Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Image Olympics (Feb 20)



While most of the construction going on there is nondescript, standardized, and sometimes even downright atrocious, the 2008 Olympics are bringing about a new image that is none more represented in the some of the new high profile buildings. With the need to show the world that China has arrived, and is espousing progressive values that will solidify its presence on the national stage, Beijing in particular has spared no expense. Four projects in particular are quite spectacular and have garnered immense media coverage, interest, and costs. The ‘Egg’ (National Performing Arts Center at a cost of $350 million), the ‘Birdsnest’ (Olympic National Stadium at a cost of $400 million), the Watercube (National Swimming Center at a cost of $100 million) and the CCTV tower (at a cost of $600 million) are all designed by foreign architects and are quite extraordinary buildings in their own right. The technical, aesthetic, and performance characteristics of each of these buildings are incredible, and literally cause the jaw to drop. They are truly some of the most amazing I have seen. The most astounding of these is the CCTV tower, as it is still under construction. Referred to as a pair of jeans by someone, the massive tilt and cantilever between the two towers creates a dynamic, yet awkward feeling that is magnified by its sheer scale (40 stories). Ironically, or not, it is the headquarters of the state run TV station.

Our visit to the Olympic area was one of extreme fascination, as we had both known very long about the significance and architectural brilliance of the buildings being erected there. In fact, the birdsnest and watercube were both case studies last year for the incoming class of architecture students, as they digitally modeled and then built scale models of these buildings. A quite astounding feat in its own right. So, of course, we were giddy about getting a good look and being obsessive about pictures and such (for any of you that know architects, you know how we are). But, what surprised me the most was the interest and intensity by which the Chinese themselves were trying to get a look at these new buildings. The whole area is still under construction (it will be amazing if they are able to finish everything, but with a disposable labor force of millions of migrant workers, I have no doubt it will get done), so people were finding any crack, stack of bricks or opening that would help them get a better look. We didn’t even stand out, which I find crazy.

Maybe it’s not that crazy. The buildings within their own right are quite extraordinary. I do also sense a great amount of pride in the future of the Beijing within the Chinese themselves, and this is physically manifested in such buildings. But to me, more than anything, I leave Beijing with a great feeling of unease and uncertainty about its true essence. While historically, it is a fascinating and rich built environment, the clashes with the new have been intense. While the economic transformations have been great (standards of living increasing, people moving out of poverty), the whole transformation will feels like one that is driven totally by image. I don’t know if it is the reality, but that is what it FEELS like. Once again, just beneath the surface, what is really going on? And once the Olympics is over, what will happen to the city?

Clearly, the building that is going on cannot be sustained. The pollution across the entire country is unbelievable. While we there in the winter (more coal being burned to help heat), the scale of it is incredible. On the sunniest of days, visibility can be one mile. Right next to the Olympic venues is a huge coal fired power plant. I wonder if they will put total restrictions on pollutions output during the Olympic games. Apparently, the air was much cleaner during the Chinese New Year, when factories shut down and few cars were on the road.

The displacement that is taking place in Beijing is quite astronomical as well. It is unclear as to the compensation of such folks here. This summer, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions released a report saying that 1.25 million people had been displaced as a result of the recent building boom. Most of these have been people living in the Hutongs. Once again, there is a strong collective mentality here to ensure that China develops and is seen well in the eyes of the world. Beijing has promised to deliver the “Best Olympic Games Ever.” This has certainly been represented by the investment that the state is putting into the effort, producing a significant public/private partnership. Unfortunately, many of the Olympic buildings’ post Olympic life will be very at the benefit of the elite. As is the case in many places, especially the US, significant public money is being used to eventually benefit an elite and private population. My friend, Natalia, is studying the effects of neoliberalization and the shifts from what the state has normally provided to the deep involvement of private interests to produce secluded, protected, and very high end playgrounds, or what some have called ‘themeparks.’

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