I was born in the city. The most colorful memories of my childhood were in the city, and despite a hiatus to the suburbs of Atlanta, I continue to dwell in the city. High-density development is a kaleidoscope of variables, each with its own web of complexities. Chinese cities in particular are among some of the densest in the world, and as a result, some of the most esoteric.
Here is an essay of paradox. Here is an essay of contradiction.
This is the image of a real Chinese city.
New. Bright. Cold. Vague. Haunting. A city divided.
Some of these pictures are ones I took this summer visiting Beijing and its surrounding second tier municipalities. All of them explore the dichotomies of a culture reaping the rewards of global capitalism yet at the same time blinded by the contradictions inherited from the past. These are problems complex by nature, rooted deep in the psychologies of the Chinese people – its avenues un-suited, un-navigable for a Western mind; problems whose weight and pressure are emotional.
And in the midst of such discordance, where then, is a proper place for architecture?
50. Boy the game has started
One night in Beijing I went out with my Chinese-American friends to Sanlitun Bar Street, notorious for attracting the young, the hip, the rich, and the ex-pats. While seated at a table along the street, I noticed a middle-aged woman leading her son, not more than three or four. She was carrying about twenty loud, multi-colored balloons and he, one.
I felt a strong visceral reaction as I saw them walking the strip again and over again, crudely brushed over by the Chinese, ignorantly ridiculed by the Westerners. Suddenly, it seemed that the sky had lifted; the ground plane itself had receded. They were not here and neither was I. I was thrown not into their world, but into another intermediate place. Her blank stare and dumb smile in the midst of a hundred drunken, pleasant, hurried dispositions had informed me that such was the only way of life for them. I asked her what she was doing, why she was here, if her son was attending some sort of daycare/pre-school for being out so late on a Wednesday.
“Balloon? Selling balloons. Ten.” Was all she could or would say. Then a fixed smile. Then a thick laugh.
I was uneasy. I began to question many things including the very nature of my twelve plus years of Western education. Where was it mentioned the complications of Capitalism? The consolidation of faces, voices, stories, of human and material capital in Communism? The exponential multiplier at the entanglement of the two?
If there is such thing as a post-war urbanism, where then is the post-liberation urbanism?
The throws of modern paradise were in fact not so sweet after all. I gave her ten RMB and she was grateful. I tried to ask her if they were happy but to no avail. Set in the backdrop of these sleek commercial buildings designed by probably both famous Chinese and Western architects, with Koolhas’ CCTV tower just a few minutes away was a candid image of what real life for some entailed. Beyond famous architecture in the metropolis center, beyond the new, sustainable design, beyond innovation, beyond technology, beyond activity itself, was such cold, melancholic, insipidity.
This is one account of contemporary life in a contemporary Chinese city. The gap between rich and poor defines what we can blatantly see every day, but it is the distance which separates people from happiness that is the true problem, an essentially Chinese problem.
“The Candyman.” I remember buying these candied fruit as special treats during my childhood though I was not aware of the complexities in this simple act. The disturbed expression on this man’s face, perhaps another tragic expression of an unforgiving socioeconomic society.
47. I can still hear that you’re breathing
Is architecture bound to the formal confines of form, function, program, expression? What constitutes this mysterious new sect of urban design? At least in contemporary Chinese cities, there are few examples of a cerebral architecture, few “processes” that are relevant to the context. We see three predominant styles of architecture: the traditional, the Sino-Soviet most closely associated to urban public housing solutions in the 60’s and 70’s and the new wave of contemporary; an agglomeration of Western past and present, with borrowed pieces ripped apart and painfully stitched back together. These three styles lie in shameless cacophony with one another. I.M. Pei famously posed the million dollar question: how to successfully integrate East and West architecturally; henceforth, nobody has successfully answered this question.
In the center of Beijing. Note the traditional pagoda in the foreground and the cluster of Sino-Soviet and contemporary skyscrapers in the far skyline.
Paul Anderu’s National Performing Arts Center, though beautiful in its own right, exemplifies the gulf of incomprehensibility between Eastern and Western vocabularies. Its structure is too massive, too complex and too simple, too abstract and too palpable, too confusing for a Chinese mind. Its location is too adjacent to the ancient jewels to be comfortable. This building is isolated. It is thus a failure in understanding the concept of context. But we are also just as much at fault, for we must carefully ask ourselves why on earth such a proposal was deemed “successful.” I have asked many Beijing-ers and Chinese alike how they felt about the Center, and then about architecture in general. Here is a paraphrase of their responses: “the Center is strange and does not give me a very good feeling.” As for architecture at large, just like the Center: “It is strange and very abstract. I do not understand the shape and form. It is too confusing, I do not understand art, and I do not understand today’s architecture.”
Paul Andreu’s National Performing Arts Center near Tianamen square, central Beijing. To the locals it is better known as “The Big Egg.” The nickname this building has developed reflects its overall sense of incomprehensibility. It is actually rather gray-ish and covered with a thick layer of dust.
45. I try to see your future
What time is it? What year? While in Beijing, I seem to lose my sense of space and time. Everything is a disconcerting flicker – in the morning, of dust, at night, of neon lights, and always, of passing figures. Immediacy is the measure of all things, and money is what quantifies them. And we, a hundred thousand faces, watch at a fair distance. A million micro-moments pass. We are yet still transfixed in the very present, paralyzed with banality.
The Chinese themselves are unaware of the reason for their unhappiness. The effects of a tragic recent history are still alive in the psychologies of all, let alone visible on every corner of the external world. Our vocabularies are programmed, our buildings, counterfeited. Originality died some seventy years ago and has never been revived since. And in a society as wealthy as such, as unhappy and disillusioned as such, we can no longer afford appropriation.
(Italicized phrased courtesy from Tian Yuan’s “50 Seconds From Now.”)
[ beijing, cities, contemporary life ]