Monday, July 7, 2008

Beijing: A Snaphsot of the City

Model View of CBD from Beijing's Planning Museum

This is an article I recently wrote for a forthcoming publication by the Croatian Architects Association. The piece is on, well, you guessed it, Beijing. I wanted to try and give a broader perspective on what is happening in Beijing at the moment rather than just focus on the Olympics and Beijing's exciting new architecture. Don't worry though, they are also included.

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

Enter Beijing, stage left; rapidly, aggressively, approach center stage; wait for applause…

I arrived in Beijing eight months ago and ever since I have existed in that perpetual state of excitement, anticipation and anxiety that the cast of a play experiences in the final weeks leading up to opening night. I came just in time to witness, no, wait, participate in, the dress rehearsal—in the process I have been exposed to a behind the scenes look at this grand city as it places the finishing touches on the set, makes final adjustments to the costumes and last-minute changes in the leading characters—all leading up to opening day. The entire world is focused on Beijing at this very moment, watching it’s every move, looking for signs of weakness, impatiently waiting for August 8, 2008, the day the Olympics begin. Triumphant entry into the global arena or dismal embarrassment—what will be its destiny? While I hold no crystal ball and can not predict its fate, I would like to take this opportunity to share a snapshot of Beijing in its present state: poised and ready to take the center stage.

First Impressions

When I first arrived in Beijing I was initially struck by the extreme disparity one feels in the city’s intense differences of scale—particularly between the small scale nature of the hutong, the traditional residential lanes in Beijing and the large scale super block style developments rapidly endangering them. Driving along one of Beijing’s six elevated ring roads—one of the primary defining features of Beijing’s metropolitan morphology—is a surreal experience which cannot be described without evoking images from the film Blade Runner. Indeed much of the city seems to emerge out of the pages of a science fiction novel—futuristic and vaguely anthropomorphic building forms materialize from the eternal haze that saturates the city’s atmosphere while traveling 10m off the ground. Coupled with the knowledge that Beijing’s administration has been experimenting with various strategies of cloud seeding and cloud busting to both clean the highly polluted air and control the weather for the opening ceremonies and you begin to feel like you are living in one of Philip K. Dick’s dystopian futures.

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 Beijing used to be like when the largest architectural gestures were the imperial structures of the Forbidden City and the religious structures of the Temple of Heaven. The hutong, which literally means “water well,” is a tightly knit urban ensemble of courtyard homes and alleyways—the courtyards originally centered on wells connecting to the underground aquifers where Beijing’s settlement was laid out. Hutongs have been likened to modular units that metabolically organize the city from the ground up, providing nested scales of inhabitation and a subtle transitional gradient from private to public. At this very moment the hutongs are suffering a double threat—first, from the aforementioned large-scale development taking place around the city and secondly from a Disney-fication process intended to dress them up for the Olympic Games and the onslaught of tourism. The high-rise development mostly occurs between the second and fourth ring roads creating a donut of high rise structures around the historic core.

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 Beijing was the focus of Rem Koolhaas’ most recent “Project on the City” seminar which took place this past year at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Hopefully Beijing will learn from European examples such as the Ciutat Vella district in Barcelona, which was renovated to allow it to exist as a live-able part of the city through a series of acupunctural interventions.

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 China are shying away from the development of a signature style in favor of a practice that is focused on the development of intelligent and flexible strategies of design. I would argue that what we are seeing in the best offices operating in this Asian context is an ability to engage the developer driven logics in a thoughtful and creative way to invent forms that resolve these complex issues while simultaneously transcending them.

Jian Wah SOHO by Yamamoto

These three qualities—scale, speed, and landscape—have a profound effet of our perception of Beijing. The city is in a constant state of flux—it literally transforms itself right before your eyes. The first two characteristics are symptomatic of China’s transition to a late-capitalst economic model and it’s ever increasing global ambitions. They have resulted in two distinct architectural and urban strategies. The first is the aforementioned tower clusters which efficiently deal with economies of scale through the mass repetition of the same building design. This strategy dominates the Beijing cityscape resulting in a ceaseless banality. There are some examples, such as Yamamoto and Field Shop’s Jianwah SOHO complex, which demonstrates the potentiality of the strategy at producing urban places of high quality.

The second strategy is one we are all familiar with due to its predominance in recent architectural discourse—the Icon.

The Icons

Among Beijing’s many ambitions for the Olympic Games using architecture to create significant landmarks in the city ranks as one of the highest. This ambition has also spread like an infectious disease to various institutions and individuals not directly associated with the Olympics, generating an atmosphere in which a considerably high number of significant iconic structures have been produced. Many of the usual suspects are involved, Holl, Foster, Alsop, Herzog and de Meuron, and Rem Koolhaas/OMA, for example; some unusual suspects (at least at this level of play), such as Paul Andreu and PTW Architects; and some new suspects, such as GRAFT and MAD.

