Soaring Ambitions

Project Description

Soaring Ambitions

by Susan Jakes, May 3, 2004 [View PDF]


NOTHING LESS THAN THE MOST NOVEL BUILDING IN BEIJING would do. Zhang Yongduo, an entrepreneur from the coastal Chinese province of Shandong, had made a fortune in a business that improbably paired spas with seafood restaurants. Now he was extending his chain to the capital, and he wanted a landmark to announce his arrival. Zhang didn’t know much about design, so he hired a young U.S.-trained Chinese architect to serve as headhunter, instructing him of find a big name with a big vision. That’s how in the spring of 2003 Zhang came to meet Raimund Abraham – one of architecture’s great iconoclasts and a man whose designs are so radical that most exist only in the pages of a book title {un}-Built.

Zhang gave the ponytailed 70-year-old New Yorker few instructions. The building would need to accommodate several restaurants, two bathhouse, an art gallery, offices and a massage salon. Zhang said the design should evoke the sea and that it should be “the most radical building in Beijing.” A couple of days after their first meeting, Abraham produced a sketch – a meditation on the ocean’s violent power in the form of a 12-story block gouged like a cliff at the edge of a raging sea. Zhang was dumbfounded. But after Abraham explained the idea behind the forbidding façade, the client grinned. Construction is set to begin in central Beijing later this year. “There’s no way I could get a design like this built in America,” Abraham says. “But in China, one starts to feel that anything is possible.”

When it is completed next year, Abraham’s ode to the oceanic will certainly turn heads. But for the title of “most radical,” it will have plenty of competition. China’s construction boom has attracted many of the world’s finest architects, and amid the hurly-burly of the country’s breakneck development they have found a place to realize their most daring visions. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the Swiss team responsible for London’s Tate Modern, have broken ground on an ingeniously intricate stadium for Beijing opera house – a titanium-and-glass dome that will repose in a square. Zaha Hadid’s signature sensuous curves will gird Guangzhou’s new theater complex. Michael Graves has given a makeover to a bank on Shanghai’s Bund. Norman Foster is at work revamping Beijing’s airport. And Rem Koolhaas’ Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture has designed a new headquarters for China Central Television (CCTV) that promises to be one of the world’s largest and most technically complex buildings.

Architecture thrives in societies on the make, and there is no place on earth right now with ambitions the size of China’s. Decades of enforced architectural monotony under communism have left the country with few contemporary landmarks, a shortage of visionary designers and an explosive, pent-up demand for buildings grand enough to embody the nation’s aspirations. Its cities are expanding fast: 6.09 billion sq m of new buildings were constructed between 1999 and 2002 alone, nearly doubling the country’s total built floor space. Add to this a lack of modern urban-design conventions and a vast pool of cheap construction labor, and it’s not difficult to understand why so many architects consider China, as Iraqi-born Hadid puts it, “ an incredible empty canvas for innovation.” Or why Christopher Choa, who came to Shanghai two years ago to head the local office of New York City-based firm HLW, says building in China is “like growing weeds. In my short time here, I’ve built four skyscrapers and designed millions of square feet of urban landscape. In New York, I’d have been happy to do as much in my entire career.”

The concept of the architect as inventor arrived relatively late in China. Until the 1920s when Chinese trained overseas began to return home, the Chinese language didn’t even have a work for architecture. Traditionally, the country’s builders hewed closely to precepts laid out in a philosophical treatise on construction that dated back to the 12th century. With the ascension of the Communist Party in 1949, building became an outlet for ideology, and individual artistry came to be seen as a dangerous form of bourgeois decadence. Even after constraints had loosened, in the 1990s, architects in Beijing were required to top every new skyscraper with a traditional tiled rooftop. But now, as China gropes for new national identity, the one common trope that runs through its multitude of recent building is an obsession with the idea of newness itself. “Clients here don’t know what they want,” says Zhang Gong, a Chinese architect who recently returned to the mainland after 10 years working in New York City and Paris. “They’re looking for something really odd, something to express newness. So they ask the architect to give them the idea.”

The results range from the truly novel to the merely (or disastrously) newfangled. In China, “you’re seeing things that no one in their right mind would build elsewhere,” says Anthony Fieldman, an American architect recently posted to the Hong Kong office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It’s hard to imagine a city outside the mainland that would have commissioned the $543 million Wukesong Cultural Center – an overreaching behemoth of a basketball stadium that is also a hotel, a shopping mall and a 10-story TV screen. It’s part of Beijing’s Olympic buildup, but no one is quite sure how it will be used after the Games are over. Likewise, Shanghai’s much-vaunted Pudong skyline, with its gaggle of futuristic skyscrapers, might look good on a postcard, but it functions better as a symbol than as part of a real city –  its arid streets are almost devoid of human activity. “Architecture in China has become like a kung fu film, with all of these giants trying to vanquish each other,” says Wang Lu, editor of Beijing-based World Architecture magazine.

