Whenever you see Western media reports about wacky Chinese buildings, chances are they’re in Hebei Province. How did this one part of China become the home of bizarre architecture?
China has an unenviable reputation for pushing the limits in architecture.
There are eyebrow-raising structures like the Guangzhou Circle, a circular building with a 157-foot hole in the middle. There are critically-acclaimed marvels like the Beijing Daxing Airport terminal, designed by superstar architect Zaha Hadid.
And then there are buildings that are just downright bizarre, like this 10-story hotel shaped like the Chinese gods of prosperity, happiness, and longevity.
Or this amalgamation of the U.S. Capitol and Temple of Heaven in Beijing. (It is reportedly meant to be used as a cost-effective film set.)
For the past decade, a Chinese architecture website has been compiling a list of these “ugly” buildings.
Every year, Changyanwang invites the public to vote for China’s 10 ugliest buildings in a competition it calls the Archcy.
The goal of the Archcy, according to its website, is to “encourage people to think about the beauty and ugliness of architecture.”
Submissions come from across China, but one province in particular has been well-represented in the past 10 years: Hebei.
“Natural scenery, cultural attractions, interesting places—Hebei has none.”
Located in northern China just outside Beijing, Hebei is often called the “forgotten province” because of its decisive blandness.
Unlike the sprawling metropolises of Shanghai and Beijing or the lush, forested provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, Hebei has few distinctions that set it apart.
That reputation might have led to Hebei’s boom in odd architecture.
“Natural scenery, cultural attractions, interesting places—Hebei has none,” says Schlieffen, a Chinese vlogger who has been chronicling Hebei’s unique architecture. “”
To draw travelers, the provincial government launched a tourism campaign in 2010. What followed was a construction boom that included unusual buildings meant to attract tourists to remote parts of the province.
The city of Baoding built a museum shaped like a giant turtle. In Handan, locals erected a 65-foot cabbage monument. The resort town of Qinhuangdao inaugurated a spa and relaxation center shaped like a man raising his right hand.
“Hebei is close to Beijing, so the price of land rises very fast,” says Schlieffen. “As a result, not much is used for agriculture but for tourism. They might build a strange monument and then make money selling entry tickets. That is more profitable.”
Hebei is not the only province that has tried to drum up tourism by building unusual structures.
A city in Hubei Province built a crayfish-shaped eco-center in honor of its most famous export. A remote mountain village in Zhejiang Province received a see-through library on stilts as part of a rural revitalization project.
But there is still something endearing about Hebei’s particular brand of unpretentious tackiness.
“They are not like people from big cities, where people have their own opinions and want to be different,” says Schlieffen. “Hebei people are more conservative and traditional, and this influences their value system where they appreciate things that are unpretentious.”