A building boom is transforming the country -- and trampling the past
Author and activist Feng Jicai must feel lonely these days. The Chinese government and architects from all over the world are racing to modernize the world's most populous country and fill its cities with skyscrapers that literally erase China's heritage, both physically and psychologically. Already well known in China for criticizing the Cultural Revolution in his oral history Ten Years of Madness, Feng is now trying in vain to slow the cranes before they bury the past forever.
In his hometown of Tianjin, Feng led protests over the demolition of old buildings. He also wrote Rescuing the Old Street, a book detailing his grassroots attempt to halt the destruction of traditional architecture. 'I want to let people know that these are not merely old houses,' he told Mike Meyer in an article for WorldView (Spring 2003), the quarterly of the National Peace Corps Association. 'They're vehicles for traditional culture. If you regard a city as having a spirit, you will respect it, safeguard it, and cherish it. If you regard it as only matter, you will use it excessively, transform it at will, and damage it without regret.'
Feng may be speaking eloquently, but China isn't listening. Beijing is in the midst of a sort of architectural big bang, as enormous construction projects pop up all over the city and the metropolis spirals chaotically outward in all directions. A third, fourth, fifth, and even a sixth ring road have followed the second, which marked Beijing's outer limits until the 1980s. 'Cars move sclerotically around disconnected clumps of newly completed towers that leave the center as empty as Detroit's,' observes architecture critic Deyan Sudjic in the British current affairs magazine Prospect (Nov. 2003).
Much of this is the result of China's overheated economy, but a major focus is the 2008 Olympics, which the country's leaders hope will prove that China has, in Sudjic's words, 'moved beyond its sweatshop economy' into superpower status. The Chinese government ordered two square miles cleared for the construction of the Olympic stadium. Residents of what Sudjic characterizes as a 'busy residential area . . . with little gray-walled houses, workshops, and stores' have been relocated to distant suburbs. Some relocatees have become so despondent that they have committed suicide.
In the middle of all this change, of course, is the authoritarian central government, which turned Beijing into a partly modern city with the help of the Soviets, taking advantage of the fact that, as Sudjic puts it, 'China had no urban tradition in the Western sense.'
But now the city is becoming a showplace of international architecture. Well-known architects such as Rem Koolhaas are jumping at the chance to play a role in China's urban expansion.
Koolhaas 'refused to take part in the ground zero design competition, which he described as an attempt to create a monument on a Stalinist scale,' writes Sudjic. But the Dutchman 'strained every muscle to get his hands on a job that involves building Beijing's tallest towers,' including a 700-foot structure to be the new headquarters for Central China Television, the center of state propaganda.
'For Koolhaas, working in China brings with it the belief that he is moving from mere theory into the making of history,' Sudjic writes. 'He needs China, but not as much, he believes, as China needs people like him. It is an illusion shared by many architects in their dealings with power.' In an almost-too-good-to-be-true irony, Albert Speer, son of Hitler's favorite architect, is pushing for a 24-kilometer-long north-south axis connecting Beijing's Olympic stadium and the huge new railway station -- a grand design that would have made the fhrer's mouth water.
In the bad old days of Maoist repression, one rallying cry was 'Destroy the Four Olds' (old ideas, culture, customs, and habits). The slogan was a symbol of the cultural vandalism, isolationism, and revolutionary 'purity' of 1950s and 1960s China. What's ironic is that the bustling new quasi-capitalist China, filling up with McDonald's, KFC, and trophy architecture, is doing the very same thing.