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In Changing Face of Beijing, a Look at the New China

If Westerners feel dazed and confused upon exiting the plane at the new international airport terminal here, it's understandable. It's not just the grandeur of the space. It's the inescapable feeling that you're passing through a portal to another world, one whose fierce embrace of change has left Western nations in the dust.

The sensation is comparable to the epiphany that Adolf Loos, the Viennese architect, experienced when he stepped off a steamship in New York Harbor more than a century ago. He had crossed a threshold into the future; Europe, he realized, was now culturally obsolete.

Designed by Norman Foster, Beijing's glittering air terminal is joined by a remarkable list of other new monuments here: Paul Andreu's egg-shaped National Theater; Herzog & de Meuron's National Stadium, known as the bird's nest; PTW's National Aquatics Center, with its pillowy translucent exterior; and Rem Koolhaas's headquarters for the CCTV television authority, whose slanting, interconnected forms are among the most imaginative architectural feats in recent memory.

Critics have incessantly described these high-profile projects as bullish expressions of the nation's budding global primacy. Yet these buildings are not simply blunt expressions of power. Like the great monuments of 16th-century Rome or 19th-century Paris, China's new architecture exudes an aura that has as much to do with intellectual ferment as economic clout.

Each building, in its own way, embodies an intense struggle over the meaning of public space in the new China. And although at times terrifying in their aggressive scale, they also reflect the country's effort to give shape to an emerging national identity.

Mr. Foster's airport terminal, the world's largest, is the purest expression of China's embrace of the Modernist creed. Its swooping form, which suggests two boomerangs placed side by side, has been compared to a dragon. Yet its real precedent is Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, a monument to air travel conceived by Albert Speer in the 1930s as a gateway to a new Europe. Both are part of a vision of a mobile society, one that extends back through Grand Central Terminal to the great train halls of Paris.

Like Tempelhof, the Beijing air terminal boasts a sweeping concourse that evokes the glamour of air travel while enclosing a surprisingly intimate interior. But Mr. Foster pushes the ideal of mobility to a new extreme. Guided by twinkling lights embedded in the terminal's ceiling, arriving visitors glide up ramped floors and across broad pedestrian bridges before spilling out onto the elevated concourse. From there they can disperse along a fluid network of roads, trains, subways, canals and parks whose tentacles extend out through the region.

This sprawling web has completely reshaped Beijing since the city was awarded the Olympic Games seven years ago. It is impossible not to think of the enormous public works projects built in the United States at midcentury, when faith in technology's promise seemed boundless. Who would have guessed then that this faith would crumble for Americans, paving the way for a post-Katrina New Orleans just as the dream was being reborn in 21st-century China at 10 times the scale?

Soaring Art, Deadening Frame
Yet your sense of marvel at China's transformation is easily deflated on the drive from the airport. A banal landscape of ugly new towers flanks both sides. Many of those towers are sealed off in gated compounds, a reflection of the widening disparity between affluent and poor. Although most of them were built in the run-up to the Olympics, the poor quality of construction makes them look decrepit and decades old.

It's the flip side of China's Modernist embrace: tabula rasa planning of the sort that also tainted the Modernist movement in Europe and the United States in the postwar years. China's architectural experiment thus brims with both promise and misery. Everything, it seems, is possible here, from utopian triumphs of the imagination to soul-sapping expressions of a disregard for individual lives.

These tensions and contradictions are encoded in Mr. Andreu's National Theater, just west of Tiananmen Square. Topped by an elliptical titanium-and-glass dome and surrounded by a shallow reflecting pool, the theater complex stands along the Avenue of Eternal Peace, the great east-west corridor that borders Tiananmen Gate.

Lining the avenue are many of the Socialist landmarks built for the 10th anniversary of China's 1949 revolution, from the Great Hall of the People to the Beijing Railway Station and the Revolutionary Museum. The theater is one of the few major cultural monuments to rise in this historic core since Mao's mausoleum was built opposite the Forbidden Palace three decades ago.

Over coffee in Beijing recently, Mr. Andreu described it as a place "open to ordinary citizens".

"It is a place that is very calm," he said. "It is a building that you cannot touch. I didn't want to remove the mystery. You arrive through trees to the edge of the water. But you can also penetrate it. I wanted people to understand that this is for them."

Yet the building's symmetrical layout and monolithic scale invite other interpretations. The isolation imposed by the surrounding reflecting pool is reinforced by the entry sequence: visitors must descend a grand staircase into the earth before passing under the pool and re-emerging in the cavernous dome. It's as if the theater were connected to the city by a gigantic umbilical cord.

