As is often the case, I wrote the following notes at the time, just after the event – in this case, the ICOGRADA World Design Congress in Beijing, October 2009 – and have polished a little since, but then neglected to post until now. However, inspired by a recent trip to Shanghai, here are a set of earlier posts on the conference, Beijing, and China.
I was in Beijing for the first time, for the World Design Congress conference – where I was a speaker on Tuesday and a panellist on Wednesday – and to launch the aforementioned ‘Designing Creative Clusters’ project. It’s my first visit of any significance to China and as usual I’m fascinated by a new city, a new map, but this is something else, as if I’d been waiting for years to experience this first hand (in truth, I had.) The flurry of thoughts and observations is proving almost impossible to pin down – and new reflections keep emerging, weeks later – so as usual please excuse the impressionistic jottings. This one is organised in broadly chronological order.
I’m also conscious of a note at the beginning of Thomas J. Campanella’s book The Concrete Dragon, regarding visiting academics “discovering” China.
“Upon his first visit, the scholar is ready to write a book; after visiting a second time, he decides to settle for an article. By the third visit, our erstwhile academic realizes he knows next to nothing about China, and had better keep his mouth shut.”
This is probably the first visit of three for this research project alone, and unfortunately I have new publishing platforms such as this at my disposal, so here goes. (NB. Re-reading this, months later, and a visit to Hong Kong and Shanghai later, I think Campanella's anecdote is right, in that I already wouldn't write in the same way about China. But this is the nature of first impressions, after all.)
The Concrete Dragon (Princeton Architectural Press) is one of my companions for this trip, and proves a fascinating background on the recent history of urban processes in Chinese cities, from the perspective of urban planning. Despite an affectation for unleashing torrents of ‘big numbers’ – another Westerner’s trait, when faced with the scale of China? – it’s well worth a read, and is proving exceptionally enlightening.
Campanella is not afraid to deliver an opinion, which is a good thing – although rarely states them as such, which isn’t. Even at first glance, though, I wonder whether the lens through which he's viewing the Chinese city needs re-calibrating; essentially to see it through a Chinese prism rather than western urban planning orthodoxy. Though who am I to say at this point? Perhaps we'll return to this theme.
The other companion is the extraordinary ‘The Chinese Dream: A Society Under Construction’, by Neville Mars and Adrian Hornsby (010 Publishers). This is more of an OMA-like approach to the subject, comprising impressionistic data over expressionist layouts, architectural speculations and urban fictions. It’s a perfect counter-balance to the more academic Concrete Dragon, in a sense, built for random access and spot inspiration, and is impeccably designed and produced, as you’d expect from the brilliant Dutch publishing house 010.
Neither book accompanies me on the journey, as they’re far too big (and this might be a genuine application for iBooks; when I did some work for Lonely Planet a while back, we talked about packages that load up travel writing onto digital paper (or architectural and urban companions in my case), accompanied by maps, curated lists and other paraphenalia.) So they’re are read before and after, literally book-ending the trip.
The flight from Sydney to Beijing is via Hong Kong (Cathay Pacific and then Dragon) and largely unremarkable, except for its duration. The airports – a continuing obsession – are all great, though Sydney comes a poor third in comparison to its sparkling Chinese counterparts. The landing at Hong Kong itself is justly famous – though not as interesting as it used to be – but the thing I enjoy most is gliding in amidst a genuinely working harbour.
Sitting in the Cathay Pacific lounge, I notice that Hong Kong international airport – colloquially Chep Lap Kok, after the island it was terraformed from – is surrounded by the kind of volcanic mountains that are common to this part of the world. Every time I’ve seen their like it’s through a window in transit: first, from the bullet train between Osaka and Tokyo, sudden eruptions sliding by amidst the flat plains outside Kyoto; and then from from a taxi rushing across the bridge towards Incheon, densely wooded islands bursting out of the water. Since I moved to Australia I’ve become more aware of the variable ages of the earth’s surface terrain, given Australia’s ancient soils and worn rocks, leached of nutrients. In comparison, Hong Kong looks like it was born yesterday.
(As well as light, airy layout, the airport features a few interesting new touches: ‘fake’ SBB-style clocks integrated into passenger information display boards (while it’s flexible, and I admire the ingenuity, I’m not sure I approve. Clocks are too important to be on something as transient as these displays); the aforementioned ubiquitous free wi-f;, and a gleaming new branch of Muji To Go, which makes me instantly miss the northern hemisphere, somewhat laughably.)
Moving on, Beijing Terminal 3 is absolutely extraordinary (caveat: Arup project, with Foster+Partners and others). What an entrance to the new China this is. The roof is the first thing you notice, and it’s stunning. Like nothing I've seen elsewhere, despite its simple construction, and it effortlessly outstrips, say, Heathrow Terminal 5 and Singapore Changi. It's somehow delicate and immense at the same time, like clouds. It’s essentially two layers, with the lower layer constructed of a grid of battens stretched across the space, and the upper layer punctuated by another regular pattern of triangular skylights, with (presumably) LEDs dotted in-between. Perhaps the battens contribute the delicate nature, despite its immensity, lending a sense of uniformity and yet letting patterns of light shine through, as well as the colour of the roof above, in some halls red, in others yellow.
