Monday, August 04, 2008
It's Only One Short Step from “Wow” to “Bow-Wow”
I UNDERSTAND what my friend Kurt Andersen means when he writes in From Mao to Wow! that Beijing is the new New York:
Beijing’s historic core—the area with Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the main national government buildings, and some of the few remaining hutong neighborhoods—contains 1.3 million people in its 24 square miles, almost exactly the same as Manhattan; fully urbanized Beijing closely tracks the five boroughs of New York City in area and population; and the greater Chinese capital is about the same size as metropolitan New York.
But having just visited for the first time, I realized that what early-21st-century Beijing even more deeply resembles is New York at the turn of the 20th century. That’s the moment at which modern New York was inventing itself by showstopping leaps and bounds—swallowing adjacent cities and towns and farms, booming in population, and erecting what would become its defining landmarks.
The parallels are uncanny. Beijing’s population has doubled during the last 30 years, just as New York’s did between 1880 and 1910. The first great river span, the Brooklyn Bridge, was built in the 1880s, and New York’s first subway line opened in 1904. Beijing’s dominant piece of urban infrastructure—its five concentric Ring Roads, which loop around the city—was begun in the 1980s and has just been finished. Beijing’s new subway system—100 miles built, 250 more to come over the next seven years—is proceeding apace.
Architecturally, today’s New York is primarily an artifact of that earlier turn of the century. Indeed, most of New York’s greatest iconic buildings sprouted in one breathtakingly brief period. Between 1902 and 1913, the city got Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, and both the Flatiron and Woolworth Buildings—and within the next two decades the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center. The rich, state-of-the-art metropolis that suddenly emerged was this country’s swaggering announcement to the world—Hey, get a load of us!—that the American Century had commenced. The 1939 New York World’s Fair was an exclamation point.
But (you knew that was coming) the architects of 100 years ago had very different goals than the Starchitects of today, and so they made a very different place than Koolhaas & Co. want to make. As Classical architects, they believed the first job of an architect was to make his building reinforce and improve the public realm. Trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, they had been exposed to the great cities of Europe, and they wanted to simultaneously rival, emulate and surpass the European capitals. When presented with a new commission, even the most important commission, they wanted to make a great city even more than they wanted to make a great building. The City Beautiful movement and New York's Municipal Art Society were the result.
Society and the rulers of New York agreed. They wanted a great metropolis, and thought of that when they built the Metropolitan Opera, the Metropolitan Museum and the Metropolitan Club. When the private railroads built their stations, they also built gateways that surpassed any in Europe. "You used to enter the city like a god," Yale historian Vincent Scully famously said about McKim, Mead & White's Pennsylvania Station (demolished in 1963 - "Now you creep in like a rat," Scully continued).
I haven't been to Beijing, but the pictures I see make it look more like a place for rats than gods. The old neighborhoods like the one pictured above are rare. Most have been torn down and replaced by streets that look more like Houston's than New York's (Kurt calls these sections the "People's Republic of Houston"). The streets are what my friend Jim Kunstler calls "auto sewers," too vast and unprotected for pedestrians or the once ubiquitous cyclists too feel comfortable on them. The streets are surrounded by hideous buildings that make little effort to shape a good public realm. So bad that they resulted in a New York Times story called 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.
The reasons for this are fairly simple. Although there is popular bottom-up movement in Beijing to protect the city's newly chic old neighborhoods, China's top-down leaders emulate architectural ideas from the West. Old Chinese neighborhoods are not part of their vision, but Starchitects are. And Starchitects believe in the object building (their monument to themselves) more than they believe in the public realm and the common good it symbolizes and houses.
Koolhaas, a Dutchmen, also thinks European cities are bad models for urban design today (although of course he lives in an old building, in an old neighborhood in an old city, London). He says Atlanta and Houston are better.
The average new Beijing building is hit by a quadruple whammy: it has no urban model (Houston is an auto-based model); in the Starchitect model all architects aspire to make their building special, like CCTV, but many lack the budget and the talent; cities and the shaping of public space need more background buildings than foreground buildings; and the average building in Beijing is not important enough to be designed by Rem or Zaha, who can only spend so much of their lives on planes to Asia. In other words, the average new building in Beijing sucks, which pretty much means most of Beijing sucks.
Sitting in this sea of suckitude (a word from a Chinese friend), are the Starchitects' monuments. I haven't seen them in person, which can be crucial to a good understanding, but in their photos, they look universally scaleless and pedestrian unfriendly. Like the CCTV building in the rendering below, they seem to be set in vast, unshaped spaces and to have no humanly-scaled elements mediating between their enormous masses and the antlike pedestrians who approach them.
Opinions on the new monuments do vary. Kurt calls CCTV "freakish," which for me at least is not the equal of "beautiful." The architecture critic for the Providence Journal calls the new Olympic Stadium "the barbed wire nest" rather than the preferred "the bird's nest," but then the Chinese dissident who thought up the "bird's nest" moniker also says of today's Beijing: "It's like another revolution. The speed of it. But if you look at the scale of it, you can tell that no time has been devoted to thinking. It has not been done gracefully. It's rough and shortsighted and temporary. . . . I'm sure there's going to be a lot of saying sorry later."
David Brussat, the Providence critic, writes of CCTV, “Koolhaas says it has a ‘barbaric beauty.’ If you say so! To me it seems to say to the Chinese: ‘Someday I will fall, but in the meantime I will stomp on you.’ ” Until I've seen the building in person, I'll accept Kurt's judgement that there is something great about it. But I don't know that it's contributing anything more to the city than a WOW moment when seen from afar.
No one ever thought of calling Charles McKim or Stanford White a Starchitect, even though McKim, Mead & White is the best architectural office in the history of America. Their practice and designs were not about their egos, and New York is the better for it.
White, McKim and all the graduates of the Ecole and its programs in America had a system of principles and models for urban design and Classical and vernacular architecture. They could design appropriate solutions at any scale of building, from streets of worker housing in an industrial village to civic monuments like the Washington Square Arch and Grand Central Terminal. They were at the top of a system that produced great urban neighborhoods like Brooklyn's Park Slope where none of the important decisions were made by architects.
The Starchitect system can only produce great monuments, often in the wrong place, or for the wrong client (whatever the Starchitect designs is intended to be the most important building in its city). For every great monument like Bilbao it produces a thousand clunkers like Blue and San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum. And 100,000 anti-urban clunkers in Las Vegas, Houston, and American sprawl in general.
When Starchitect Frank Gehry turns his hand to urban design, he produces the anti-urban Atlantic Yards (even though Park Slope is only a few hundred yards away). Rem Koolhaas made Eurolille, a second-rate version of Atlanta in Europe. What good is the freakish CCTV if it is part of a system that is destroying cities in both the East and the West?
PS: I just found photos of CCTV here. Before seeing them I hadn't realized that the building sits right next to an inner-city highway crashing through the city.
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The same is true in Bucharest, only there, the comissions are executed by architects who failed elsewhere, or starchitect impersonators.
The old famous architecture of the 19th and turn of century is left in ruins so that the plots they occupy can be converted into profitable real estate ventures without any concern for the urban landscape or historical landmark. The quality of the construction is execrable yet sold for exorbitant prices.
The students from Bucharest's school of architecure have also organised(I was at one such colloquium) but the movement remains underground, and as everywhere, money makes politics.
The "stars" who serve the powerful interests, take the money and run, no matter what they leave behind. If curious, you can take a look here
Posted by: Michaela BH at Aug 5, 2008 10:45:36 AM