The great migration of rural Chinese populations into cities – 200 million people in the past decade – has seen a building boom unprecedented in human history. The photographer Gu Guanghui lives in Ninghai county, on the flank of the Yangtze delta, 250 miles south of Shanghai. He has watched as more and more high-rise buildings have gone up each year. At one of these sites he gained permission to send a camera on a drone up above the construction; the series of photographs he took, Hymn of the Building Site, is a finalist in this year’s Sony world photography awards.
Like all aerial photography, Gu’s pictures make the world seem a more geometrical and controlled place. The satisfaction of drone photographs of 21st-century building sites is perhaps similar to the scaled-down fascination and comforts that model railways held in the age of steam power. As he notes: “Construction sites bring noise, dust and disorder, which have negative connotations, but my curiosity makes me think: can I find interesting elements in this chaos? In a place of reinforced concrete, I found all kinds of beautiful lines, colours and structures.”
We have long been used to understanding the scope of China from the air – the Great Wall remains the most dramatic human intervention on the Earth’s surface. The rapid time-lapse expansion of Chinese cities – 160 now have a population of more than 1 million people – is, when viewed from above, another unfathomable piece of land art. The perspective also lends an artificial neutrality to the politics and labour of that endless construction. “The whole environment has been completely and permanently changed by these high-rise buildings,” Gu says, “but it is difficult to draw an accurate conclusion about this change, whether it is good or bad.”