City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Aerial music over Beijing

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Although I’d been meaning to post the previous note on the Terracotta Army for months – in fact, since I’d first read the article in the LRB back in January – I actually hit the ‘save’ button in the middle of last night’s stupendous Olympic opening ceremony from Beijing. It somehow seemed apposite, even though the quote was only tangentially relevant to the extraordinary events unfolding on-screen.

The ceremony frequently left me amazed, delighted and at times awe-struck, through its sheer ambition, scale, beauty and technical panache. As a friend noted in an email sent shortly after the movable type sequence, "there’s raising the bar and then there’s blowing the bar right into space". An extraordinary spectacle, and sublime in the original sense.





(London might as well pack up now. What could they possibly do in 2012 to match the extraordinary craft, precision and artfully poised readings of history delivered by Zhang Yimou, 14000 performers and an LED screen the size of a football pitch? I shudder to think, particularly given it might well involve Banksy, Amy Winehouse and Gary Lineker.)

And so it’s clear, as Mitchell Whitelaw notes, that this was a Bob Beamon-esque ‘leapfrog’ by China, indicating their potential culturally and technologically, now way beyond much of what would be called the West. Whitelaw addresses the particular aesthetic of digital design in the ceremony and its architecture:

"The Water Cube and the Birds Nest don’t simply display China’s modernity, they claim a jump into a digital, sustainable, mega-scaled future. The computational aesthetics of multiplicity that mark these
structures are, again like the opening ceremony, a powerful cultural narrative: coherence, strength and beauty made of countless tiny pieces. Like the flickering grid of the drummers, the ordered diversity of these structures is important too, in that it’s not total uniformity, a simple (modernist) grid. In fact these buildings contain a kind of post-industrial grid, where the uniformity or regularity is not literal or material, but procedural or computational – the computer’s ability to resolve complex distributions of force is what enables the "organic" multiplicity here." [Mitchell Whitelaw, at The Teeming Void]



I’m interested in how those aesthetics of ‘organic multiplicity’ apply to the ancient practices of the Terracotta army, scripting, documentation and art, the patterns of China’s ancient cities, and then evolve into these contemporary practices of digital design. Codes, arrays, patterns, complexity.

To balance the scales a little I’ll end with this beautiful image of an earlier Beijing I found in this book review at The Economist:

"The city of street markets, temple fairs and the "little games" that so
delighted Beijingers: for instance, their passion for keeping fighting crickets, fed with honey, and for inserting tiny carved flutes of bamboo into the tail-feathers of pigeons; whole flocks created aerial
music over this reviewer’s courtyard house just a decade ago."

Imagine that. What did it sound like? How does this intimate everyday artistry relate to that now rendered at the scale of the new Beijing?

Related links
Array Aesthetics (Olympic Edition) [The Teeming Void]
Facts and figures about Beijing Olympics opening ceremony [Xinhua]
2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony []
Arup in Beijing, incl. Bird’s Nest and Water Cube
China: The Three Emperors
Shanghai Diary


4 responses to “Aerial music over Beijing”

  1. Bryan Norwood Avatar

    It is a new type of modernity-one that actually address the technology of the times. Western versions of modernism worship technology, but it is still an industrial technology. The west is only slowly getting past this version of modernity.
    In Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi and Brown saw this problem: “Note, however, it was ‘modern’ technology of the Industrial Revolution that was symbolized by Mies, and this technology, not current electronic technology, is still the source for Modern architectural symbolism today” (115).
    Excellent post.


  2. Scott Smith Avatar

    The leapfrogging observation is spot on, though it does assume that the West can see this sort of future, but just hasn’t moved there yet. There was something beautifully alien and at the same time understandable about the displays in the opening ceremony. I recall saying to my children that it was like a message from space, and that they should pay attention to its contents. The Chinese were saying something very important: scale+ingenuity, built on a million tiny, self-sufficient but cooperative/interlinked points, adding up to an incredible whole.


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