Sunday, March 30, 2008

Barefoot College




Barefoot College is a small community based NGO right outside the small village of Tilonia in Rajasthan. I had called expressing an interest in visiting, but had not received that much response about my visit. But, it was enough when I was told there was a place to stay. I had originally learned about Barefoot Architects through a book, and they had done a lot of pretty solid work without the typical expert help. So, I was interested in how people worked on their own and how they got things done. I guess Barefoot is most known for its solar panels and cookers as well as its rainwater harvesting tanks. They have done some pioneering work in making this village and others like it much more sustainable. So much of India still lives in villages, as someone put it, “As the villages go, so go the cities.” Getting things right in the villages could make a huge difference in the strain being put on the cities. Maybe.

Anyway, I took a local train. People found me quite interesting, and I found them quite interesting. The women’s attire here is quite extraordinary, as are the earrings, noserings, bracelets, etc. They have the most vibrant colors, and set against the dull background of the desert is quite an astonishing sight. Deep beauty and strength. Fortunately, someone spoke English and after politely but firmly convincing him that I wouldn’t come home with him, he helped me get off at the right spot, and I wandered 30 minutes down the road in the middle of the desert until I found Barefoot. And there, like an Oasis were two other travelers from Philadelphia, and 6 architects from Ahmedebad. Interesting.

I couldn’t really dig up much architecture there, but they were definitely doing good work. Toys out of trash. Newspaper bags. Weaving and looms. Wooden toys. Solor cookers. Training women and men. No formal education. Bringing people from other communities from around the world to train them to be barefoot solar engineers. Ground up. Bottom up. That is where it starts. Check out the website on the sidebar for tons more info that I can provide here. Did kick it with an engineer. So much of what concerns people are not academic theories and opinions about new movements and such, but getting things done, making people have quality, sustainable, affordable, good light and wind, and homes they can be proud of. Yes, there are certainly some experts involved, but it is all about the people. Need about three more weeks here. Maybe I will return and become a barefoot engineer. I met an architecture student from Mozambique who is doing just that.

Best Moment:

Playing cricket with the local village kids, and adding a little extra swagger to my batting stance. Boy, they got a kick out of that. While cricket is, of course huge here, it is even bigger now as India just beat Australia in a huge upset that has made the country extra cricket crazy. I still don’t understand it. And that white suncscreen…

Friday, March 14, 2008

Hello Developing World



The flight into Kathmandu was amazing as we were right next to Mount Everest, and since it was a clear day, we were afforded magnificent views. Yet, immediately on the other side the plane, the views were not so nice, as the extreme pollution of the Kathmandu Valley became very evident. Flying into Kathmandu did not elicit the same memories of my visit 10 years ago. This was not the, old, mountain city with unique character that had somehow resided in my memory (I did see a very limited part of the city then). It was a sprawling metropolis with massive pollution, obscuring any view around. From the plane and then the taxi ride, I could see the majority of certain parts of the city were being built incrementally. And I really felt like we had entered the true developing world.

We quickly found out that things are not that great in Kathmandu. There is only 6 hours of electricity a day. And there are major gas shortages. I tried to order a steak, and the waiter said that the beef had been blocked from entering Kathmandu. As Natalia and I tried to figure out how to get to Sikkim, India, it became clear that the bus journey was not an option as much of the country was too dangerous to venture out in. Cooking gas, water, and petroleum are in short supply due to a strike on the southern border with India.

Tourists are abound here, and the constant barrage of guys trying to set you up with treks, helicopter flights, and rafting quickly got old. Someone was even riding in our cab from the airport directing us to his travel agency. It was amazing to see all the books and literature on Tibet, especially of the Dalai Lama. While such images of him are completely banned in Tibet, most people seem to have pictures of him somewhere in their homes. Later that night, as we walked to our hotel, past the humming generators lighting up the few dance clubs (with showers), I realized that Kathmandu was not the city I had expected. I miss Lhasa.

BEST MOMENT

The power cutting off in the middle of dinner in the restaurant we were at. No big deal. Just whip out the candles and no one skips a beat. Yet, somehow it seemed all the skanky night clubs had electricity.