As a result, the awesome scale of the roof is subtly broken up with a mottled, almost pillowed effect. Vast columns prop it up, yet the roof appears unencumbered by them. Under this canopy, the vast glass windows let in significant natural light, which falls across a floor polished to within an inch of its life (a theme continued in almost all the new buildings I saw in Beijing; and at Hong Kong airport for that matter.) This combination creates wonderful silhouette effects.
On arrival, we move past a set-up of infra-red cameras, apparently detecting warning signs the H1N1 virus. A second set of temperature detectors follows shortly afterwards, providing a real-time second opinion. Immediately, futurity. We arrive at night, and so the terminal is largely empty. A few guards stand around, casting the odd glance in my direction. At passport control, a small button interface on the front of the desk – visible only to you – allows you to press a happy face or sad face icon, indicating whether you’ve had good service. In less than a few minutes in the terminal, I’ve already been sensed several times, and actuated a few times too.
Speaking of which, the toilets are supplied by the excellent Japanese manufacturer Toto – though they give a false impression of the more general standard of toilet facilities to await me elsewhere in Beijing. Automated passenger transit whisks me to the main arrivals terminal, where my allocated volunteer ‘helper’ Yuan awaits. Yuan proves to be an invaluable guide, translator and intermediary for me, and I’m immensely grateful to him.
(When I leave the airport a few days later, at mid-morning, the terminal is beautifully light in the hazy sunshine. Exploring a little further, I discover a faux temple, with pond cascading dry ice. Frequent flyer status gets me into the Dragon Airways lounge, a pleasant space simply propped up above the gates. The terminal itself is not busy though – I wonder about demand levels for an airport of this immensity. It’s clearly been designed with spare capacity, wisely given China’s current trajectory.)
The hotel I arrive at is basic, standard business hotel – the Gehua New Century Hotel – built for the Olympics, like most of the new buildings in this part of town, and home to the world’s media during the games. Again, perfectly nice, and well-equipped, but with the faux-luxe touches of most contemporary business hotels (just how many pillows can one person need?).
Internet is fast, though it’s at this point that I discover that Facebook and Twitter are blocked, as is this blog. Quite why City of Sound is blocked is beyond me – I’ve rarely been anything other than positively fascinated by China (though some readers’ comments less so). So I’m missing out on 1.3 billion potential readers, though I’m sure they don’t see it quite like that (NB. On a later visit to Shanghai, it's not blocked.) Leaving aside issues over freedom of communication, the absence of Facebook and Twitter means little to me, and even less so as the week wears on, which is a little telling.
I’ll now post a series of entries with my impressions of both the World Design Congress and Beijing.
World Design Congress – Day One
Day one of the World Design Congress is heralded by a beautiful clear blue sky and gentle autumnal sun. Back in the northern hemisphere again. What’s all this fuss about the air quality? It’s a crisp yet warm day. (Later, it occurs to me to speculate whether the Chinese cloud-seeding technology has moved on to cloud-clearing and sun-reinforcing. There may be no limit to what can be achieved here.)
We’re bussed through the streets from the hotel. My ‘aide’ tells me that Beijing is known for being grey, for grey skies over grey buildings. The sky has a different quality today, but the buildings are indeed painted grey or in a grey stucco or a rough concrete. However, grey gets a bad press. ‘Grey’ can encompass a beautifully subtle series of tones – of ash, volcanic mud, clay, the trunks of gum trees, of flint and slate, moondust and dazzleships. But presumably, as it's also redolent of storm clouds, poor health and even death, the Grey Promotion Board has its work cut out. Here, the grey is not the refined polished grey of cobblestones wet with rain in the Marais, or in the subtle tones in the stone around Marylebone, but a grey drawn from a rougher, crumblier texture altogether, and one I hadn’t quite seen before.
And it’s already becoming clear that bits of Beijing’s built fabric are entirely undistinguished, to say the least. Equally, though, I’m fascinated by the hutongs we’re driving past, as well as some of the later additions to the city. Parts of it are quite beautiful today.
This slew of contradictions would become the abiding sensation of being in Beijing – this is the case in any city, of course; it’s almost what defines the city, these series of juxtapositions – yet here the contradictions, contrasts, tensions are heightened to an almost fantastical degree.
The streets themselves are fascinating – again, it’s clear that the clogged traffic is, well, an issue, but elsewhere they’re full of bikes and pedestrians, criss-crossing and free-wheeling in all directions.
We approach Tiananmen Square, finally, and the mighty girth of Chang’an Avenue. On this beautiful day, with traffic buzzing past and tourists wandering around, it’s almost impossible to imagine events of 1989 occurring in this space. Yet listen to Stuart Franklin talk about his famous photographs of those days and again, that slew of contradictions, of multiple layers of rich, complex history suddenly present simultaneously, becomes almost overwhelming.
Our bus arrives at the National Centre for Performing Arts, for the opening of the World Design Congress, both of which are worthy of new entries.
Photos from this trip to Beijing [Flickr]
The Concrete Dragon, by Thomas J. Campanella [Amazon US | UK]
The Chinese Dream, by Neville Mars and Adrian Brody [Amazon US | UK]
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