March 1, 2008
A unique set of circumstances has combined to create the most insane building boom in the history of man.
This whole China thing we’ve been hearing so much about? The pace, scope, and scale of building? The contrasts and ironies? Mind-blowing. But it took me a few days in Beijing last fall to really get it. And it wasn’t seeing the construction sites of the Olympic city or the leaning towers of OMA’s CCTV headquarters that brought the obvious point home—though the huge Olympics venues are lined up for dusty miles on a cleared and leveled plain, and I understood abstractly that Rem’s seat of power for the state propaganda machine was one of the largest office complexes in the world. Not even Norman Foster’s soon-to-be-completed megaterminal at Beijing’s airport convinced me, though it is by far the most enormous building I have ever seen with my own eyes. Actually, at first I thought just one wing of it, framed in the airplane window on arrival, was the most enormous building I’d ever seen. Then the plane turned, and I saw the other 80 percent.
You know how, standing on the edge of it, the Grand Canyon is somehow too big to seem big? How the nature of the Southwestern landscape can be better understood through some lesser rift like Canyon de Chelle? On the second or third day in Beijing, I visited a little gallery in the 798 Art District, a precinct of old munitions factories and warehouses that has become one of the centers of the city’s thriving art market. There was nothing particularly special about it: an open hall with poured-in-place concrete walls, two stories high and maybe 50 feet wide by 100 feet long, just enough architecture in the form of slot windows and cowls near the entrance to signal that creativity might be experienced within. It was carefully made—not quite poured to the Japanese standard, but the concrete work would have been notably refined for Manhattan.
The back of the new building connected to the old gallery via a sliding glass door, and workers were coming through carrying crates of flat art and misshapen bundles wrapped in brown paper—the sculptures that were going to be placed for the grand opening a few days later. It was a normal enough scene. I saw the gallerist and innocently asked, just making polite conversation, how long the new building had taken to finish. Drawings had been finalized and a contract signed with the builders in late August, she said. Work had started in mid-September. It was the first days of November, and they were installing a show. Six weeks. The same building in New York would have been under construction for at least a year.
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It took a visit to that nondescript addition for me finally to see what is possible when modern technology, capitalist zeal, Communist control, national ambition, and a bottomless unprotected labor pool combine in the service of building. You can get things done. That moment also opened up for me the profound strangeness of the city. The shoulder-to-shoulder towers on the wide ring roads that give each the scale of Las Vegas Boulevard? All brand new. The wooded margins of every highway? The elaborately greened interchanges? All fresh, and all false, every tree imported and planted to mask Beijing’s essential filthiness in advance of the coming-out party planned there this summer.
The Olympic site itself no longer seemed like a lost cause. Touring it before, I thought there was no way the buildings would be finished and the vast dust bowl paved and tricked out with its planned parks, roads, and watercourses before the games began on August 8. It certainly will be—Herzog & de Meuron’s intoxicating “Bird’s Nest” stadium is now in punch list—but such sprinting has a cost. The New York Times reported in late January that six construction workers have died on Olympic sites in the last five years; the Times of London had previously put the number at ten. A long article on the official Beijing 2008 Web site was posted in early February, likely in response to all the bad press. The protesting-too-much begins with the headline, “Workers Enjoy Good Services at Olympic Venue Sites.”
The current transformation of Beijing also includes the wholesale razing of many of the old residential quarters in the central city, the residents themselves relocated to vast new tower blocks on the urban edge—deluxe hutongs in the sky—or simply made homeless without contingency. Several of the old neighborhoods along the tourist routes near the Forbidden City have been preserved in sterilized form. But there’s little opportunity here for outsider self-righteousness; the effects of such changes are not very different than they would be in any American city: low-rent buildings replaced by expensive ones through economic churn, people displaced, quaint neighborhoods locked in amber. Though having two invisible hands—the will of an all-powerful government plus the inexorable pressure of capital—seems to streamline the process.
As it does in the United States, art is playing a role in the gentrification taking place in advance of the games. The government’s effort to equip Beijing with the fixtures of a “world-class city” was given a major boost in November by the opening of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). A museum founded and funded by Guy and Myriam Ullens, the Swiss couple known for their collection of contemporary Chinese art, it is a precociously mature cultural institution in the current mode. The UCCA has arrived on the scene fully formed, with a signature building (a Bauhaus-era factory at the heart of the 798 district, retooled by French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte), large holdings (courtesy of its founders), and an elaborate marketing program. It took MoMA decades to achieve the level of self-celebratory merchandising that the UCCA gift shop boasts at its birth. The inaugural show, ’85 New Wave, is itself a measure of changing times: it features apolitical or covertly critical work from a generation of Chinese artists, many of whom were nonetheless banned from publicly exhibiting in the past. Curators at the UCCA insisted, though it was thoroughly vetted by the government, that there had been no censorship or other interference with the content of the show.
It’s possible; artistic whim seems to fall well below the government’s threshold of concern. Indeed, the tension between the pure totalitarian past and the hybrid totalitarian present is a favorite pop subject. On a hipsterish side street near Houhai Lake, there’s a store that prints T-shirts with caricatured social-realist tableaux in which the guns and sickles have been replaced by VAIO laptops. Taking the piss out of the image of Mao is something of an industry in itself—comic watches, mouse pads, masks. At the Commune, the well-publicized resort development featuring a collection of architect-designed villas and a private stretch of the Great Wall, a monumental sculpture of the Chairman sporting overstuffed white sneakers stands proud by the main door to the spa. An official tourist-board guide joked that there were actually three walls in China: the Great Wall, the Green Wall (as the extensive dust-reducing plantings are known), and the Internet firewall. That irreverence is everywhere, and it suggests that the cultural rebirth the Olympics were meant to celebrate may ultimately be marked by more than just hasty monumental buildings. Now if the government in Beijing could just stop exploiting its citizens, persecuting Tibet, destroying its rivers and air, denying Tiananmen Square, stifling free speech, exporting poisonous products, and serially abusing human rights, this new China might really be on to something.