Today, China is at the frontier of construction activity. More high profile projects are nearing completion in the next year or so than any other place on the planet. However this comes at a certain price. As China surges forward to embrace the “Western Image” and that includes the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games next year, it has to make some tough decisions.
DNA has a very interesting article about the struggle about maintaining identity and redefining it.
HONG KONG: In Ayn Randâ€™s epochal novel The Fountainhead, the brilliant but uncompromising architect Howard Roark riles against â€œarchitectural monstrositiesâ€ that pander to crass, commercial tastes – and fights a lonely and wearisome battle to uphold â€œthe triumphant role of creatorsâ€.
In Beijing today, in the run-up to next yearâ€™s Olympics, a similar battle centred around civic architecture is being waged, but this time from the platform of â€˜nationalismâ€™ vs â€˜foreign influencesâ€™.
It is symbolic of the cultural upheaval that rapidly modernising China is going through, and it is a measure of the intensity of the emotions it has triggered that plans for urban infrastructure for a sporting event have been elevated to the level of a debate on Chinaâ€™s national identity.
On the one hand, entire neighbourhoods of hutongs (old courtyard houses that serve as residential quarters) are being levelled to make way for superstructures and stadiums in what amounts to the wholesale obliteration of â€˜old Beijingâ€™.
On the other, several landmark projects that will define the character and visual identity of Beijing have gone to reputed â€œforeignâ€ architects who, critics argue, have implanted their Western aesthetics without any consideration for Chinese cultural sensibilities.
In particular, four Beijing projects designed by foreign architects have drawn severe flak: the National Stadium (dubbed the â€˜Birdâ€™s nestâ€™, where the Olympics inaugural ceremony will be held), designed by the Swiss firm Herzong & de Meuron; the National Aquatics Centre (called the â€˜Water cubeâ€™), designed by the Australian firm PTW Architects; the Grand National Theatre (dubbed the â€˜Duckâ€™s eggâ€™), being designed by French architect Paul Andreu; and the CCTV headquarters (dubbed the â€˜Twisted archâ€™), designed by Belgian architect Rem Koolhas.
One of the most vocal critics of these â€œWestern influencesâ€ is Professor Pei-keng Alfred Peng at the leading Tsinghua Universityâ€™s School of Architecture.
Peng, who is also an architect and a chairman of Great Earth Architects, a local firm, argues that for China to invite â€œinexperiencedâ€ Western architects to treat Beijing as their â€œarchitectural laboratoryâ€ when there were experienced local architects was a â€œnational shameâ€.
Last year, Peng wrote to Premier Wen Jiabao criticising the new constructions, which, in language resonant of Howard Roarkâ€™s, he called â€œmonstrosities of the highest orderâ€.
Last fortnight, Peng and his fellow-nationalist architects claimed to have won a significant victory in their campaign against â€œforeign architectsâ€ when the government came out with new rules for large urban infrastructure projects that appear to give preferential treatment to â€œdomesticâ€ designers and architects.
As it hurtles forward at breakneck speed on the path of economic growth, Chinaâ€™s cultural identity is being tested on a number of fronts.
The tall cranes that tower over Beijing today and the demolition crews that are at work 24×7 are not only reshaping the cityâ€™s skyline, they are also redrawing the map of the Chinese peopleâ€™s collective cultural consciousness.