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    After the Inferno

    Date: 28 Feb 2009 | | Views: 3031

    An Urbanist's polemic against the excesses of the decades-long transformation of China's ancient capital.

    Source: Obit Mag, by Thomas J. Campanella

    The fire on February 9 that destroyed the nearly-completed Television Cultural Centre tower in Beijing—part of the immense China Central Television (CCTV) complex and home to a five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel—carried momentous symbolic power. For many the blaze was an inauspicious start to the year of the ox, a display of divine wrath on the last day of the lunar new year holiday—Lantern Festival day, of all things. Some speculated that the "dehydrating" flames symbolized the severe drought in north China, the worst in a generation. Others suggested that the conflagration was punishment for the taxpayer billions CCTV spent on its posh headquarters. The burning tower might also have been a funeral pyre of sorts, a symbolic end of the architectural excess that has hallmarked China’s post-Mao binge-building boom.

    This was, after all, no ordinary structure but a signature piece by Rem Koolhaas, among the most celebrated and controversial architects in the world. It was part of the ambitious headquarters complex he designed with Ole Scheeren for China's state media conglomerate, and sits just north of the iconic, cantilevered CCTV Tower. The Cultural Centre countered and balanced the immense tower; together, they formed a vast sculptural composition. Beijing's citizenry, ruthless in their architectural analogies, named the CCTV Tower da ku cha, or the "Big Underpants"; its late sibling was, of course, the inevitable phallus. As one Chinese blogger put it, losing this key appendage thus rendered CCTV "the number one eunuch in the world."

    The CCTV complex is a paramount symbol of the new China, crown jewel of a 30-year economic boom that has propelled an urban development revolution unmatched in human history. No nation has built more cities faster than China. And nowhere has this creative destruction been unleashed with greater zeal than in Beijing. Beijing's architectural heritage, stigmatized as regressive and obsolete, has largely been swept away in an attempt to morph the ancient, dusty capital into a symbol of China rising. The city has gained glamour and glitz; it has also lost its soul.

    Beijing's extreme makeover has largely been about forcing a city of sweeping horizontality and finely-textured, pedestrian friendly fabric into one of preening object buildings set along vast boulevards and six-lane highways. For more than 600 years Beijing was enclosed by vast defensive walls; within, a dense mat of hutong neighborhoods orbited the Forbidden City. Mao pulled the walls down in the 1950s, carved out Tiananmen Square, and flanked it with Soviet-style mammoths like the Great Hall of the People. The genius loci of old Beijing was greatly diminished, but survived.

    That unique atmosphere did not survive the post-Mao boom. Since the early 1990s, nearly all of Beijing's historic residential neighborhoods have been razed for redevelopment. Much of this housing was substandard and needed to be rehabilitated or replaced. By extirpating nearly all of this urban genetic material, developers made it almost impossible for the city's essential form and character to reproduce itself. Described by the late Edmund Bacon as "possibly the greatest single work of man on the face of the earth," Beijing today is fast becoming a jacked version of Dallas, a sprawling conurbation of office towers and superblock housing estates scored with impossibly wide motorways. What was once an exquisite canvas has become a city of monsters, each dancing to a song only it can hear. Immense object-buildings like those at the CCTV complex may well be architecture, even award-winning architecture; but they are egocentric and self-absorbed, and they do not a city make. Good urbanism is more than the sum of buildings; it is about how those buildings relate to one another, how they define and engage the street.

    The world-wide economic recession has already slowed the great Chinese building boom. Some 20 million migrant workers, many of whom were employed in the building sector, have already been laid off. Construction sites are still busy, but it is with work two years in the pipes. Demand for structural steel has dropped, and architecture-school graduates now struggle to find employment (two years ago they had their pick of jobs). A crashing economy makes men humble, exerting a deflationary effect on budget and ego alike. It also tends to rein in surging skylines. In Beijing, the looming recession may well be the agent of a wiser, more responsible urban strategy, one that sifts for a lost muse through the city's shattered bones.

    Thomas J. Campanella teaches and writes about landscapes, urbanism and the design of cities. His most recent book is The Concrete Dragon: China's Urban Revolution and What it Means for the World (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008). He is associate professor of urban planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a visiting lecturer at Nanjing University in China.

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