Architecture in Beijing

06:31 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

It is usually the case that people visit Beijing for its history. I wanted to see what Beijing's future looked like. Modern architecture equips a city with a vernacular to express its desires for the future. 

A stimulus of modernisation in Beijing was the  2008 Olympic Games. Controversially, vast swathes of traditional hutong architecture were cleared in the name of progress. In place of the hutong now stand the Beijing Olympic Park, which is home to the Birds Nest stadium and the Olympic pool. Both of which are fantastic statements of modern Beijing architecture. Their designs are informed by tradition and then twisted into something playful and abstract.  
 I sat in the Birds Nest Stadium wishing I was there for an event. It must be spectacular when it is actually put to use. One of the buzzwords of the recent 2012 London Olympics is 'legacy'. It's true that the Olympic Park in Beijing is not a great white elephant, but this is down to Chinese mentality rather than long-term planning.
The metro stop was crowded and the surrounding grounds rippled with activity. At first, I couldn't understand why everyone was there. It was a hot, overcast day and there weren't any events scheduled. 

It wasn't until the sun began to set and the night-traders appeared that I realised why everyone was there. Chinese people love a good park. The like promenading, playing games and picking their nose in public. In the evening in the west, we stick the TV on; here in China, you go to the park. Give the Chinese some open space and they'll have a little walk around it. They'll probably set up some badminton nets, start ballroom dancing and sell you an ice-cream too. 

The Architecture provided little more than a backdrop for a photograph, but the area still works. In the UK, after the commuters rush home the cities are dormant. When the sunsets in China, life spills onto the streets. I think Chinese people are mental half the time but I'm with them on this one. A Chinese park at dusk is a great place to be.
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Rem Koolhaas' CCTV Headquarters is another symbol of Beijing modernism. It is known locally as 'big boxer-shorts' and is created from two swollen towers and gravity defying cantilevers. The building's unorthodox structure filters down through the design, even down to the glazing which is covered in uneven angular diagonals. It is in sharp contrast to the traditional Chinese themes of conformity, standardisation and repetition.
The building is striking and offers the promise of some excellent views. However on the ground, the experience is lacking - even for architecture geeks like me. The whole site is skirted by a huge 7ft security fence. Security guards patrol and security cameras stalk. The building wasn't built to be observed this close. Admiring from a distance is fine but nothing more. If you would like to examine the Government's colossal propaganda headquarters up close, you are left only to wonder.

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I had been told of a place in Beijing where you could find contemporary art galleries housed in disused warehouses, still untroubled by Beijing's irrepressible development. I've found that individual expression isn't common in China, so I didn't know what to expect. A long subway ride and stifling bus journey lowered my expectations even further. 
I was in for a pleasant surprise. The 798 district was a huge area equivalent to the size of a provincial UK city centre, brimming with galleries, exhibitions and expensive coffee shops. Old factories were recommissioned, weeds allowed to take root and unusually for China, graffiti was everywhere. I loved the place. 
Two juggernauts of Chinese culture are conformity and development. Here, both sadden me. Thankfully 798 is resisting. I don't know why the factories haven't been replaced with identical concrete towers but I am grateful. I love creative restoration and reuse. I love to see how individuals manipulate their environments to best suit them. I'm also a sucker for end-of-the-world dystopia. 

The 798 district has a character that cannot be created by huge urban plans or vast architectural statements. The residents of 798 collect together a mishmash of resources, skills ans opinions and express themselves in a really engaging way. 




So, what did I see of Beijing's future? I'm scared to say not much because the next generation of planners will cast away everything, just as the current crop have done. Also, for every piece of creative imagination I saw, there were hundreds of examples of blinkered obedience. Beijing is a great city but it is too restrained and quite possibly heading in the wrong direction. I hope I'm wrong because I'd love to hear Beijing spoken about in the same breath as New York and Berlin.

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