From the Taj Mahal to the Great Wall, the Asian landscape is littered with monuments to imperial ambition and engineering. In recent decades, cities from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei have competed to construct the world's tallest building. But just when it seemed that Asia's "edifice complex" was reaching near-pathological proportions, it peaked. In the past year new leaders have been pulling their nations out of the race to build the biggest, longest and most expensive of everything.
Moderation is now in vogue. When Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi took office a year ago, he postponed a $3.8 billion railway-building plan that was going to be one of Asia's biggest infrastructure projects. In India, newly elected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently called for rethinking a vast river-linking scheme promoted by his predecessor. And Beijing last month announced the cancellation of five out of 10 major venues for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Officials have quietly dropped a slogan predicting "the best Games ever" in favor of "the frugal Olympics."
What's happening? A more modest approach is one way to differentiate new governments from previous regimes, of course. But the downsizing also represents growing concerns about environmental protection, engineering safety and, above all, fiscal prudence. In China, where the regime is jittery about an overheating economy, one foreign architect involved in a current megaproject has seen a palpable "shift in strategy" away from "extreme designs" that were often publicity-grabbing stunts.
In Southeast Asia, megaprojects are often linked with cronyism, corruption and waste. Dialing back the most notorious ones can be good politics. In October 2003--just days before Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad retired--the contract for Malaysia's rail project was granted without competitive bidding to a well-connected local tycoon. The electrified double-track rail line was to cross the Malay Peninsula as part of a 3,500-mile trans-Asia link. But Abdullah quickly postponed the scheme after taking office.
Since then, Abdullah's administration has shelved an aluminum smelter that was to be powered by the huge Bakun Dam. Just last month Kuala Lumpur scrapped a --planned second bridge linking the high-tech island of Penang to the mainland. India's new prime minister, too, is repeating the mantra of modesty. Singh's administration has placed on hold a scheme to link 16 Himalayan rivers, including the mighty Ganges and Brahmaputra, that could have cost up to $150 billion.
And what of China's "frugal" Olympics? In May, Chinese officials were alarmed by the collapse of a terminal roof at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport. Its architect, Paul Andreu, had also designed some of China's most glitzy new projects, including the National Theater. Ten prominent Chinese scholars and architects petitioned Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to reconsider Olympic projects dedicated to "size, novelty and foreign prestige." Officials not only canceled five facilities, but scaled down the centerpiece of the entire Olympic building effort by scrapping plans for a retractable roof on the 100,000-seat stadium.
Beijing's frugality is not limited to the Games venues: thousands of lesser construction projects across the country have been axed or trimmed, including roads and factories in 5,000 "economic-development zones." One reason is that in an increasingly competitive global economy, even Chinese leaders can't afford ego projects. Another is internal politics: President Hu Jintao is seeking to distinguish himself from former strongman Jiang Zemin, shifting spending away from grandiose urban construction to rural development and fighting poverty. Chinese intellectuals talk of improving Beijing's social "software," not just its hardware.
Still, old ambitions don't just disappear. One project closely identified with Jiang is also one of the grandest: Andreu's National Theater, a futuristic, titanium-skinned ovoid. While it's received much criticism, the structure is nearly complete and will stand as a monument to the Jiang era. But if Beijing's new less-is-more philosophy sticks, it will also be the last such monument China builds for some time.