The world's architects are pouring into China's capital to join the 21st century's defining urban project.by Deyan Sudjic / November 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
Yung Ho Chang’s studio in Beijing looks just like any other aspiring architect’s office. The walls are white, the floor is bare concrete, and there are rows of twentysomethings sitting hunched over their computers. There are cardboard models everywhere and an avalanche of magazines in the corner. But as the California-educated Yung Ho points out, Beijing isn’t like anywhere else. Cruise round Beijing’s first ring road and you pass the chrome-trimmed glass of the Grand Hyatt hotel, its forecourt fluttering with red flags – a vision of Canary Wharf after the revolution. You pass high- rise banks topped with pagoda roofs and gold balls; and you pass rows of olive army tents, pitched along the pavements as temporary homes for construction workers. Building sites spill out of every gash in the city’s old grey walls. You drive and drive and see no end to the cranes and the clusters of new apartment buildings interspersed with fields of bricks – the remains of demolished suburbs. At street level, the most ubiquitous new building type is the marketing suite; stainless steel boxes and glass blobs, decked with balloons to tempt in customers, who are sold a concept that only reached China in 1999: the residential mortgage. People are being offered the chance to buy apartments “off plan,” in a gamble that they will double in price before the builders have finished. Yung Ho works on what are, by Beijing standards, tiny projects. He has done a house, a couple of galleries, a bookshop, some offices for a publishing company. In a city in which the basic unit of architectural scale has become the skyscraper, erected a dozen at a time, Yung Ho’s buildings are so small that they threaten to disappear from view. Yet he struggles to make architecture that offers some respite from the relentless pace of change; to maintain some of Beijing’s urban character before it vanishes. He doesn’t say so, but you feel an overwhelming sense of his powerlessness in the face of the turmoil all around him. Yung Ho knows about Chinese power. His father Zhang Kaiji, now 91, is also an architect. Among many other buildings, he was responsible for the design of the Museum of the Revolution, one of the pair of massive Sino-Stalinist landmarks that between them define two sides of Tiananmen Square. He built several of Mao’s personal villas, as well as the state guesthouse, inflating its scale at the urging of the party, eager to overawe a notably unimpressed Khruschev. The architect’s relationship with Mao did not save him from a decade spent working as a janitor during the cultural revolution. Yet today Zhang Kaiji’s work in Tiananmen is important enough to the Chinese state’s self-image to make it one of the handful of untouchable monuments in a city in which little is immune from the threat of demolition. Both father and son have confronted the essential irony of architecture. Their work has brought them into an intimate relationship with power, but they have remained powerless in the hands of those who wield it. Architecture defines a regime, but it is never the architect who frames the definition. Zhang Kaiji’s patrons wanted to construct Beijing as a city that reflected and enforced their power. His son works within a system that has embraced the market, but in which the architect is even less in command. Yung Ho’s latest project is the Today Gallery, a temporary conversion of an old industrial building, spared briefly from the carnage all around it. To reach it you must negotiate streets clogged by the traffic of a city that is already gridlocked, despite still having only around 2m cars, but in his father’s day this was the Beijing Beer Factory’s boiler house, a utilitarian brick and concrete structure from the 1960s, caught in a sweeping bend of the electrified tracks leading into the city’s central railway station. Its main space is a four-storey-high void, a diminutive version of the Tate Modern’s turbine hall. But like almost everything else in Beijing, the Today Gallery is provisional. It is slated for demolition, along with the tens of thousands of traditional courtyard houses, the power stations, factories and car plants, that are being pulled down all over the city. The Today Gallery will make way for a marketing suite for the Apple apartment complex, a wall of high-rise flats that is sprouting from the brewery’s ruins. Fuelled by an economic boom, and banks that are now so flushed with cash that they will, as the Financial Times observed recently, say yes to just about any loan application, Beijing has embarked on the largest building campaign that the world has ever seen. The second ring road, which marked the city limits until the 1980s, has been followed by the construction of