Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Belly of an Architecture

November 6, 2012, 7:33 am

The Belly of an Architecture

BEIJING - Late last month, I attended the opening of the British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid's latest work, the Galaxy Soho. A gargantuan structure of white curved orbs connected by sky-bridges, it towered over the squat, Soviet-style buildings nearby - like a spaceship just landed in downtown Beijing.

Thousands of people had turned up to see the new structure unveiled. They swarmed three floors of indoor balconies, straining to catch a glimpse of Hadid giving a talk in an inner courtyard below. Despite the crush, the atmosphere was giddy.

The people of Beijing seem excited about how their city is being shaped. And so they should be. Architecture in China today is bold and unapologetic.

But it embodies China's rapid growth in less positive ways, too. Although the industry is buoyant these days, its long-term benefits for the people who live here are questionable. Too often, form trumps function.

The creative space given to architects in Beijing - despite complaints that too many are foreign - offers a welcome distraction to the ambient ugliness. Beijing is seeped in gray, and notable for vast boulevards and imposing squares, clogged ring roads and the drab tower blocks that line them. Until recently, relief from this bleakness could be found mainly in remarkable imperial sights, the historic hutongs - of which a tiny percentage are now left - and a handful of funky areas like 798 Art Zone, a former factory area that was converted into an art district beginning in the late 1990s.

Since Beijing won the bid to host the Olympic Games in 2008 construction has been rabid. But if impressive new buildings are improving the city's look, the real gems are few and far between. Concerns about visual context are less pressing here than in much of the United States or Europe. Ultimately, Beijing's skyline is being shaped by politics more than anything, leading to poor urban planning and questionable construction standards.

Many buildings created to inspire awe stand on huge, inhuman streets - themselves designed for cars rather than people - behind menacing gated squares. Iconic buildings, including those designed for the 2008 Olympics, have scant regard for the individual. The iconic "Egg," or National Center for the Performing Arts, is a gorgeous dome completely surrounded - and shielded - by a pool of water.

Poor construction - a byproduct of fast development, corruption and unskilled migrant laborers - also is a stain on Beijing architecture. Last summer, a large panel toppled from the sheer glass front of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, the state-owned institution responsible for large-scale public design; it remained unfixed for months.

Or take Sanlitun Soho, a project opened in 2010 by SOHO China Limited, Beijing's largest real-estate developer and the company behind the new Hadid building. Designed by the renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, Sanlitun Soho's five shopping malls and nine office and apartment buildings cluster around an outdoor waterscaped courtyard. The complex is intimidating. Its commercial space is largely empty, thanks to a glut of malls elsewhere in Beijing. In winter, racing winds howl through the courtyard. Some finishings are already scuffed from lack of upkeep, giving the development a desolate feel.

Last month, just as I walked out of the Galaxy Soho after the glitzy opening, I stepped into a mega traffic jam on the 2nd ring road. However smooth and white the building's interior, the world outside remains noisy and chaotic.

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