When in China, inhaling and exhaling the ever present perfume of construction sites, being exposed to the constant change of cities, when trying to understand and being part of an urban flight forward, it can be at times very difficult to understand what is really happening. The question one asks oneself when floating in the eye of the storm is how to force a standstill, how to suspend one’s enthusiasm and put one’s feet back on solid ground? How to cope with the exhausting and narcotic nature of transformation? How to stay away from notions of transition and move into a more appealing, fundamental and necessary way of analyzing, debating, participating and designing.
When in China, it is hard to tell whether we see a translation of Western forms of urban development, a strange dialogue between Western and Eastern forms or a continuation of Eastern concepts.
Beijing‘s urban evolution benefited from a strange form of equality. In its rush to become a modern city, or at least having the appearance of one, its planners and developers unconsciously, or deliberately, mixed eminent architects with the poor ones, the sharks with the piranha’s, co-existing in one fishtank, opening the door for second-class, third-rate foreign architects. Some even said that China opened its doors for unqualified architects. Even if that were true, one couldn’t spot the difference between all their designs. Consequently, Beijing presents to its inhabitants and visitors a city where good and bad designs are harmoniously intermingled. When in Beijing, know that this evolution is not unique to the Capital City, but is potentially the way in which all cities in developing countries are, or will be, dealing with their progress.
When in China, make sure to explain everything, even if it makes no sense at all. When doing so, remember the words of Fei Qing who stated from the point of view of Chan (the Chan Sect of Buddhism, known in the West by the Japanese name Zen, which emphasizes simplicity, spontaneity and self-expression), putting unrelated things together might produce something new. What one can see here is the denial of the ideal hierarchy of the crucial and the incidental.
The urban and architectural development of Beijing, or of any large city in China that combines in its urban progress a mix of anonymous blocks, ill-shaped peoplescrapers, robust government buildings, sharp museum sites, iconic office buildings, small parks,… is the conquest of urban space, a performance comparable with the analysis of “true wrestling” as made by the French philosopher and linguist Roland Barthes, in his book Mythologies (1970). What could be happening here, and nobody actually seems to know what is happening, is that whether architecture is conceived, planned and designed in second-rate offices, by the avant-garde or the large design institutes, the objective is to present a spectacular nature. To quote Roland Barthes: “the public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest [in this case I would change ‘contest’ into ‘urban development’] is good or not, and rightly so, it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences. What matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.”
When in China, deal with speed. When in China, deal with the understanding of the speed within the country itself, as well the speed it forces upon the understanding of the rest of the world. This new organization of the world is based both on the invasion of architecture on previously unexplored territories and on what Paul Virilio describes as “a sort of recapitulation of the world obtained by the ubiquity, the suddenness of military presence, a pure phenomenon of speed, a phenomenon on the way to the realization of its absolute essence.”
When in China, deal with the mediocrity that speed is imposing on the city.
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“Mediocrity and the Metropolis” by Bert de Muynck
Published in JongArsitek, May, 2008
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