a third, a fourth and a fifth ring. The sixth is now under way. These concentric circles create a disorientating city. Cars move sclerotically around disconnected clumps of newly completed towers that leave the centre as empty as Detroit’s. The city map looks like a dartboard, with the void of the forbidden city as its bull’s eye. And with the abruptness of a randomly aimed dart, entire new districts appear arbitrarily as if from nowhere. A city that until 1990 had no central business district, and little need of it, now has a cluster of glass towers that look like rejects from Omaha or Dubai. Almost by accident, the area to the east of the city centre has become the focus of random sprouting of high-rise towers. They are here because this is where the embassies were built when the communists moved the diplomatic district away from the city centre. When the opening to the outside world came, it was the obvious place for hotels to be built, and the commercial towers followed. The government tried to create a counterbalancing financial centre on the western side of the city, demolishing thousands of courtyard houses to build the Bank of China, but found that it was already too late to challenge the dominance of the east side. Beijing does have a municipal planning commission, but the rules that it attempts to apply to urban development were formulated 40 years ago by Soviet planners who wrote the density code for the city based on their experiences of East Berlin. There are big infrastructure projects directed by Beijing’s mayor – the new airport, the ring roads, the Olympic stadium – but most of the running is made by private developers. The necrophiliac grip of a long dead system is offset only by the power of connections and corruption. Twenty-storey height limits mysteriously metamorphose to produce 30-storey buildings. Land ownership is rarely clear, even though, in theory, the state retains freeholds and issues 70-year leases. No one knows what will happen when the leases expire. It is the Three Gorges dam approach to urbanism: enormous activity with equally enormous unforeseen consequences. In Beijing there is a complete lack of interest in preserving any trace of the recent past. Even the national bank finds itself without the power to discourage the newly arms-length financial sector from allowing boom to turn into bust. Asia has seen booms and busts before. Bangkok’s construction explosion was brought to a precipitous halt by a currency crisis. Jakarta was busy remodelling itself from a Dutch colonial settlement into a city of towers, until riots and supermarket burnings stopped it in its tracks. But Beijing, although not immune from a slump, is different from either. It is coming to occupy an increasingly central position in the world economy. And Beijing is giving Houston and Los Angeles a lesson in what laissez-faire planning really means. This year Beijing celebrates the 850th anniversary of its foundation as an imperial city built to guard China’s northern frontiers, and designed as a physical representation of the universe. For the first 800 years of its existence, it retained essentially the same character: the walled palace city at its centre, organised on a strict north-south axis and contained within a sea of courtyard houses with lanes too narrow for motor traffic, and rarely even the most rudimentary sanitation. Mao spent his first night in Beijing after the communist victory in 1949 in the forbidden city, in a room that his imperial predecessors would have recognised. He chose a selection of Confucian texts for his bedside reading rather than Lenin or Marx. And he declared the People’s Republic from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, looking over the newly concreted Tiananmen Square. With the help of his Soviet ally, Mao attempted to turn the city into the centre of a modern China. But the city’s imperial structure remained unchanged. Tiananmen, its vast parade ground hinting at what Hitler and Speer would have done to Berlin, was the symbol of the new order; but it was still aligned on the Forbidden City. The communist monuments built around it were larger and more imposing than those of the emperors, but the emperors still laid claim to them. Yung Ho’s father even tried, discreetly, to incorporate elements of their architectural language in his buildings. What appealed about Beijing to an authoritarian regime was that the city had no urban tradition in the western sense. The party divided Beijing into compounds – one for industry, others for the universities, the army, the hospitals and the embassies – and ensured that there was minimal communication between them. A big factory compound could house 10,000 people, offering them beds, canteens and schools, ensuring that they would spend their entire lives within the perimeter wall. A city like this presents no challenge to a ruling autocracy. There