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
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…