China’s Big Bang

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
, 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

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

‘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

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