The ambition of the Olympics venues themselves is demonstrated by their significant location in Beijing’s urban composition. Six hundred years ago when Beijing was rebuilt by the Ming Dynasty it was laid out on a symmetrical north-south axis with its most symbolic structures constructed along this axis. Throughout Beijing’s history each successive ruling power has left its mark along this route, including the Forbidden City, originally constructed by the Ming Dynasty, the Temple of Heaven, the Drum and Bell Towers, Mao’s Zedong’s mausoleum, and Tian’anmen Square. The sprawling 2800 acre Olympic Green was situated directly ten miles north of Tian’anmen Square where it now stands as a testament to China’s rising position as an economic power in the global arena. Straddling the axis are the Olympics two most prominent structures: the Chinese National Stadium, designed by Herzog and de Meuron in collaboration with Ai Wei Wei, sits on the eastern side of the axis while Aquatics Center, designed by PTW Architects, sits directly opposite it on the western side of the axis. These two structures, along with the nearby CCTV and TVCC towers designed by OMA represent probably the three most highly anticipated works of architecture of the last few years. Taken together, it would appear as if a “non-standard” convention had conferred upon Beijing.

National Stadium, aka Bird's Nest, by Herzog de Meuron

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.

National Aquatics Center, aka Water Cube, by PTW Architects

The Aquatics Center was designed with a more cubic and pure global form. Because of this minimalist formal approach it appears that all of the architectural energy was focused entirely on the design of its geometrically complex outer skin. Inspiration for the façade came from soap bubbles and I cannot help but be reminded of Charles and Ray Eames’ film “Blacktop: The Story of Washing a Schoolyard” every time I see the building. It is quite successful at achieving the same feeling of water bubbles slipping across a slick surface. The irregular pattern was developed by slicing through a Kelvin Structure, a three-dimension honey comb structure comprised of polyhedrons made up of hexagonal and octagonal faces, developed by the British mathematician Lord Kelvin. Although it appears completely random the pattern is actually not entirely non-standard—a patch of cells is created that is repeated across the surface of the building. One nice feature of the façade is that not all of its secrets are exposed from the first glance. From the exterior, the inflated ETFE pillows give the surface a feeling of depth and layering while achieving a certain tautness at the same time. Once inside, however, the full complexity of the three-dimensional space frame structure—comprised of the irregular polyhedrons of the Kelvin Structure—is revealed. Again, as in the Bird’s Nest, the most interesting space turns out to be the circulation space between the swimming arena and the exterior skin, where the highly complex skin is juxtaposed against the smooth white surfaces of the interior, the vastness of which is given measure by the steady rhythm o f the diagonal structural members of the seating.

Bird's Nest and Watercube in advertising, demonstrating how the Olympic venues
have made their way into China's collective consciousness.

The Aquatics Center’s stark rectilinear design was designed as a counter point to the Bird’s Nest’s sensuous curvilinear form. The contrast between the pair creates a symbolism that resonates with the ancient Chinese Proverb tian yuan di fang, which literally means “the sky is round and the earth is square.” While this reference might seem superficial, and in fact it is merely a branding concept for the two buildings, this cultural reference has been fundamental in gaining the support of the Chinese population despite the fact that the designers of the two most important contemporary buildings in China are western architects. Now, however, the Chinese community not only condones the structures but actually identifies with them because of this and other important cultural references. For me this has to do with the fact that each building maintains its individual integrity but simultaneously offers itself to multivalent readings.

National Theatre, Paul Andreu

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 Beijing. Beijing desperately needs to invest more in sustainable architecture to help cure it’s serverely low air quality, although electric cars would probably help even more.

CCTV is Koolhaas’ treatise on bigness in physical form. It is a stunning structure which massively dominates the skyline of Beijing, particularly in the fledgling CBD area in the eastern part of Beijing. It has been particularly amazing to watch this hulking ungainly mass come to a certain level of completeness during the last eight months. TVCC, CCTV’s often over-shadowed little brother, is also a surprising structure. Whereas CCTV is about tautness and self similarity (at least in external appearance), TVCC is all about texture and collage—from the pixilated façade of the hotel rooms in the tower down to the interpenetrated voluminous base—seamlessly integrated through a highly figured wrapper. In Koolhaas’ essay on Atlanta he describes John Portman as the architect who revived the atrium from the tomb of dead architectural typologies. Having experienced TVCC’s vertigo inducing interior atrium under construction, I can vouch that Koolhaas and co. have done it once again. The floor plates ebb, flow, and graciously distort when necessary to receive the free standing structure of the earth quake bracing, which for its part enjoys the role of spatial protagonist. TVCC will also feature an über-flexible theatre at ground level that due to its mobile floor and double aspect will be able to transition from a high tech theatre and television recording studio to completely open public thoroughfare when not in use, and all sorts of interesting configurations in between.

With all of the construction of iconic structures it could be easy to say that Beijing has become an architectural playground, subject to the whims of western architects who are taking advantage of a political, social, and economic context that allows them to construct every figment of their imagination. This cynical attitude would both belittle the aspirations of the architects and urban designers working here and the intentions of the individuals and organizations who patron such work. In Beijing there is the desire to become part of an international design community on the one hand and to empower the creativity of its home-grown talents on the other. Bert de Muynck makes the oft-used comparison between China and Dubai but underscores the contrast between the two when he says that “Today when you look at China everything has to be international…because it [has] an ambition to be a part of this world and absorb and ‘become’. China is not becoming a playground for architecture, which was the original critique of CCTV and the Bird’s nest, but it is open for international [relationships] and we want to be a part of that, which is not happening in Dubai. In Dubai they do not want to present an international community but they want to be the exception.”