The Future of Tibet (2.27.08)



Our taxi driver who took us to beautiful and frozen Yamdrok Tso the day before picked us up. His kid was along for the one hour ride to the airport to catch a flight to Kathmandu. Driving past the new economic development zones and new buildings constructed on the edge of Lhasa, the Chinese influence is clear. I also looked at the new houses along the way in a different light. Yesterday, I was pretty impressed with quality and size that I had seen. I asked someone about it, and they laughed, saying that the Chinese were trying to improve the look of the rural areas, and were forcing farmers to move to the roads and into new housing. I later heard that the Chinese had passed an edict, stating that all Tibetan houses would have to be rebuilt to Chinese standards within 7 years. Clearly, this is what was happening. Some farmers now had a huge space with nothing to put in it. So, why not give people more space and better quality materials? That is development, right? The developing world. Or the developed world. What?

The Tibetan issue as well as the train is a little too complicated to synthesize in a paragraph or two on a blog, nor did my limited experience and interactions give me a voice to speak knowledgably about the issue. Most Tibetans (or the ones we met and the ones they know in Lhasa) actually work for the Chinese government or a Chinese company, and of course, have to speak Chinese. You will not get hired if you do not speak Chinese. There are very differing opinions about the role China is playing. I met a Chinese guy in Shanghai who was living in Tibet, teaching English. He felt pretty strong that Tibetans needed someone to rule for them because they wouldn’t know how to deal with the rest of the world, since most of what they have been focused on in their own culture and nothing else. However, that did not jibe with the Tibetans I met.

At the end of the day, the train is going to have a massive impact. Sometime this year, there is supposed to be a new luxury train that will have glass ceilings and cost $1000 a day. Most of the people we met seemed to have indifference to it. But, as sort of resigned indifference, a strong opinion, but not worth flauting or talking about because there is nothing to do about it. But, as with everything, they do not express lamentation of frustration. It is a very resigned and steady strength, which rises (and seems to have in the past risen) above any impositions and dominations and subjugations. At the end of they day, the rich faith, spirit, warmth, sincerity, and generosity seems to be flowing as strong and graciously as ever. And I suspect it will continue to do so. Change, change, change. But not really.

I just received this article about demonstrations in Lhasa. I guess some monks feel there is certainly something to do, as they did in 1989.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/15/world/asia/15tibet.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&hp

For some reason, i can't get the link to past. but, check out the new york times for an article on Tibet clashes with police on March 15.

Incremental Lhasa (February 25, 2008)



An interesting answer lies in the capacity for people to develop and create their own spaces to better afford their needs. A good example of this was a home visit to a friend’s family. They were living in a two room apartment in old part of Lhasa. There were six people who were living there, including a two month old baby. One room housed two beds and the altar, and the other room held two couches (which doubled as beds), a TV, and some chairs and side tables. Since they were government employees and retired, they were able live in a space that the government provided, without paying too much. Because the father is the only one that works, they are very limited in what their housing options are.

The word is that new apartments are being built further away, and since the area is in the center of the city, there might be better uses of such buildings than housing low-income people. There was a rumor that their building was going to be torn to build a supermarket. Most people said that these new places are actually smaller. They referenced the size of the space by counting the number of concrete forms used in the ceiling. They were worried about being moved, but also the need for the children, who would soon be adolescents to have their own space. The family really needed more space, especially for the daughter who just had a baby. Location was incredibly important to them because the mother was able to go to Jakhong Temple everyday, and all of the family had been born in that specific area. Many of the older people are retired and visiting the temples and making circles around them is an incredibly vital part of their lives. Even so, many buildings in the area had been rebuilt and each time, the apartments were smaller to get more people in.