was no free, public space either in Mao’s or in imperial Beijing; no commercial area, no restaurants. After 9pm the city seemed to shut down altogether, reduced, less than a decade ago, to medieval darkness. The city no longer goes dark. It is evolving in ways which its rulers cannot fully control. Private money has allowed a group of artists to turn a bankrupt engineering factory built by the East Germans near the airport into an enclave of galleries, studios and caf?s, coexisting with the survivors of the old workforce. Such anarchic tendencies have to contend with equally strong currents pushing in the opposite direction. Immediately west of Tiananmen Square, for example, hundreds of courtyard houses have been flattened to build the national opera house, a megalomaniac glass egg designed by Paul Andreu, a French architect specialising in airports. His contribution to Beijing’s wide open prairies is to put the opera house in the middle of a lake. It is the perfect contemporary face for a regime that believes in the use of tanks as a modern instrument of crowd control. To the west of the city, it is the traditions of communism that are being swept away. The Beijing car factory, so dear to loyal party hearts, has been levelled to allow Rem Koolhaas to build the new headquarters of Central China TV – two leaning towers 70 storeys high with more than 5m square feet of space. Not far away, what was the China No 1 Engineering Enterprise, the largest factory in Asia, and the setting for vain efforts by the gang of four to rally support from the proletariat, is being wiped out by a flock of dazzling white skyscrapers. Construction started in January 2001; the 9m square feet project will be finished next year. The first residents in the 4,000 apartments are already moving in. Taking me on a tour of the construction site, one of the developers pointed out the fading slogan painted on one of the brick sheds that used to dominate the site: “Long Live the Party.” It is scheduled for demolition within the week. Now the focus of demolition is shifting toward the Olympic area, to the north of the city. Despite the Sars epidemic that briefly looked as if it could derail China’s economic boom and undermine the authority of its political leadership, the Chinese government is determined that nothing will stand in the way of the successful staging of the 2008 Olympics. China is using the games to signal that it has moved beyond its sweatshop economy. In an echo of the planning methods of the Mao era, a precise date and time was set to begin construction of the Olympic stadium, even before the architect had been selected to design it. Herzog and de Meuron – responsible for Tate Modern – will duly start work building the stadium at 10am on 24th December. Officially the site is called a park, but if you hurry you can still see what it used to be. The “park” was a busy residential area until just a year ago, with little grey-walled houses, workshops and stores. An area of two square miles has been cleared, as effectively as the fire storms caused by allied bombing raids that gave Tokyo its postwar start. You see fragments of what has gone as traders bring their donkey carts and pick over the rubble, salvaging bricks and roof timbers for selling off. The demolitions have despatched thousands of reluctant residents to distant suburbs, and the newspapers regularly report cases of despairing victims of enforced relocation setting fire to themselves. A great vacuum has been created, into which the architects of the world are rushing. What should one make of famous architects competing to build a new HQ for Central China Television?” asked Ian Buruma in the Guardian last year, referring to the Rem Koolhaas project. “Unless one takes the view that all business with China is evil, there is nothing reprehensible about building an opera house in Beijing, or indeed a hotel, a hospital, a university, or even a corporate headquarters,” he continued. “But state television is something else. CCTV is the voice of the party, the centre of state propaganda, the organ which tells a billion people what to think.” China’s capitalism is the kind that comes with an absolute prohibition of independent trade unions. It is not a society that believes in consultation, or social welfare. Nor yet has it developed a legal system that will defend its citizens against either state or private enterprise. “It’s hard to imagine a cool European architect in the 1970s building a television station for Pinochet,” Buruma concluded. Few architects come cooler than Koolhaas. He combines intellectual credibility among his peers with wallpaper designs for Miuccia Prada and pretensions to a political stance. He refused to take part in the ground zero design competition, which he described as an attempt to create a monument on a Stalinist scale. Yet Koolhaas strained every muscle to get his hands on a job