The lively urban street life of China’s cities might become a casualty of the melee. The mainland’s cities are growing faster and on a larger scale than any in human history. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that by 2015 they will have to absorb some 200 million rural migrants. In the relatively small city of Suzhou near Shanghai, investment in residential construction increased by a factor of 65 between 1990 and 2002. In Shanghai itself, residential housing space has doubled since 1996. Most of the world’s great cities have developed over decades of centuries, their neighborhoods evolving to accommodate the shifting needs of the people who inhabit them. China’s cities, by contrast, are razed and rebuilt almost overnight. Urban planning in the mainland is at best haphazard and dominated by real  estate companies that rent land from the government neighborhood by neighborhood rather than plot by plot. As a result, huge swaths of terrain are often drastically reordered in matter of months at the whim of a single developer. “The problem with building at such a frenzied pace is that is takes time to think,” says Thomas Fridstein, CEO of Hillier Architecture in Princeton, New Jersey, which is working on projects with both the Shanghai and Suzhou governments. And thoughtful urban design is seldom an option. Says Guan Yetong, a planning official for Shanghai’s Xujiahui district: “We’re so busy managing projects that we just don’t have time to think about the big picture.”

“You can have the best architecture in the world, but if you have had planning rules, you’ve wasted your time,” says Richard Burdett, dean of the school of urban planning at the London School of Economics, on a recent visit to Beijing. “When you’re building a new neighborhood, you have to make an effort to identify the DNA of the city.” But much of what passes for urban planning in the mainland looks like genetic engineering gone haywire. The ongoing removal of Beijing’s dilapidated old alleyways, or hutong, may be ridding the city of outmoded housing. But the bulldozers are also eradicating the complex social networks and bustling street life these close quarters nurtured. Zoning ordinances (based on design dogmas long since rejected in the countries where they originated but still use in China) dictate that new residential buildings face south and that most must be spaced as far apart as they are high. The result is often a sprawl of sterile apartment blocks, walled compounds and broad motorways that are as environmentally inefficient as they are psychologically isolating. The congenial adjacencies of schools and sidewalks, storefronts and stoops that form the foundation of urban community life are an increasingly rare sight. China’s cities have begun to look more like suburbs. “There have been a lot of economists involved in the planning of Beijing,” laments Yin Zhi, director of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Urban Planning and Design, “but not a lot of people with cultural expertise.”

IF THERE’S ONE MAN WHOSE WORK IN China most embodies the contradictions, challenges and enormous promise of the country’s architectural-boom times, it is Rem Koolhaas, the Pritzker Prize-winning designer and theorist whose career runs the gamut from teaching at Harvard to enshrining shoes for Prado. In the spring of 2002, the cerebral Dutch hipster was invited to take part in two prominent design competitions: one for ground zero in New York City, the other for the CCTV headquarters in Beijing. Koolhaas skipped New York and chose Beijing, where the 500,000-sq-m gravity-defying trapezoidal loop he would conceive with design partner Ole Scheeren has since become a lightning rod for controversy. Detractors cite the $730 million CCTV project as the ultimate example of the Chinese regime’s tendency to plunder state coffers to glorify its own iron authority and say Koolhaas is an opportunist taking advantage of the country’s unique combination of state power and state capital to realize his own artistic ambitions. Ian Buruma, a writer who is a friend of Koolhaas, wondered aloud in the Guardian, a British newspaper, how the world would have reacted if an architect of Koolhaas’ stature had in the 1970s designed a TV station for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

But Koolhaas, 59, who was one of the first Western architects to study and write about China’s urban explosion, revels in such intellectual tussles. CCTV, he insists, like the mainland itself, “is in mutation” and the building represents an effort to complement the state-owned company’s desire to keep pace with the times. CCTV’s current headquarters is comp;ete;y closed to the public. Koolhaas’s design, in contrast, includes a public “media park” in and around the base of the building intended to foster more interaction between commissars and the masses. “ We are engaged,” he says, “with an effort to support within [China’s] current situation the forces that we think are progressive and well-intentioned… We’ve given them a building that will allow them to mutate.” Says Scheeren: “In all fairness, without CCTV’s change we never would have got to do this project.”

Koolhaas is also interested in mutating the way Beijing thinks about public space. Last year he submitted a proposal to the Beijing government urging it to consider more low-rise, courtyard-style buildings for the capital’s new financial district rather than the standard norm of office towers. That proposal was rejected, but Koolhaas remains convinced that China represents a crucial front in what he calls his “campaign to kill the skyscraper.” Koolhaas has a reputation for theatrics, but in this case his choice of words reflects the depth of his conviction. The Skyscraper, he argues, is an important invention that has outlived its purpose. Devised a century ago to fit more people onto the small island of Manhattan, the form fostered extreme urban density. But spaced so widely apart – as in most mainland cities – skyscrapers inhibit human interaction.