So, I had been describing spaces in between that people could take over and adapt to their own use, acknowledging that it is much more difficult to do in urban environments than rural environments. Yet, somehow my jargon about space, adaptation, and change didn’t trigger anything to her family. It was only when I asked where the kitchen was that I became excited and this became a REALLY pertinent conversation. Apparently, it was outside the two rooms right where we entered. I didn’t notice it when we first walked in. But, there it was, the kitchen had been totally added on, into the public hallway. They had some leftover space because they were next the communal bathroom. They had done the work themselves and used old doors and sheet metal. It served as storage, a foyer, a kitchen, and a space they took as they claimed as their own. While this type of building was not allowed, it was allowed in the fact that they paid the district council a small fee each month. They later told me that having a separate kitchen was especially important because of the smells and smoke it produces, and it is important to keep it away from the altar.

Upon further inspection and looking a little more closely, it became clear that almost everyone in the apartment building had done something similar. This was only possible because the hallways were accidently wide enough to accommodate some extra building. Some had added on kitchens as well, and others had added on bedrooms as the family grew.

It was really quite a fascinating visit. From the outside, all these buildings look the fairly the same, with the white washed stone walls and black trapezoidal trim around the windows. Individualization did take place with the type of bars or window boxes that were around each window, but it was still fairly standardized. Inside, however was a whole other world. Each family lived in a one or two room apartment, shared toilet facilities (very poor I can assure you) and one common spigot for the entire building. But, all the hallways had been individualized, and built out into, creating a whole different formal, aesthetic and functional world, just as fascinating and interesting as it is on the outside. My friend encouraged me to just walk into other courtyards and I as did, it was very clear that everyone was taking over what little space they could.

So, an interesting question is why people are actually doing this building on their own? And should it be embraced and supported? In this case, it seems it could be argued that there was not enough space initially provided and therefore the people had to commandeer some excess space that wasn’t being used efficiently outside to better accommodate their needs. If this family had had a separate kitchen originally provided in their apartment, would they have found the need to build on and adapt as they saw fit? It is possible. This may be the answer why middle and upper and incomes don’t add onto their apartments into hallways. This is certainly not to say that wealthier people do not add onto their homes, but it is almost always in the case of single family detached dwellings. But, higher density apartment dwellings seem to be only done by poorer people. And they can get away with it in certain places. I say get away with it because it is a strong aesthetic issue that has tended to be very much frowned upon by regulating agencies, and such aesthetics have become synonomous with disease, crime, sin, and many other things that reformers over the years have tried to fix. But, I would argue that the act of doing in this context maybe even more important are just as relevant to middle and upper incomes as lower ones, but the means to express and they standards by which they are to be evaluated have made this a very difficult act.

BEST MOMENT:

Best moment: We stopped by a woman’s home who my friend’s NGO was helping support at school. My friend seemed to know everyone here. This woman brewed barley beer (chang) right out of her home, and offered me a glass. I, of course, obliged, thinking it couldn’t’ be worse than yak butter tea. It really wasn’t that bad, but Tibetans are really serious about keeping your glass full. So, after I had probably one or two glass fulls, I was pretty ready finish (most of you know how much I like beer anyway). But, then my friend said there was a tradition where you had to take three sips (each time being refueled) and then drink the whole glass at once. I pulled it off, but it did remind me or having to drink a full glass of beer right before a futsal game in La Paz.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Development


I don’t know why I was really surprised to see Lhasa expanding and developing and facing the challenges of any other city these days. I guess it is because I just have never heard anything about it. There is even a store in Berkeley called Lhasa, selling Tibetan goods, but it just never really registered with me. It certainly does now. Lhasa now contains about 400,000 people and is growing rapidly. It is hard to know how many of these are Chinese, but the Chinese government has been encouraging the Chinese to move there, and most Chinese find better income opportunities as well. The growth is happening at a pretty good clip. Constructions cranes are around the city is expanding east and west in the valley. Development pressure is abound. At our friend’s home, there are rumors of the government taking over the land to build housing and other projects. They do not feel their tenure is secure.
Our friend cited the story of the woman who delivers milk to them everyday and has done so for the last 15 years. Her farmland was not too far from the city and the government recently took it from her for the land to be developed. She was given an apartment in the city. So, she had a new place to live, but didn’t know what to do. Her lively hood had been destroyed and where was she going to put her cows? In my class, Housing and the Developing World, my professor at UC Berkeley showed an image from Cairo of an apartment with a cow, a chicken, and a pig on its balcony. It was a funny image, and we all got a good laugh. But, at the heart of it lies a serious and fundamental challenge to much of the world’s population. The rural to urban migration is phenomenal and cities now how more than half of the world’s population. Just how exactly people make this transition and the physical spaces accommodate that transition to me, is a critically important question. Once again, is there another space or series of spaces that better accommodate this transition?

