“It's always said that the solution to environmental problems starts at the grass roots level,” says Chinese billionaire Zhang Yue, sitting in his office in Changsha, central China, in a building modelled on the Palace of Versailles. Out of the window extends a long ceremonial avenue, lined with ornamental box hedges and cypress trees, terminating in a replica of the Great Pyramid at Giza.
“I think that's a mistake. Rich people recognise environmental problems first. How can you wake up if your living standard is very poor? Only the richest of the rich, the smartest of the smart, the greatest of the great, wake up first.”
Zhang would know about such things. He was the first man in China to own a private jet, having made his millions selling air conditioning units, but at the age of 54 has now renounced his material possessions in favour of saving the planet. And his answer? Building the tallest building in the world in the fastest possible time: Sky City, a vertical metropolis of homes and hotels, schools and hospitals – along with indoor farms capable of feeding 20,000. To be finished by the end of this year, he hopes.
His crusade is brought to life in vivid detail in a new documentary by Finnish film-maker Anna-Karin Grönroos, showing at the ICA next week, which pitches his sky-high ambitions against an eco-plan of a very different kind.
Wandering the verdant Mentougou valley outside Beijing, looking like a lost Father Christmas, we meet the white-bearded Eero Paloheimo, a 77-year-old Finnish professor who has devoted the last 10 years to trying to realise his lifelong vision for a clean-tech “Eco Valley” in Europe, to no avail.
“It's all that red tape and bureaucracy that makes it so slow,” he bemoans. “But when I come here, it just takes a month to get off the ground.” Like many before him, he has tasted the dizzying pace of development of China, the can-do march of the bulldozers and cranes, and found it irresistible. What fails in Europe will surely work in China. “In crises, democracy is too slow a method,” he adds, giving the impression of a man who knows his time is running out. “And we are facing an urgent crisis.”
Drenched with pathos, the documentary follows the trials and tribulations of these two men, giving fascinating glimpses behind the scenes of the Chinese eco gold rush. There are already 200 so-called eco-city projects underway across the country, in a fast-paced scramble to house the billion people that will be living in cities within the next 15 years. And savvy businessmen like Zhang know that's where the money – and the all-important state approval – is going to come from.
We follow the bumbling Paloheimo as he attempts to win approval for his grand plan, attending conferences and trade shows and grappling with the Chinese way of doing business, like someone trying to use chopsticks for the first time. He presents fly-through animations of sparling white blobs emerging from the hillsides like futuristic fungal growths, a wealth-bringing zero-carbon Silicon Valley about which the local villagers couldn't be more excited.
Zhang, meanwhile, battles with the inevitable suspicion with which the international press receives a plan for the tallest, most environmentally-friendly building, built in less than a year, by an air-con tycoon who has never erected anything more than 30 storeys.
“There are rumours on the internet calling Sky City a bluff,” he tells a colleague in a heated meeting, as they plot a lavish launch party to win the support of politicians and suppliers. “People don't trust us anymore. Therefore we need to convince them with a ceremony.”
The saga ends just as the Sky City project begins on site, with a lavish ground-breaking party that has all the pomp and ceremony of a project that is doomed to remain a rendering. Sure enough, just a few weeks later, construction was suspended when the authorities declared it lacked the proper permits – not to mention the concerns over elevator design and fireproofing, wind-loading and ground subsidence. Paloheimo, meanwhile, is confronted by a shock-dose of reality that could be seen a long time coming. Like finding the mythical end of the rainbow, it seems that those chasing the Chinese eco dream are all too often left to discover it is nothing but a flimsy mirage.
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