In Beijing, you have these needles and they collect their own little pathetic communities while breaking down the larger community around them,” Koolhaas says with a wince. “It’s an incredible squandering of the potential for exchange. It creates isolation right in the corner of the city.” His scheme for the CCTV headquarters represents one possible solution to this problem. Instead of distributing CCTV’s many units across a series of towers, his mega building will put more than 10,000 of the station’s employees – electricians and executives alike – under the same angular roof, entering through the same doors and riding the same elevators. Koolhaas hopes the monumental loop will encourage more companies to consider similarly daring experiments, even if they seem a little, well, loopy.

It’s unlikely anyone will try to replicate the CCTV edifice, though. The structure of the building (scheduled to be completed in time for the Olympics) is dizzyingly complex. The skyscraping anti-skyscraper consists of two towers braced against each other at a height of 160 m. No two of the 55 stories have the same floor plan. The entire structure is sheathed in a supporting mesh that must be adequately rigid against Beijing’s windstorms but flexible enough to withstand earthquakes. According to Scheeren, the project has engaged 75 engineers for more than a year to compute the stress on every beam – calculations that, he says, must be three times more precise than those required for an ordinary skyscraper. After an initial nod from the jury –  which consisted of foreign and Chinese architects and CCTV employees – Koolhaas and his team spent the summer of 2002 in a tiny workshop in a Beijing hutong preparing a model for China’s political leaders, in part to convince them that the building would actually stand up.

It was partly that hutong sojourn that inspired another of Koolhaas’ mainland projects: a study for Beijing’s urban planners on the preservation of the city’s dwindling stock of old buildings and neighborhoods. On a stroll through the capital he points out a surprising list of structures he would like to see kept in place: courtyard homes, 1960s apartment blocks, and a pair of stainless steel sculptures that resemble lollipops covered in spikes and already look painfully anachronistic, even though they were erected only five years ago. Ensuring that Beijing’s residents have visible evidence of how their city has evolved, Koolhaas asserts, is a necessary counterpoint to his forward-looking building designs. “I don’t want to be a carpetbagger. Westerners have really been, in a certain way, exploitative. They use the opportunities but they don’t really think about the impact. We’re trying to engage in a kind of systematic investigation of what – in the current circumstances and with the current economy – would be a plausible repertoire of urban forms. I think you can invent new forms that are about street life. That’s what interests me: to maintain the specificity of this city.”

PROPERTY DEVELOPMERS RARELY SHARE THESE preoccupations, but there are exceptions. Zhang Xin and her husband, architect Pan Shiyi, co-founders of the private real estate developer SOHO China, are among the country’s most outspoken defenders of the urban habitat. After phenomenal success selling space in her husband’s SOHO New Town, a colorful housing complex on the east side of Beijing, Zhang is now trying to create opportunities for prominent architects to make Beijing a more intimate city.

Last December she announced the results of a competition for part of a vast redevelopment scheme in the southwest corner of the city that will transform a trucking depot into a residential and commercial complex with a daily traffic of 200,000 people. Zaha Hadid, who last month became the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Prize ( architecture’s highest honor), won the contest with a design that calls for winding alleyways, boomerang-shape towers and a variegated array of high- and low-rise structures- a conscious departure from Beijing’s monotonous mess of concrete towers. “The goal of the project,” says Hadid, “is to create instant complexity as if the place developed over 20 years.”

It’s a controversial notion, but one that China must test if it hopes to give birth to cities that rise to the challenges of its rapid urban growth. Closer to the center of Beijing at another of Zhang’s projects, Jianwai SOHO, the idea of the instant neighborhood is catching on. A dazzling asymmetrical arrangement of transparent white apartments, offices and shops designed by Japanese architect Riken Yamanoto, connected by a suspended web of sidewalks, it is Zhang’s attempt, as she puts it, “to advocate urbanism to the market, to create a neighborhood rather than just a compound.”  So far, the market seems convinced. The project’s first three phases of construction-about 300,000-sq m-have completely sold out.

No one can tell yet whether SOHO’s developments will resuscitate community life any more than Abranham’s imposing façade will sell seafood or Koolhaas’ megabuilding effect mega change. What is certain is that however the buildings of this new era are regarded by future generations, they will serve as a powerful record of the explosive, deliriously ambitious, brazenly inventive climate in which China’s cities are now being reshaped. It will be a landscape hewn in the thrashings of a sea of change.  – With reporting by Huang Yong and Jodi Xu/Beijing