I ran into James Fallows who was in town promoting his fascinating new book, China Airborne, which looks at the future of that country's economic transformation through the lens of its ambitions to be a major player in aerospace. Can China do what it has done in general manufacturing in the realm of Boeing, Airbus, and NASA?
I mentioned to Fallows what a European official had told me in Shanghai at the close of the world expo there in 2010. After living in Shanghai for two years as commissioner of a major pavilion and seeing what they could do, he said his impression was the Chinese do everything to a 95% standard. They don't seek perfection, they just build something's that's good enough. "I wouldn't want to ride on an airliner or space shuttle they'd built," he told me.
Fallows said there's a saying about that: "Happy with crappy."
He doesn't use that phrase in his new book, but he describes the phenomenon. The growth and infrastructure spurt in China, the rapid industrialization and urbanization, is remarkable, but how lasting is it?
"It's true," he writes, "that buildings and facilities tend to age quickly in China, because of pollution and, sometimes, shortcuts in construction standards." Fallows writes that while living there he often saw aging buildings he assumed were built in the 1960s only to find they were constructed four or five years before. They'd appeared to have aged 40 years in less than a decade. Sounds like those meth addict mug shots you see online.
He cited the Rem Koolhaas CCTV tower built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which he says has "harshly weathered" and looks like its been there for years. Contrast that with the Space Needle which, at 50, is still looking fresh in skies much cleaner than they were forty years ago.
A high speed rail crash in China last year, and the Sichuan earthquake which brought down poorly constructed schools, Fallows writes, are highly publicized examples that have contributed to the image of slap-dash construction.
It's not true of everything, and much of China's infrastructure is newer than ours, he observes, very noticeable on new and lightly trafficked freeways. In America, the challenge is updating and renewing the old, as evidenced here in Seattle by the 520 and South Park bridge replacements, and the Alaskan Way Viaduct removal.
If China has been sloppy in its build-up phase, are we doing better in meeting or exceeding the standards of American engineers and builders who created so much of the infrastructure we still rely on? You see a lot of failing Seattle streets with patchwork repairs (if they're lucky). At the turn of the century, concrete was poured that has lasted a century. Compare the construction of a 1920s bungalow with the particle board of a 2001 condo. Are we building stuff nowadays that will last a century or longer?
Or are we becoming "happy with crappy?"
Recent headlines make you wonder.
We're undertaking the multi-billion-dollar replacement of the 520 bridge which has rapidly aged, in part, due to more use than was originally projected. But inspectors have already found major problems with the replacement bridge's new pontoons which are supposed to keep it floating. Cracks and not enough re-bar reinforcement seem to be the problems.
Earlier this year, a monkey wrench was thrown in the massive Columbia Crossing bridge project over the Columbia River when the Coast Guard raised objections to the bridge's height. Way late in the project we've discovered that the bridge is too low for some river navigation. Raising it will require major reworking of the project. Might be cheaper just to write a lyric about it, like in the old Erie Canal folk song: "Low bridge ev'-ry bod-y down,/Low bridge for we're com-in to a town ..."
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