Monday, September 20, 2004
Prometheus In China &
"Truly Bad Buildings"
In a series of strange stories about the architectural tipping point and the paradoxes that follow — see here and here for two of many possible links — here's the strangest, and saddest, yet. In China Pulls Up the Drawbridge, the New York Times reports that residents of Beijing are literally killing themselves to save their traditional neighborhoods from what Jane Jacobs accurately called "urban removal."
There is "outrage," it says,
over the demolition of traditional neighborhoods — particularly the hutongs where extended families have lived for centuries in a tight fabric of single-story buildings connected by thin alleys — and the forcible eviction of their residents.... Some residents selected for relocation have responded by killing themselves in grisly public protests, including a few cases of self-immolation.And yet the gist of the Times story is not that people are burning themselves to death to save their neighborhoods, but that China is cutting back $37 billion in work in Beijing for Starchitects.
The news about the deaths comes more than three-quarters of the way through the unusually long story (more than a page and a half in the New York edition). The opening paragraph says,
For a while, it was looking like the Wild Wild East here. After essentially sealing the country off from foreign architects for much of the 20th century, the Chinese government kicked off the 21st by turning itself into the biggest single patron of avant-garde architecture in the world.It goes on to talk about many of the Starchitects working in Beijing, and the reasons why China might be cutting back on their work. The fourth paragraph says,
...Mr. Koolhaas was wary. In his new book, "Content," he writes that he feared that the era of adventurous form and vast budgets might give way to "a refusal of the Promethean in the name of correctness and good sense."Is the Times saying that "adventurous form" and Blobitecture are more newsworthy than demonstrations, deaths, and self-immolation? It seems crazy to write that, but when you re-read the story, that's the logical conclusion, based on emphasis and location in the story. "Avante-garde" architecture is what gets the lead and most of the emphasis in the text. (There's a link to an online slide show of the buildings here.)
Well, Prometheus has left the building.
A funny (not "ha-ha" funny) coincidence in the story is the relationship between Prometheus, cited by Koolhaas, and the demonstrators. Prometheus gave fire to mankind: an act that ever since has been used as a metaphor for creativity. In Prometheus Unbound, Percy Bysshe Shelley saw the act as a regeneration of good over evil. Obviously the demonstrators burning themselves to death have a different feeling about the agents of urban removal.
In a related story the same day, the Times chronicles "Beijing's Truly Bad Buildings":
For every Zaha Hadid tower in the works for the capital, there are hundreds of forgettably mediocre buildings already in place, displaying the sort of mirrored-glass facades and gilded decoration that went out of style in America sometime in the 1980's. . . . A few pieces of this new architecture stand out for their aggressive awfulness. To pay tribute to those buildings, a group of young Americans in Beijing are launching a Web site, www.chinesetriad.org/bab.One of these buildings is pictured below. How many Chinese think the building below is bad and the one above good? For that matter, how many Americans or Europeans think that? The Chinese hired Rem Koolhaas, Herzog & de Meuron, Steven Holl et al after asking for the names of the most famous Western architects. Are they surprised or disappointed by the esoteric architecture they got?
I've visited good buildings by Koolhaas, but when I look at the Chinese television building above, I see a bigger, grosser, uglier version of the ugliest building at Harvard (click here for a Harvard Crimson article, Snap, Yo' Momma's Uglier Than One Western Avenue).
Modernism has always had the problem that for every great landmark like Ronchamps, there were a hundred bad buildings. When architecture becomes as esoteric and novel in its aims Starchitecture today, most people lose their ability to judge. What makes Koolhaas's building great, except for the fact that it's by Koolhaas? Why is Koolhaas's building great, and the "kitsch" building kitsch? Why is Starchitecture more newsworthy than the lives of demonstrators?
It's all very strange. And we haven't even talked about the fact that these buildings are part and parcel of the Chinese drive to industrialism that has them on the road to become the largest consumers of gas and oil in a world of diminishing resources.
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"Truly Bad Buildings":
Tracked on Sep 21, 2004 10:43:55 PM
Tracked on Sep 21, 2004 10:45:05 PM
» Will Beijing avoid Athens' construction headaches? from Rhine River
... Beiing planners are rethinking these building projects. Early this year the Chinese became alarmed by the collapse of a terminal at de Gaulle airport, a project designed by Andreu, the architect who designed the national theater. The emerging com... [Read More]
Tracked on Sep 22, 2004 1:05:12 PM
» Prometheus in China Redux from Veritas et Venustas
Human Rights Watch documents the evictions and deaths discussed below both online and in a PDF. I've sent a letter to the New York Times. We'll see how it goes [Read More]
Tracked on Sep 23, 2004 6:50:46 AM
» Letter(s) to the Editor from Veritas et Venustas
I've had letters published in the New York Times, but never one that criticized their architecture critic. Coincidence? Here's one related to Prometheus in China. There are two more here. To the Editor: Those of us who read the former and present archi... [Read More]
Tracked on Sep 28, 2004 10:51:27 PM
Good call John. You should make more of this. It's absolutely disgusting and what makes me even sicker is that even the Leftish press has fallen for it.
Posted by: Matthew Hardy at Sep 21, 2004 5:35:28 AM
Keept at it. It's important for people to recognize that a different and more horrible "international style" of quirky and gigantic buildings is taking place world wide. Pretty soon everything in Asia will look like another version of downtown Hong Kong.
See my bolg remarks on this same subject: http://konradperlman.typepad.com/konrad perlman.
As usual, John, you're right on target.
Posted by: Konrad Perlman at Sep 21, 2004 12:38:52 PM