June 28: Shame

2016/06/28 § 2 Comments

On this day in 2008 the Beijing National Stadium (“Bird’s Nest”) opened.

Like its neighbor, the Water Cube, the Bird’s Nest was completed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a great big attention-grabbing spectacle.  The two together are admittedly formally intriguing: the first is a prism made up of squishy-looking plastic pillows; the other a soft ovoid  built of hard, straight steel.  (Although, the “together” part of that statement is academic–or something caught in exceptional photography–since they inhabit a plaza that is a zillion miles across, something straight out of Le Corbusier’s dreams, and especially in winter, it is a long cold windy walk between the two.)  They were both designed by impressive international groups, the Nest by the Swiss Herzog & de Meuron Architekten with creative contributions by the noisy Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

The big games, of course, were hosted by Beijing to announce its arrival as major player in the global marketplace.  The amazing show left much of the West quaking.  But the flash has proven to be just that; while China’s economy may still be a serious contender, the portrayal of Beijing, by some estimations, has proven to be more sizzle than steak, as the saying goes.  The city was massively overbuilt, leaving whole office buildings empty.  This has not put an end to the work of some developers, nor squelched the delight of giddy European-based architects’ who applaud the “audacity” that appears to be favored more so in China than elsewhere.  The stadiums also have not been able to attract the expected tenants.  Although the Water Cube has had some success in being reconfigured for some kind of water and light show,the Bird’s Nest has proven harder to book with actual events. Even so, and in spite of the hefty annual cost of about $9 million for basic maintenance, it is profitable as a tourist destination, earning up to a quarter-million dollars per day from sight-seekers.

While the future of the buildings are less than certain, their legacies are more so: the construction of these spectacle buildings came at the expense of thousands of acres of historic hutong neighborhoods that were demolished, displacing over one million Beijingers .  When old buildings become uninhabitable, unsafe, and obsolete, it’s time for them to go.   But the destruction of Beijing targeted entire neighborhoods that had been functional, vibrant residences for centuries.  The real benefit of the new buildings is hard to tack down, given the challenges (or simple impossibility), of getting real numbers out of the Chinese government.  We know the names of fancy Western architects who get juicy jobs there, but rarely if the projects ever come to completion or if they are ever rented–not to mention rarely a whiff of the civil rights violations that are committed in the name of all the whiz-bang architecture (more of that, in a hotter part of the world, here).  Meanwhile, the vast demolition is hidden from visitors.  Tourists on their set course through the city will still get their taste of oldey-timey, wise and ancient China at specific locations that have been determined worthy of celebration: the Forbidden City is protected, the Temple of Heaven isn’t going anywhere.  But a city neither maintains its identity nor remain a global cultural gem when its personality and heritage–monumental or vernacular–is wiped clean to make way for futuristic visions designed by architects from some other place, while a few select monuments are mothballed as a pristine museum experience trapped in the dusty past.

There is nothing to be done about the stranglehold that the Chinese government has on its building stock nor its wanton destruction of its building culture.  What might be addressed is the apparent glee with which the architectural community in the West takes part in this cultural devastation, which is despicable.

Image: the stadium under construction (from this site)

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