The Rise of China’s Creative Class

This desire to create a design community is part of a national objective for China to become a ‘creative superpower’ through the development of its creative industries—art, film, architecture, media, even innovative business. Even this puts it into a league of other nations and communities that are espousing the virtues of the “creative class”, to borrow a term from Richard Florida, and constructing a creative infrastructure as a means to engender economic and urban development. Again, what initially sets China’s initiative apart from others is the sheer scale of the operation. In the US this strategy is usually implemented at a local level—typically at the scale of a city but sometimes at state level politics, such as Michigan’s creative class initiatives. The Netherlands also has creative industry initiatives, but there again you have a nation about the size of a typical US state. China’s operations have been institutionalized at the scale of the most populous nation on earth.

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 Beijing six such districts have been designated. The most successful of these districts is the Dashanzi Art District, perhaps because it existed as an organically grown art district prior to the zoning. Dashanzi, commonly known as ‘798,’is situated on the outer limits of Beijing in a series of factory buildings designed by East German architects in the 1950s for the Chinese military. In the early 2000’s this area emerged as the epicenter of Beijing’s avant-garde art scene. Much like New York’s Soho district, what began as a few artists taking over large inexpensive spaces has developed into a full blown cultural complex featuring large number of galleries, performance spaces, fashion boutiques, cafes, bookshops, and artist residences.

798 Art Disctrict, aka Dashanzi

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 Soho. This has lead many people to exclaim that Dashanzi has lost its creative edge and sold its soul through the commoditization of its art. Now, honestly, I still think that Dashanzi is an interesting place to hang out, even though it now features a commercial Nike Gallery and is beginning to open international galleries design well-known institutional architects like Richard Gluckman. In fact the current mix of international commercial galleries and locally grown talent makes the district even more rich and ripe for cultural exchange than it had been previously. The problem is essentially the same as gentrification everywhere—the rise in real estate prices forces the smaller scale galleries and artists somewhere else, which will eventually kill the diversity of the area. Additionally, the zoning provides incentives for the large scale development of high tech office parks that would kill the informal character of Dashanzi and other such districts within the city.

Recently another art district has started in close proximity to Dashanzi but somewhat farther out of Beijing. Known as Caochangdi, it features a small number of galleries and artist residences designed by artist-cum-architect Ai Wei Wei sporadically nestled in an existing ad-hoc residential neighborhood (read: slum). One in particular, the Urs-Meille Gallery, is a masterful complex of galleries and artist studios surrounding an irregularly shaped courtyard. Constructed entirely out of grey brick the courtyard is a serene and contemplative space and offers a greatly needed contrast to its context.

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 Berlin, if not the Weissenhof Seidlung and is being seen as a potential generation defining moment. Actually, it is the generation in search of a definition one might say. Nevertheless it is an opportunity for a new generation of architects to place themselves on the map, so to speak.

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 Ordos 100 project is that the housing development is located within the Creative Industry zone of the larger master plan of the area. This suggests two things: first, a zone focused on innovation requires an exceptional environment, perhaps to serve as an architectural muse for creativity; and second, an expanded notion of the creative fields which includes wealthy businessman.

Today Art Museum, by Atelier FCJZ, and Pingod residential community

The second project that demonstrates the strategic link between real estate and the arts is the Pingod Community in Beijing located just south of the CBD. Pingod’s development strategy features a combination of residential and cultural activities constructed in a former industrial area. Most of the industrial facilities were abandoned except for one structure that houses a contemporary art museum designed by Atelier FCJZ, a Beijing design firm whose principal is the director of MIT’s architecture school. The museum is the focus of the development and will soon be joined by a series of galleries and restaurants currently under construction. The design of the museum is fascinating—the banal industrial box is transformed through the introduction of perspective distorting projections that create new spatial relationships between the former factory and its context. The development is exciting because it demonstrates the confluence of culture and commerce which I find so fascinating about Beijing and it shows an alternative future for creative districts. In Pingod, a symbiotic relationship is made between middle income housing and affordable artist lofts and studios—one subsidizes the other while the other attracts the one in a kind of cyclical feedback loop.

To conclude, this is an exciting time to be in Beijing. As I hope I have demonstrated, there is substance here that extends beyond the Olympics arriving in August. In August, Beijing will attempt to present a holistic image of wealth, power, and innovation to the rest of the world. The truth is actually much more invigorating—Beijing is in a state of transition, and as such it is an environment of friction, sublime beauty, and inspiration. It can be compared to Europe or the United States at the beginning of the Twentieth Century when the dawn of the metropolitan age provided much intellectual and artistic stimulation and some of the most drastic changes of thought in science and the arts in history. If the frenetic energy of the current period in Beijing and the rest of China can be properly harnessed it may also prove to be one of the most fertile periods of creative thought in history. For now, though, the world patiently waits…

1 comment:

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