Debate on Beijing civic architecture triggers ‘nationalistic’ sentiments

In Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, the brilliant but uncompromising architect Howard Roark riles against architectural monstrosities.

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Debate on Beijing civic architecture triggers ‘nationalistic’ sentiments


HONG KONG: In Ayn Rand’s epochal novel The Fountainhead, the brilliant but uncompromising architect Howard Roark riles against “architectural monstrosities” that pander to crass, commercial tastes - and fights a lonely and wearisome battle to uphold “the triumphant role of creators”.

In Beijing today, in the run-up to next year’s Olympics, a similar battle centred around civic architecture is being waged, but this time from the platform of ‘nationalism’ vs ‘foreign influences’.

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 China’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 ‘old Beijing’.

On the other, several landmark projects that will define the character and visual identity of Beijing have gone to reputed “foreign” 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 ‘Bird’s nest’, where the Olympics inaugural ceremony will be held), designed by the Swiss firm Herzong & de Meuron; the National Aquatics Centre (called the ‘Water cube’), designed by the Australian firm PTW Architects; the Grand National Theatre (dubbed the ‘Duck’s egg’), being designed by French architect Paul Andreu; and the CCTV headquarters (dubbed the ‘Twisted arch’), designed by Belgian architect Rem Koolhas.

One of the most vocal critics of these “Western influences” is Professor Pei-keng Alfred Peng at the leading Tsinghua University’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 “inexperienced” Western architects to treat Beijing as their “architectural laboratory” when there were experienced local architects was a “national shame”.

Last year, Peng wrote to Premier Wen Jiabao criticising the new constructions, which, in language resonant of Howard Roark’s, he called “monstrosities of the highest order”.

Last fortnight, Peng and his fellow-nationalist architects claimed to have won a significant victory in their campaign against “foreign architects” when the government came out with new rules for large urban infrastructure projects that appear to give preferential treatment to “domestic” designers and architects.

As it hurtles forward at breakneck speed on the path of economic growth, China’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 24x7 are not only reshaping the city’s skyline, they are also redrawing the map of the Chinese people’s collective cultural consciousness.

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