Beijing Time



Lhasa is still a distinctly Tibetan city, but the Chinese certainly rule the day. In front the Potala Palace stands a new massive square with the Chinese flag and center across from a massive Chinese monument (celebrating the liberation of Tibet?) Arriving from the train station, we drove through the new part of Lhasa, which is basically all Chinese businesses and buildings, and looks like any other Chinese city (at least smaller one). Most of the things are owned by government in Tibet. Only the businesses are privately owned, and even the, something like 80-90 percent of the businesses are privately owned. Lhasa is quickly developing and becoming a more modern city. Probably the strangest influence of the Chinese is that Lhasa is on Beijing time, which means there are no time zones. I am not sure how many miles west of Beijing we are, but it is a ton. This means that it is not light until 8 or 8:30 in the morning, and it doesn’t get until 8:30 or 9. Strange and eery.
In speaking with some people in Lhasa, it became clear that you had to be careful about what you said and did. We were told that foreigners were not allowed to stay with local people and our permit only allowed us to be there for 7 days. Most people felt comfortable talking openly in their homes, and most had either an exposed or hidden image of the Dalai Lama, although images of him are strictly banned and prohibited.

Lhasa Pics





Architecture for Real


The Potala Palace. How did we not study this thing in Architecture school, and how I have I maybe only seen three pictures of it before arriving to Lhasa? It is truly a great wonder of the world. Apparently, it is the one building Frank Lloyd Wright had a picture of that wasn’t his own. Situated on the highest hill in Lhasa, it has maybe a couple of thousand of rooms and used to serve as the seat of the government and residences of the Dalai Lamas. It is still a very spiritual place and one of the most significant to Tibetan Buddhists. If I could imagine the grandest palace, it would probably look like this. You just have to see the pictures. The crazy Olympic Buildings in Beijing have nothing on this. And this building has lasted 5-10, centuries, and is still as magnificent as ever. Will the CCTV tower last more than 50 years? Will the Birdsnest last more than 5 years? The Potala Palace is truly image based architecture, and much more.

Lhasa (Feb 23)




Whew. Lhasa. The Shagri-La. A truly different world.
The arrival to the train station is quite remarkable. Stepping out into the cold and fresh snow, the train station is massive. Its whole design does seem remarkably similar to the Potala Palace. Contextual design or an architecture of power? The first night is spent in the Yak Hotel with no heat. It is COLD.

The next morning we went to have breakfast on the rooftop restaurant. WOW. I was totally unprepared and had to say WOW out loud. Couldn’t help it. The sun was hitting the snow covered mountains. All around were the tops of the buildings of old Lhasa with their roofs all at basically the same level, and they were all capped with Buddhist prayer flags blowing in the wind. One of the most amazing sights I had seen in a long time. We spent a good part of the morning and day trying to book a flight to Kathmandu (only international flight and by road it would take 5 days). We stopped in some hotels, but no one could figure out to operate the heater. They all had heat, but couldn’t get it to turn on…..it is low season. No tourists, prices cheap. Sweet. Except for the cold. Eventually we switched rooms and got it to work.

Lhasa felt like a totally different place, unlike anywhere I had been, at least the old part of town. The main part of the old town is centered around Barkhor Square, which serves as the entrance to the Jakhong Temple, one of the most sacred sites for Tibetan Buddhists. We later found out that we were pretty lucky because there were a lot of pilgrims in town this time of year. It is common practice for Buddhists to circumbulate around sacred buildings in a clockwise direction. It is hard to describe watching this mass of Tibetans (most who had come from far away rural areas) moving together and then stopping to postulate (full praying from on the stomach to standing upright). It was nice to be in a place that wasn’t so tourist driven (at least at this time of year) and be in a city that fully embraced (well seemed like it on the surface) and accepted the poorest of the poor in the pure spiritual terms. Everyone seemed to fit in quite well. Right here, right now, it feels as if the poor drive this city and very much hold its essence.