which involves building Beijing’s tallest towers. Not, to give him his due, solely for the ?18m or so that he can expect to pick up in fees. For Koolhaas, and a stream of other architects now being drawn to Beijing, the attraction is the chance to be at the centre of what is clearly the defining urban project of the 21st century. Koolhaas claims that his 700ft-tall structure is “not a traditional tower, but a continuous loop of horizontal and vertical sections that establish an urban site rather than point to the sky.” To build it, Koolhaas is ready to risk everything. Building a shop for Prada or designing a Hollywood film studio, or even a hotel for Disney, still allows him to maintain a nuanced distance from his clients. Putting an art gallery in a casino, or a shop in an art gallery, can be presented by a sophist as skilled as Koolhaas as “critical.” It is a nuance that is likely to escape the old men of the central committee who will be paying ?380m for the television studios. For Koolhaas, working in China brings with it the belief that he is moving from mere theory into the making of history. He needs China, but not as much, he believes, as China needs people like him. It is an illusion shared by many architects in their dealings with power. It is one which Yung Ho’s father had ten years to reflect on, while sweeping the floor during the cultural revolution. For CCTV, building a huge skyscraper that looks like nothing else in the world is the architectural equivalent of the Chinese space programme, a none too subtle bit of symbolism. But there is also a subtler message. Switch on CCTV and instead of the clunky propaganda that you might expect, you get cool MTV-style graphics: a far more convincing package for the party line than the Great Helmsman. In the same way, a Koolhaas building is a highly visible demonstration that the Chinese state is no longer an out of touch, culturally backward dinosaur. Koolhaas has made much more headway than Albert Speer, son of Hitler’s favourite architect, who is hard at work lobbying the city authorities to take up his plan for a 24km-long north-south axis for Beijing, with the Olympic stadium at one end and a huge new railway station at the other. “What I always try to do is to find a politician who will take my plans, look at them, and say, ‘this is my idea’; then it works,” says Speer. It is a scheme that eclipses his father’s work for Adolf Hitler and his axis, for Berlin, which would have been just 5km long. But as an understanding of how the Chinese state works, it is rather less sophisticated than Koolhaas’s. There is historical bathos in Speer’s ill-founded belief in the power of architectural will alone to impose a sense of order, in the chaos of contemporary Beijing. Koolhaas, by contrast, is a connoisseur of chaos. China is the place where western architects come as hustlers and hucksters, in search of work, or to gawp on the edge of the urban abyss of monstrous, uncontrollable growth, in much the way that Engels and Morris used to visit 19th-century Manchester, looking for the same frisson, confronting the unthinkable. What nobody really understands yet is how the inscrutable set of rules that govern Beijing’s startling transformation really work, which is what makes Speer with his neo-Haussmann approach seem so quaintly irrelevant. Lining up Beijing’s museums in neat rows is not going to do much to change the lives of the city’s displaced victims of development. And still less can anyone foresee what will become of the city, with its six ring roads and its diminutive subway, when it starts to approach western levels of car ownership. With one car for every seven inhabitants, it is already difficult to move. At one to every two, it will be beyond intolerable. Then there is the looming probability of a property crash to think about. Thousands of apartments are arriving on the market every year, and will continue to do so long after the buyers dry up. Beijing is a city that is changing so fast that there is even a chance it may manage to finesse the grip of an ideology-free, but still ruthless, communist party. If it acquires the street life and public realm of an authentic city, then it could support a culture beyond the control of the regime. If that turns out to be true, then Koolhaas is off Buruma’s hook. His flirtation with the party will have produced an architectural landmark without compromising its designer. And Yung Ho might yet become an architect with an even more profound impact on his country than his father. If one is less optimistic, then Beijing’s emerging crop of cool new landmarks will one day be reduced to the same status as Shanghai’s crust of smart, jazz-age, art deco towers, overwhelmed by the People’s Liberation army in 1949 and left as a trophy in the grip of the communist takeover. In the end, it is still what a regime does, rather than how it looks, that counts.