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Beijing At Warp Speed

In a pair of essays, two RECORD editors look at the city’s rapid transformation, try to make sense of the current boom, and ponder its future.

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By Clifford A. Pearson

What happened to all those blue-mirrored-glass buildings that popped up everywhere in Chinese cities in the 1990s? Where are the white-bathroom-tile facades I remember so well from my first trip to Beijing in 1995? They’re probably still standing, but they no longer dominate Beijing’s cityscape the way they did just a decade ago. Today, they sit in the shadow of some of the most daring and sophisticated architecture going up anywhere in the world. You drive by them, but they don’t really register because you’re craning your neck to see OMA’s CCTV tower or catch another glimpse of the remarkable bridges connecting the upper levels of the towers at Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid housing complex. When I visited the Olympics site this April, I noticed hundreds of people standing on highway overpasses and peering through construction fences at the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube before they opened. Everyone was posing, snapping photographs, and gawking. In Beijing, architecture has become a spectator sport.

Photo © Shuhe Architectural Photography
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The city’s rapid transformation from repository of tacky architecture to avatar of avant-garde design is anything but complete. You’ll see plenty of examples of crass commercial development and even some recent manifestations of pagoda-roofed towers and cornball chinoiserie if you visit Beijing today. And the never-ending construction boom has wiped away enormous swaths of the city’s historic fabric. Michael Meyer, an American writer who has lived for several years in a tiny apartment carved out of a decaying coutyard house south of the Forbidden City, chronicles the ever-present threat to Beijing’s hutong (page 72). These narrow lanes and the bustling communities they support once gave the city its unique character, serving as essential conduits for a social structure that emphasized connections between residents and their neighbors. As the hutong disappear, giant towers and malls rise from superblocks, throwing the city’s scale out of whack and creating a metropolis devoted to the needs of the automobile, not the pedestrian.

Some of Beijing’s best young architects are struggling to address the hutong’s demise. Confronting intense development pressure to build big, practitioners such as Yung Ho Chang and Zhu Pei have proposed designs that recall the fine-grained patterns of the old city, even if they involve new construction. In the redevelopment of the Qianmen district south of Tiananmen Square, Chang (and several other talented architects) seem to have lost many of the design battles to powers more interested in “theming” the main avenue than in sensitively evoking traditional streetscapes. But Chang remains optimistic that the project as a whole will represent a step forward in developing a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. Last year, Zhu’s studio devised a strategy for redeveloping the Xisi Bei hutong area by preserving or “freezing” its best elements, inserting modern interpretations of traditional structures, and adapting industrial buildings added in the 1950s and ’60s to new uses. The plan envisions converting the industrial buildings—what Zhu calls “tumors”—into urban incubators where new businesses can start-up and grow. While maintaining the hutong’s pattern of narrow lanes and irregular open spaces, the scheme would enable the district to carry on its tradition of change and renewal.

Most large-scale commercial development from the past two decades has ripped large holes in the city’s urban fabric, but a few projects have pioneered a more progressive urbanism. For example, Beijing Finance Street, a 9.25-million-square-foot mixed-use complex on the west side of town, features buildings that hold the street edge and encourage pedestrian activity, parking tucked below grade, and a crescent-shaped public park at the center of the site. Planned by the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (which also designed many of the buildings), the project connects to the streets and buildings around it and is now being used by the city’s planning authorities as a model for developers wanting to work in the area.

To see another encouraging example of innovative urban development you can go to the Sanlitun district where many countries have long maintained their embassies. Called Sanlitun North and Sanlitun South, this pair of mixed-use complexes separated by just one block fits into the existing network of streets and creates a pedestrian-oriented environment with proper sidewalks and a series of courtyards and plazas. The developer hired the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to master plan one half of the project and Hong Kong–based Oval Partnership to plan the other, and brought in edgy firms such as SHoP, LOT-EK, Beijing Matsubara Architect, Sako Architects, and Kuma to design the buildings. Scheduled to open right before the Olympics, the development mixes high-end retail with offices and a boutique hotel in low- and mid-rise buildings that feature colorful facades with projecting elements such as angled bay windows and industrial materials. After the building shells were completed, though, a new developer took over the project and seemed to be making changes to some of the exteriors when I visited the project in April.

As in other cities, the best kind of development often flows from grassroots efforts by people driven by goals other than making money. In Beijing, Factory 798, an ever-changing, rapidly maturing arts district, demonstrates the power of such organic development. Pioneered by struggling artists who appropriated the impressive, north-lit spaces inside a set of derelict industrial buildings, the complex has become the red-hot center of the capital’s thriving arts scene, bringing together spaces for artists to create, exhibit, and hang out, as well as places for the public to see art, buy art, and hang out. Every time I go there, I discover new galleries, studios, bookstores, and cafés that have emerged since my last visit. This past November, the 70,000-square-foot Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte and Qingyun Ma, opened with a splashy series of parties and work from the extensive collection of Chinese art of Guy and Myriam Ullens, a wealthy Belgian couple with deep ties to (and pockets in) China. After my last visit in April, the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art opened in a 43,000-square-foot space fronted by an undulating brick wall. Once a locus for renegade artists, Factory 798 has developed into something more commercial, more global, more established. Some of the artists who put the place on the map, such as Ai Weiwei, now say it has lost its edge and have moved out. But there’s no question that Factory 798 offers Beijing a model for growth radically different from the top-down pattern of government-and-corporate mega-construction.

In Beijing’s relentless drive to prepare for the Olympics, it has expanded its subway and light-rail systems, added the world’s largest terminal to its airport, and created a site for the Games that will be a new public park after the last athletes leave. Although not officially part of the Olympic effort, projects like CCTV, the National Center for the Performing Arts, and hundreds of commercial high-rises have moved forward in its wake. At the end of August, though, the city will face a question already on everyone’s mind: Now what? Olympic cities such as Atlanta in 1996 and Los Angeles in 1984 did little to expand or improve their essential urban infrastructures and saw few long-term dividends as a result. Barcelona, on the other hand, used the 1992 Olympics to build parks all over town, rejuvenate its waterfront, erect much-needed housing, and establish a new image as a global hub for innovation. During its current boom, Beijing has dealt with earlier mistakes and blue-mirrored-glass eyesores by simply obscuring them with layer after layer of increasingly expensive construction. But now the city faces monumental problems of pollution, population growth, and a widening gap between rich and poor. How it handles these challenges will determine whether it becomes a world-class city where talented people want to live and work or just a really big city constantly wrestling with really big problems.

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