As the sun set, we just watched the people. Every minute was another amazing sight. We had just run into two Koreans that we had met on the train, and then another American who was on the train (he was doing video blogging about the impact of the train, but couldn’t talk about it). And low and behold, we then ran into the monk whom we had befriended on the train. Small world this is. Something feels totally different and special.
That evening, we met up a Tibetan friend of a friend who invited us to her family’s home for dinner. We had tons of food (yak meat, yak jerky, yak cheese, yak butter tea (uhhhhh), momos (Tibetan dumplings with yak meat) and tons of other traditional food. We had a fantastic conversation and learned tons about Tibet these days. I will speak in general terms so as to not put anyone at risk. Our friend runs an NGO and he is never sure who is around listening or engaging in conversations. Apparently, Chinese are paid to sit in restaurants all day to listen to people’s conversations. I will spare you the history of Tibet (check out wikipedia), but the Chinese have a very powerful hand controlling all of the country. More later. Such gracious people here. Wow, I am blown away with the hospitality, humbleness, and sincerity.

The T27 Train to Tibet (Feb 20)




My friend and I are on the train from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet, and it has been an amazing experience so far. The entire trip is 48 hours, and based on a friend’s recommendation decided to go with the hard sleeper ticket instead of the soft sleeper. It is pretty tight quarters with 6 beds packed into a space of about 200 cubic feet (6x6x8). There is no door and a hallway that is about 3 feet wide with seats on it. Everyone, of course, is all up in everyone’s business. Especially ours. This is certainly the down season to visit China and Tibet, and there are very few foreigners around.

Upon arrival to our cabin, we quickly met and became very well acquainted with our bunkmates and then, of course the rest of our car. One woman was headed to Lhasa, who looked much more like she was from Tibet, and a couple of the others were getting off at earlier stops. Most everyone else was Chinese. It is interesting to see who is from where, amidst some of the controversy about the impact of this train. Many seem to think that this is strict attempt by the Chinese government to further exalt its power and dominion over Tibet as it will open up new markets and areas for the Chinese people. Additionally, Tibet is a land full of untapped natural resources, and it doesn’t take a genius to know that China needs all the resources it can get its hands on. (hmmm. Seems like this has happened before.) Others see it as a way to increase the standard of living in Tibet as well generate better economic and cultural opportununities. It certainly bolsters tourism, and we will be curious to see the impact of this gateway has had.

Our first hour in our cabin was certainly one of the most memorable of the trip so far. We quickly garnered a crowd of curious onlookers as we tried to introduce ourselves and learn a little bit about the people we were going to be sharing the train with for the next two days. It seemed soon there were 10 people in there all trying to learn a little bit of English. Tons of picture taking commenced and we were soon offered beer and cucumbers to celebrate the beginning of the journey. A couple of quick gregarious and fun loving men made it for quite a lively time, as they tried to say there were happy, crazy, and maybe a little bit drunk. It was quite an intense and intimate moment, as we were able to share tons of laughter and good spirit, all the while knowing about 4 words between us. We figured out the words “beer, cucumber, friends, and cheers.” Good combination for sure.

The first night’s sleep wasn’t so bad, a slight and gentle knocking of the train allowed for much waking up, but still a good amount of sleep. The light of day brought the same Chinese landscape. Gray. Brown. Dirty. Polluted. Rugged. Rough. I am still in absolute awe of the pollution. Worst than any I have seen, even in Dhaka. And this is out in the countryside. It is like it encompasses the entire country. Old factories, piles and piles of coal. China is in the industrial revolution.

