of the last Chinese architects to study abroad—he attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan—before the Communist takeover in 1949. He founded the Tsinghua University's architecture school alongside his mentor Liang Sicheng, an esteemed architect and urban planner who was later "hounded to death in 1972 during the Cultural Revolution," the Times writes.

Wu was luckier: he went on to work on the enlargement of Tiananmen Square, Beijing's new library, and the Ju'er Hutong redevelopment project in the capital. He is now so influential that the NYT had a hard time finding people to talk to about him, since the architect is viewed as someone with the ability to "promote and derail careers or major projects because of his political connections."

Although he has endorsed several controversial government projects in recent years, Wu, who is known as a traditionalist, has also publicly criticized schemes that he feels aren't suitable for a rapidly industrializing nation with a population of more than one billion. He believes cities and buildings should be designed "according to human scale" and that "old cities have to be respected more."

He also has strong feelings about Beijing's appalling smog problem, which reached its worst levels in two years last month. "Our environment is unfit for daily life, and the responsibility is very heavy on our shoulders," Wu told the Times. "The problem will be solved sooner or later; it's just a question of the price we will pay."

· China's Fog Weighs Heavily on Shoulders of Its Premier Architect [New York Times]
· All China coverage [Curbed National]