The entry passage suggests more haunting comparisons. Yan Meng, a Chinese architect who grew up in Beijing in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, told me that in the 1970s and 80s Tiananmen Square was in many ways the city's social heart. "There were fewer cars, it was more accessible," he said as we drove past the square one afternoon. "You would see people playing cards and flying kites."

After the Tiananmen Square protests and the government's violent crackdown in 1989, the city added pedestrian barriers around the square. Today it can be reached only through underpasses patrolled by security forces, an experience that is more bleak than intimidating. Once you emerge, the square feels like a tourist zone; the Chinese are there mostly to buy and sell cheap souvenirs.

Mr. Yan suggests that the National Theater's circuitous entry echoes the clampdown on public life after the 1989 massacre. "It no longer belongs to anyone," he said of the square. "It is about control."

Pushing What's Possible
But some of the most imposing architectural symbols of China's rising stature reflect a more enlightened reading of how the future might unfold. At their most self-aware, they probe the edges of the possible.

The Olympic Stadium and the National Aquatics Center lie 10 miles north of the city center along its ancient ceremonial axis, putting them on par with the Forbidden City and Mao's mausoleum in national importance. Of the two, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron's stadium is the more photographed and familiar symbol of the Games. Its huge elliptical form is enveloped in a dense latticework of steel columns.

The columns, which twist and bend as they rise, are conceived as a gigantic work of public sculpture. Their outward thrust suggests they are straining to contain the activity inside. That intensity is strangely magnified when the building is empty, as if trembling in anticipation of a mass event.

Yet a conflict over the stadium's future underscores tensions over how the new China will be defined. The stadium is in the center of a sprawling park surrounded by regimented rows of housing towers. After the Games, Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron hope to transform the building into a vast public forum and a visual anchor for the community.

The government prefers to build a fence around it, which would eliminate the parklike openness that is one of its most attractive features. A local developer has proposed creating a subterranean shopping mall at one end of the structure, further undermining the design's public spirit.

"The building is made to be open," Mr. Herzog said. "It is a work of public sculpture." Still, as the architect, all he can do is press for flexibility. "Even if they put up a fence, they can take it down again one day in the future," he said hopefully.

Mr. Koolhaas faces similar strains in his headquarters for CCTV, the state television authority, several miles to the south in Beijing's new business district. Long negotiations have unfolded over how much public access will be allowed: to the architect's distress, CCTV's directors have threatened to close off two public roads that cut through the site. An enormous plaza will also be restricted to the company's employees.

A year away from completion, the CCTV building has already attracted huge global attention and some controversy. Some have condemned Mr. Koolhaas for accepting the commission, likening it to participating in the 1931-33 competition for a Palace of the Soviets in Stalinist Russia. Essentially, they argue, he has designed a monument to a vast propaganda machine.

But the project is a formidable challenge to all of our expectations of what a monumental building should be. Like Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron, Mr. Koolhaas is part of a generation of architects, now in their late 50s and early 60s, whose early careers were shaped in opposition to the oppressive formal purity of mainstream Modernism. They fashioned asymmetrical forms to break down the movement's monolithic scale and make room for outcasts and misfits. The problem they face now is how to adjust that language for clients that include authoritarian governments and multinational corporations.

In his design for the CCTV headquarters, Mr. Koolhaas begins by obliterating any trace of the human scale from the exteriors. There are no conventional windows, no clear indication of where the floors begin and end. The forms completely distort your perspective of the building; it seems to flatten out from some vantage points and bear down on you from others.

As a result it is almost impossible to get a fix on the building's scale. Seen through the surrounding skyline of generic glass-and-steel towers, it sometimes seems to shrink to the size of a child's toy. From other angles it seems to be under a Herculean strain, as if fighting to support the enormous weight of the cantilevered floors above.

This is not just a game Mr. Koolhaas has set out to express the elasticity of the new global culture, and in the process explore ways architecture can bridge the gap between the intimate scale of the individual life and the whirling tide of mass society. The image of authority he conveys is pointedly ambiguous. Imposing at one moment, shy and retiring the next, the building's unstable forms say as much about collective anxieties as they do about centralized power.

He has carved out ample space for places of social exchange. The interior of the building is conceived as an endless loop of public activities, with cafes, viewing decks and galleries extending up through one leg of the structure and back down through the other, where it connects to an underground subway.

The architect sees the dividing line between public and private spheres as an active battleground, one that is constantly shifting and readjusting as society's norms change and evolve. For now, however, it is not the architect who will determine the degree of openness at CCTV but the company's government-appointed board of directors.

It remains to be seen where this will lead. For centuries, architects have aspired to create buildings that enlighten or transform civilization, only to see them remain isolated splendors, with little impact on society at large. That may prove to be the case in China, too.

But there is no question that its role as a great laboratory for architectural ideas will endure for years to come. One wonders if the West will ever catch up.



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