Sunday, September 19, 2004

Will Beijing avoid Athens' construction headache?

As part of Beijing’s preparations to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Chinese government went on a spree: it hired high profile “starchitects” known for their design innovations that pushed novelty rather than livability. These foreign architects won bids over established Chinese architects and went about remaking the major institutions of the city and state, like the national theater and the national television broadcasting company.

Beiing planners are rethinking these building projects. Early this year the Chinese became alarmed by the collapse of a terminal at de Gaulle airport, a project designed by Andreu, the architect who designed the national theater. The emerging complex was already seen as an eyesore, but the safety of the space and its usability became an issue. Now, Beijing wants to avoid the construction headache that Athens faced: lengthy construction time that will litter the city with cranes and high costs.

Many of these projects have been halted
. The national theater will be built on schedule, but the television tower has been halted. The Olympic stadium has come under review for safety and cost. And it appears that there is a change of heart in China concerning the value or contemporary design.

The theater's construction was too far along for major design changes, but before long the CCTV tower had fallen into a kind of political limbo, with its groundbreaking delayed for a second time. There were [rumors] that it had been canceled outright. In August the government said it was halting construction on the Olympic stadium so that it could be re-conceived at a significantly lower budget.

September has brought more of the same. ... the government was weighing a plan to scrap as many as half the new venues for the Summer Games. ... the National Museum of China announced it was giving the job of expanding its building ... to a collaborating group of architects from the China Academy of Building Research and the German firm von Gerkan, Marg & Partners. The winning team beat out two other finalists — Foster& Partners and the United States firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox — that had proposed more aggressively contemporary schemes. Architects and critics in China, who had been watching the competition closely, took the results as fresh confirmation that the government was moving further away from the architectural forefront. [emphasis mine]

"There is now a real debate going on about these big projects — whether it's appropriate to be spending so much money on them, and hiring foreign architects instead of Chinese," said Yan Huang, who led the planning and construction side of Beijing's Olympic bid. ...

"I think the really daring designs, especially public ones, will be more difficult to get built now," said Leon Yang, general manager of the Urban Planning Design and Research Company. ...

The controversy over the starchitechts and their visions for Beijing has set off broader debates in China about planning and construction. Criticism focuses on safety, but the larger debate concerns the costs of the projects and the way in which they were conceived. Chinese academics have criticized the government for hiring only the big names rather than scrutinizing their designs or considering the works of talented Chinese architects. Furthermore, there is concern that planning has been infected by too much modern design aesthetics.

"O.K., so there is a desire to reduce the budget for the Olympic Games," said Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and architect who collaborated with the Swiss architects on the stadium. "Fine — there's no shame there. Be realistic. But don't use it as an excuse to criticize Western architects. Don't say they don't understand safety or construction technology." He went on to say: "The engineer on the stadium is Arup," a leading engineering firm that works frequently with prominent European architects. "They are the best in the world at what they do. These complaints are pure nationalism." ...

Another theory is that the officials who originally chose high-profile foreign architects were more focused on their celebrity than on the experimental nature of their work. [emphasis mine] "I had people come to me," said Yung Ho Chang, a Chinese architect who studied and taught in the United States and returned to Beijing ..., "and ask: `Who are the very best architects in the United States and Europe? Who are the most famous?' When they hired these name architects, I don't think they really understood what they were getting. I don't think they understand that Rem, for example, was going to push the envelope as much as he did."

Ironically, these new buildings with their high-end Western aesthetics look odd surrounded by the hastily, poorly conceived and poorly constructed buildings:
For every Zaha Hadid tower in the works for the capital, there are hundreds of forgettably mediocre buildings already in place, displaying the sort of mirrored-glass facades and gilded decoration that went out of style in America sometime in the 1980's. Often, they're topped with a half-hearted nod to pagoda design or some other Eastern ornament — the architectural equivalent, the Beijing-based curator Huang Du noted in a recent essay, of Western men wearing Chinese hats.

A few pieces of this new architecture stand out for their aggressive awfulness. To pay tribute to those buildings, a group of young Americans in Beijing are launching a Web site,

"There's been so much interest in high-design architecture in China lately, but it almost seems like a joke because there's this endless amount of bad stuff going up," said Jeremy Wingfield ... .

You can check out these eyesores in Beijing at BadJianZhu.

[Update 9/22:] John Massengale, who has a real opinion on architecture (not just an historian's amateur opinion) discusses the same articles, pointing out the problems with the specific architects that are working in Beijing. But he also notes that the article compounds the problem of the reputation of avant-garde architects by giving unwarranted attention to their designs. His final thought:
It's all very strange. And we haven't even talked about the fact that these buildings are part and parcel of the Chinese drive to industrialism that has them on the road to become the largest consumers of gas and oil in a world of diminishing resources.


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