The curiosity of the foreigners began to wear a little on us throughout the day. The young folks did know a little bit of English, but they mainly just liked to come and sit, RIGHT next to you, and usually if you were reading, they would take the book and start looking at it themselves. Space was cramped as it was, but we didn’t really need more people in our little cabin. But, that is what has made this trip so unique and enjoyable. Fortunately, the most curious people got off in Lanzhou, about halfway through the trip. The lady from Lhasa was still right across from us, patiently smiling, trying to sleep, reading what seemed to be a religious text, and gazing out the window.

Fortunately, the new inhabitants of our cabin were a very pleasant and easy going Tibetan family, with a really cute daughter. It is amazing how strong and quickly kids grow up in the rest of the world, but it certainly didn’t reduce her appeal. They seemed to hardly notice us, and just went about their business, occasionally offering us cookies and other bits of food, and us doing likewise. Fortunately, no one offered any of the precooked hotdogs (whew!) or the chicken feet they were munching on. And let me tell you what. People love some ramen here. There might be more packages of ramen than people on this train. And many Chinese hock some serious loogies. It is quite extraordinary and something you have to experience. And most of them aren’t too concerned about where it ends up. The government, in its effort to present a good image, has embarked on a pretty extensive signage campaign to prevent people from spitting. (I haven’t been able to get a good sound recording yet.) Oh, someone just started playing “I will always love you” by Whitney Houston. I think it is about the 10th time I have heard it since I have been here. Ahh yes. Riding the train on the Tibetan Plateau listening to Whitney Houston. It doesn’t get much better than this. Oh, yes it does. They just started playing Bon Jovi.

Riding in the hard sleeper has been a great experience, much better than the soft sleeper, which is basically the first class. We met a Korean who speaks English and was staying the soft sleeper. It was pretty empty on the second day and no action. Meanwhile, there is lots of action on the hard sleeper. The family is partly sitting in our cabin. The mother and daughter are humming an incredibly beautiful tune. It is a beautiful soundtrack to out journey. Later they were playing cards right outside our cabin. In many ways, this small cabin has really come to grow on me. I was a little worried when I first saw and imagined 2 full days with six people. But, it has made the entire experience quite wonderful because you are intimately involved with everyone around you. You know what is going on even though you can’t understand what they are saying. No pretensions, just a bunch of different people trying to get to Lhasa.

The actual design facilitates it quite well. The bottom bunk turns into a bench during the day, which could sit 3-4 people fairly well on each side. Immediately outside of it is the corridor with a small table and a seat the folds down on either side of it. That space then naturally serves as an extension to the cabin area. So, you feel really connected to everyone who is around you.

The second night seemed a bit longer, as we made a number of stops. I feel like my ears popped a bit, but it was hard to tell how much we had really climbed, or exactly where we were. In the morning the outside thermometer said -19 degrees Celsius (-2 degrees Fahrenheit). So far it has warmed up to -5 C (22 F). The doors and windows are coated with ice. We must be pretty high because even just walking around, I am getting tired. The oxygen is pumping We are in the absolute middle of nowhere, although it is pretty flat. We must be on the Tibetan Plateau, although I can’t really see any high mountains. There are smaller hills around, covered with a thin layer of windblown snow. The entire landscape is frozen solid. It is pretty desolate, but beautiful. Occasionally, we pass a road or building, but not much in between except yaks and the shadow of the train rolling over the landscape.



We have now been on the train 40 hours. Enjoyed every minute of it so far.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Delirious Beijing (Feb.22)


In her article titled “Delirious Beijing” Euphoria and Despair in the Olympic Metropolis,” Anne Marie Broudehoux describes Beijing as a “city without urbanity, where megolomaniacal architiectural objects are built on the ashes of an organic fabric.” After a brief visit, I do get a similar sense. It feels as if, in this case, the buildings are more just objects, attempting to achieve or create something that does not yet exist. In this sense, they are not manifestations of realities, but of hopes and dreams, covering the untold realities and future uncertainties. But, they have given great pride to the people of the nation. I kept asking myself, “Is the cost worth what you are getting?” I don’t know for sure and none of us may ever, and I am probably not in a position to answer. You never really know anything for sure in China. But, I do know, watching the countryside go by, there is extreme and massive poverty, pollution, and environmental degradation. The displacement and restlessness of people outside the major cities is clearly growing. Human rights abuses continue, and the state seems to have been able to enable to believe that controlling their access to information is actually a good thing.

