I have to thank two people: Ivan Rupnik for inviting me to write the article, and Bert de Muynck who helped expand my knowledge of Beijing and introduced me to a few of the subjects discussed in the article.
Note: All images shown are taken by the author.
Beijng: A Snapshot of the City
I arrived in
When I first arrived in
Back on the ground again you have the opportunity to experience a vastly different scenario. Walking through the hutongs, which still comprise a large area of the central portion of the city despite rapid encroachment, gives you an impression of what
At this point however there are still plenty of vintage hutong to explore. Their labyrinthine spatial quality makes it an utter delight to wander through as you never know when you will chance upon a cozy tea house, or an entire four-generation family playing a game of mahjong. The challenge for the hutongs in the coming years will be the one of preservation—how can the hutongs be upgraded with proper infrastructure and allowed to evolve to meet contemporary living standards? This issue of preservation in
While the hutongs romantically represent the city’s traditional urban forms, the city is largely composed of three additional architectural typologies: communist-era low-rise residential slabs built in the mid twentieth century, and more recently repetitive towers clusters and gated villa communities that exist on the edge of the city. While the last two types may be seen as derivative of familiar western typologies each has gone through a mutation. Bert de Muynck, architect, writer, and director of the urban research foundation Moving Cities told me that is a mistake to view them as direct simulacra of our familiar types because of three unique characteristics of the Chinese condition that have effected a transformation of the type: the drastic increase in scale, the speed of architectural production and construction, and the cultural influence of a focus on landscape rather than building throughout china’s history. Not only do these characteristics transform architectural form and typology, de Muynck believes these have the potential to have a profound influence on architectural practice in the 21st Century. De Muynck argues that young practitioners working in
These three qualities—scale, speed, and landscape—have a profound effet of our perception of
The second strategy is one we are all familiar with due to its predominance in recent architectural discourse—the Icon.
The ambition of the Olympics venues themselves is demonstrated by their significant location in
The National Stadium, affectionately known locally as the “Bird’s Nest” is the most successful works of architecture of the Olympic venues. The geometric form of the stadium is quite stunning and difficult to comprehend in the approach because it is constantly shifting as you move around it. It gives the impression of a prowling feline about to pounce and there is something extremely dynamic in the potential energy wound up in this form.
The lattice-like stainless steel exterior dissolves the stadium’s façade into pure structure. Intended by Herzog and de Meuron to create an archaic quality, the building has the effect of a ruin—simultaneously timeless yet intimate—and the dissolution of the skin allows the exterior plaza and stadium’s interior to seamlessly blend into one another. Once inside the stadium you enter a spatially complex interstitial zone between the outer structure and the inner concrete shell with vertiginous views up and through the three-dimensional trusses and stairs that are perfectly integrated with the diagonal members of the exterior. Circumambulating the stadium in this zone is probably the most spatially intense experiences I have had in recent years. One critique I had of the stadium was that the upper seating comes too low in your sight line disrupting a potential view all the way through the stadium to the other side of the plaza.
Whereas the exterior of the structure is unpainted stainless steel that reflects the changing quality of the sky, the enclosed concrete “bowl” is painted a deep, rich red color—probably a choice based on nationalism as much on aesthetics—which transforms the stadium into a warm and glowing egg when lit at night.
Bird's Nest and Watercube in advertising, demonstrating how the Olympic venues
have made their way into China's collective consciousness.
The same cannot be said for Paul Andreu’s National Theatre, whose egg shaped form appears to have landed from outer space when compared with the strict order of the government buildings at Tian’men square which it sits next to. This building has not faired as well as the Olympic venues at garnering support from the local community. The overt imagery of the façade—designed to look like stage curtains opening up—is metaphorically shallow, and the building’s lack of engagement with the urban context makes for an awkwardly empty plaza in an area of Beijing not lacking in large open plazas. The other ‘icons’—Steven Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid’ complex and the CCTV/TVCC buildings by OMA/Rem Koolhaas are not complete so it is difficult to gauge how they will be received.
Holl’s buildings attempt to offer a new riff on the tower cluster typology by connecting the individual buildings with a continuous public sky terrace. Although I would typically be suspicious of such “street in the sky” designs it has the potential to work in the Asian context if anywhere. Asian urbanites devour public space of all kinds and there are plenty of precedents for highly successful vertically organized public and semi-public spaces. The ‘Linked Hybrid’s’ greatest contribution, however, may be not the architectural design but its sustainable ambitions, boasting the largest geothermal heating system in the world and the first of its kind in
CCTV is Koolhaas’ treatise on bigness in physical form. It is a stunning structure which massively dominates the skyline of
With all of the construction of iconic structures it could be easy to say that
The Rise of China’s Creative Class
This desire to create a design community is part of a national objective for
What does this means for architects and urbanists? The creative industries initiatives first affect us at an economic and urban policy level through the formation of “Creative Industry Districts” within the city in order to incubate creative companies. In
Unfortunately the designation of official ‘creative industry zone’ might inadvertently be the kiss of death for organically grown arts districts such as Dashanzi. Not necessarily because it has become an official creative industry zone, but because it has recently suffered the same commercial exploitation that ended up being the downfall of
Recently another art district has started in close proximity to Dashanzi but somewhat farther out of
The Caochangdi-Dashanzi story is representative of a fundamental flaw in the concept of “creative industry districts.” Art districts need to grow organically and rely on the availability of spaces conducive to creating art at reasonable prices as much as on government involvement. This is not a critique of the entire notion of the creative industries initiative, just to serve as a reminder that new dogs sometimes require new tricks—new cultural and economic concepts will not always adhere to tried and true methods of urban planning policy.
One interesting outcome that might provide an unexpected solution is the emergence of a developer driven art scene. As strange as it may sound, two recent development ventures represent a promising fusion of real estate and the arts which operates at a broad range of social and economic scales. The first is a project called “Ordos 100” which is actually not taking place in Beijing but in the nearby city of Ordos located in the Inner Mongolian desert, and represents the potential of high end architectural patronage.
Ordos 100 is a development by Cai Jiang in which 100 young, international (not necessarily in that order) architects are commissioned to design a 1000 square meter villa in 100 days. The architects, chosen by Ai Wei Wei together with Herzog and de Meuron, represent some of the hottest under-40 designers from around the world. This is quite an interesting proposition for a couple of reasons. First, is that for many of these architects this will be their first major commission and there are practically no limitations: no nagging client, no budget cap, and no pesky context, only pure, unadulterated tabula rasa. This is fodder for pure architectural manifesto. Second, Ordos 100 is probably the most well organized consortium of international architects since the IBC in
Ordos 100 again demonstrates the desire on the part of leadership here to encourage an international discourse, to learn from the rest of the world, and to exhibit a culture of artistic benefaction. One of the interesting things about the
The second project that demonstrates the strategic link between real estate and the arts is the Pingod Community in
To conclude, this is an exciting time to be in