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Old August 13th, 2007, 07:26 AM   #1
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Shaping China's Modern Architecture

Draftsmen's Contract; On the ramparts of the Chinese design revolution
13 August 2007
Newsweek International

Architects in China have rarely had to worry about a lack of work; a few years ago, according to a report by Rem Koolhaas and his students at Harvard, China already had "one tenth the number of architects as in the U.S. designing five times the volume of projects." But the work tends to be grim; most designers toil in government institutes, churning out blueprints for one soulless high-rise after another. Yet amid the mediocrity a surprising new climate for sophisticated architecture is developing, most visible in the cutting-edge commissions for the 2008 Olympics. Those projects, spearheaded mainly by star foreign firms, have helped inspire a design counterculture within China, as more young architects open their own studios and revel in experimentation. "Challenging tradition may be China's tradition," says 31-year-old architect Ma Yansong.

While Shanghai is known as the city of sparkling towers, Beijing has become the epicenter of innovative design. Officials have given enormous license to the Olympic designers. The CCTV broadcast center, by Dutch architect Koolhaas and his partner, Ole Scheeren, is a radical rethinking of the skyscraper as a continuous loop. The new airport by the London firm of Foster & Partners is not just the world's biggest terminal but "the world's biggest anything," as Norman Foster puts it, with more than 1 million square meters of space under one roof. And the Olympic stadium, by Herzog & de Meuron of Switzerland, is a 21st-century take on an ancient form. The technology involved in these schemes is awesome: the Olympic aquatic center, designed by the Australian firm PTW, is an immense cube with walls based on the physics of soap bubbles.

Though some avant-garde projects have generated controversy in China, particularly among old-guard academics, many foreign architects have tried to connect to local culture in abstract ways. "How do you register that you are arriving in China, not London or New York?" asks Foster about the airport design. His answer: an immense curving roof, graded with color from bright Chinese red to gold that's been termed "dragonlike." For the Olympic stadium--a bowl of irregular curved steel beams known as "the bird's nest" --Herzog & de Meuron brought in the Beijing artist Ai Weiwei as a consultant. "He knew what kind of meanings this would have in the Chinese mind and soul," says Jacques Herzog.

Infusing radical ideas with a Chinese sensibility is key for young independent Beijing architects. Most have studied or worked abroad and now look for subtle ways to express their culture--through traditional materials, say, or the use of space. "We're always trying to answer the question 'What is contemporary China?' " says Zhu Pei, 45, an architect trained at the University of California, Berkeley. His design for Digital Beijing, the data center for the Olympics, may look like something out of "The Matrix," with its fiberglass walls grooved to look like a computer motherboard, but it screens off the outside world like "paper Chinese windows," he says. Ma Yansong, who studied at Yale and worked in Zaha Hadid's London studio before opening his firm, MAD, in Beijing, has designed the Hong Luo Club, north of Beijing, where a serene Eastern spirit presides. A stunning contemporary structure with a curving roof, it is set against the backdrop of a mountain range and seems to float above a lake, as if taking its inspiration from Chinese scroll paintings.

Yung Ho Chang, at 51 the godfather of this new generation, opened the first independent studio in Beijing less than 15 years ago. He now splits his time between that office and the United States, where he heads the architecture department at MIT. His firm just finished a 45,000-square-meter "campus" in Beijing for one of China's largest software companies, UFIDA. He persuaded the client to build not a conventional high-rise but instead a three-story structure, made of gray concrete block (more environmentally friendly than traditional clay brick), intercut with small courtyards--a local idea--and topped with roof terraces. Chang is deeply concerned not just about contemporary building in China but also about the quality of its cities. "You can sell any given style of architecture today, but it may not have a soul," he says. "A city has to have an urban idea, and Beijing now is a collection of trinkets."

Many indie architects share his concern, though they have yet to make a big mark on Beijing. They're thinking not only about cutting-edge design but about sustainability, historic preservation and the future of the city. After MAD won international recognition for a design for a Toronto tower, "we felt we could talk to the public about concepts, and people would listen," says Ma. So the firm came up with a speculative proposal for Beijing in 2050. The plan calls for keeping some old lanes and courtyards--but boldly proposes turning Tiananmen Square into a "forest park, with museums and libraries, places people would often use," says Ma. The Beijing 2050 plan was showcased at the Venice Architecture Biennale last year (you can see it on the MAD Web site, i-mad.com). The point is not so much to get the design built as to make people stop and think. That's just how the new culture of architecture could have an impact on the future of China--in ways no one can yet imagine.
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