Regardless, Beijing is an extraordinary place. It will be anyone’s guess what will happen with the Olympics. Well, maybe not. I think the Olympics will be amazing, but they will probably be one of the most controlled Olympics ever. It is what happens after the Olympics what I believe is anyone’s guess.

A City of and for Whom? (Feb 21)


And this is very evident in Beijing. Most embassy workers and expats live in such exclusive and private communities. It is a defacto way of life, and increasingly, the new wealthy Chinese elite choose it, so they don’t’ have to deal with the chaos and urbanity that still encompasses the majority of the population here. One of the places we went was called “Palm Springs” and encompassed an entire couple of blocks. Fully walled and gated, the complex had a massive internal courtyard, spa, pool, shopping, all delineated and further defined by the eight forty story towers defining its edges. At the front is a massive bronze lion with wings.

Another series of these new high end communities is called SOHO (Shopping, Office, Housing, ?). These massive complexes have popped up in a number of parts of the cities, and apparently many are only 50% occupied. There was a building across from where I was staying that was almost complete, but was never finished, and had been left standing for 8 years. It was not an uncommon sight, as all over the city, there was a new skyline, but many buildings seemed surprisingly empty. An uneasiness came across me as I was sitting in my room watching the neon lights glitter and bounce all over the building next door, yet there wasn’t a single light on inside.

This image vs. reality was none more apparent than in many of the shopping malls, which by the way are everywhere. All the flashy products, displays, and glitz of the major brands and companies were in full force. But they were dead. It was note uncommon to see more staff and salespeople than actual customers. It was depressing. Everyone trying to sell you something, actually pleading to try and get you to buy stuff. Where were all the customers? How was anyone making money in these places? Are they waiting for the Olympics? Is Beijing trying to produce a self fulfilling prophecy, by building it, marketing it, creating it, they will come?

The ironic reality is that they have already come, but maybe not the ones they are banking on. But, I struggle to believe and understand that most Chinese are able to participate in this new life and image being created. The entire city is being built on the backs of the migrant workers, who still have no stake to any claim of what is taking place, and their only real form of housing is temporarily placed on the construction site they are working on, if they are lucky. Where does the new Chinese individual find their place in this context? I struggle to believe that all the new high rise housing being built will be affordable and accessible to those who need it the most. How long will many of these new buildings stay high end if they occupancy doesn’t increase? In the future will these buidings become obsolete as the market tanks? And then all those who can’t afford housing will take over such buildings? It is happening in Sao Paolo.

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.’

The Dragon has Landed (Feb 19)



Beijing has been quite an extraordinary experience experience, It was more infused with doses of the expat life, having meals with other embassy workers, where our host drove us around to most places. Natalia arrived on Saturday and we had some of the most amazing food, and soooo much of it. Dumplings, steamed buns, chicken, candied apples, pork, peking duck, on and on and on. I am going to struggle to eat most Chinese food in the US now.

Beijing is probably even more extraordinary than Shanghai, purely based on the visible changes taking place there. It is absolutely mindboggling and astounding the amount of construction going on there. The numbers tell it all. Within the last 10 years, one billion square feet and $160 billion dollars of building will have taken place, which is the equivalent of three manhattans. And this is in one city alone. But, the building boom certainly extends beyond the city. The entire country now accounts for half the world’s use of concrete and a third of the consumption of steel.

I felt the importance and significance of architecture in Beijing more so than any other city I have been to. The built environment (and the relationships therein) is often a manifestation of what is valued in culture and society. And it is a pretty good indicator of the social, economic, and political forces that are driving the times. The physical changes taking place in Beijing now are indicative of the entire country. Massive housing and office buildings are going up everywhere. Each complex is 10-15 buildings of 30-40 stories. The old hutong (traditional Chinese alleyways and houses) are quickly disappearing as the demand and need to build, build, build is quickly overrunning seemingly everything.