A New Beijing, in Focus

Don’ be distracted by the hubbub surrounding the impressive buildings Beijing is constructing for the Olympics. It’s the people of the Chinese capital who need your attention.

A few years ago I attended a product-design conference deep in the bowels of the Time Warner Center. At one point, a panelist explained a recent conundrum: A soft-drink firm had asked him to design a water bottle; he turned down the invitation, because in his opinion people shouldn’t profit from life-sustaining elements like water. The company pressed him, and eventually he gave in. But what about his principles? Without a tinge of irony, he told the audience he realized he could “replace ethics with aesthetics”—that it was OK to help someone profit off bottled water, because the buyer would be getting something beautiful in the process. Everyone, especially the designer, could sleep well at night.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that designer’s dilemma as I read the glowing assessments of China’s new architectural bounty, much of it designed by western firms. There is much to admire. I haven’t seen Herzog and de Meuron’s National Stadium or Foster and Partners’ Terminal 3 in person, but if they are even a fraction as wonderful as they appear in Architectural Record or Vanity Fair, then China is surely the “it” country for contemporary building design.

But these grand projects also involve working for a communist government, one that denies its citizens even basic political and human rights, tolerates an immense pool of corruption and graft, and uses its collectivist principles as a cover to enrich the elite. According to the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, a Geneva-based NGO, at least 1.25 million people had been forcefully displaced by Olympic-related construction as of April 2007, with an estimated 250,000 more to go by the opening ceremony. These people have had no reliable process to appeal their moves and will see little if any compensation.

All of which presents the architecture critic with a spot of bother. Already at risk of pedantry, is he also an apologist for repression? How do you praise a building, and the government client that built it, without recognizing the ugly human factor behind it?

Too often, critics simply ignore the question. In early July Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times managed to write a 1,950-word piece praising the sheer awesomeness of new Beijing without a single mention of its hundreds of thousands of displaced residents. He did, however, repeat Rem Koolhaas’s assertion that, in the critic’s words, the “unstable forms” of his immense China Central Television headquarters “say as much about collective anxieties as they do about centralized power”—i.e., that its aesthetics undergird the shaky ethics of designing a massive trophy for the state-supported media empire.

How do you praise a building, and the government client that built it, without recognizing the ugly human factor behind it?And when, in the same piece, Ouroussoff did critique the new architecture in China, it was on similarly narrow grounds. Driving by rows of drab new apartments built to house the city’s rapidly expanding middle class, he wrote, “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.” In another column a few weeks later, he lamented the destruction of Beijing’s hutongs, the traditional alleyways that often double as kitchens, laundries, and storefronts. The social cost has been immense, but again, he focuses on the loss to the architectural fabric of the city and the destruction of old neighborhoods—without ever saying why that fabric is so important to maintain, beyond matters of taste.

Perhaps this unfair to Ouroussoff. Unlike many of his fellow critics, he at least occasionally sounds ambivalent about what all this development might actually mean for the Chinese, and every so often he tweaks an architect’s self-serving defenses. When he asked Jacques Herzog about a fence planned around his Olympic Stadium, he let Herzog hang himself: “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.” Ouroussoff might accept the exchange of ethics and aesthetics in principle, but he’s not sure it’s a good deal.

But most critics have sold out completely. In the August Vanity Fair, Kurt Andersen penned “From Mao to Wow!” (really, what more needs to be said?), in which he wrote, “OK: so I guess I’m an apologist for China”—after which he trotted out a canned defense of China’s architecture boom: “As big-power misbehavior and unsavoriness go, are these really so unprecedented?” “We should be careful about throwing stones.” The United States, he points out, killed a lot of Native Americans and took a lot of land, so where do its citizens get off defending Tibet? And besides, China has come so far, and with all this great architecture, he argues, aesthetics really can boost ethics: “If the Chinese are deferring to and succeeding at the highest levels of global architectural taste, that’s one more way they’re acceding to the liberal global order.”

Where to begin? The defining-down of the Chinese government’s venality—“misbehavior,” as if Beijing were just a truculent eight-year-old. The idea that political morality is just a matter of precedent—though after Hitler, what form of political violence doesn’t have a precedent? The idea that modernization inexorably translates into liberalization, a fact lost amidst the Soviet Union’s massive dams and rockets.

Andersen’s not so much defending a repressive state as dismissing anyone who says it matters. This is really neat-o architecture, after all.And what’s this “we”? My passport doesn’t automatically make me a defender of George Custer. It’s a typical trope of totalitarian governments to conflate its citizens with the state, so I’m surprised to see Andersen doing the same. Oh, right. He’s already admitted he’s an apologist.

But the real problem with Andersen’s perspective—and one he shares with Ouroussoff and many other critics—is that he’s not so much defending a repressive state as dismissing anyone who says it matters. This is really neat-o architecture, after all. With the soaring columns of Olympic Stadium and the glowing bubbles of the National Aquatic Center, who wants to crash the party by talking about political repression?

All of which raises the question: Is architecture just art, or is it something more? Vitruvius valued architecture as much for its usefulness as for its beauty, and the stripped-clean designs of the early modernists were driven by concerns for efficiency and equality; ornamentation was a “crime,” Adolph Loos wrote, in part because it made architecture needlessly expensive. And today there are many architects—Shigeru Ban, Cameron Sinclair—who self-consciously design around the needs of poor and disaster-stricken populations. For such architects, the “function” in the modernist adage “form follows function” isn’t just a call for more right angles, but rather an exhortation to place a priority on social needs and uses.

But just as often the architecture world gets tired of people, with their politics and disagreements and pedestrian tastes, and it turns inward, praising buildings for their formal qualities without ever considering whether they’re of any actual use to the people involved. When Peter Eisenman’s 1989 Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State sprang leaks and cracks requiring a three-year, $15.8 million renovation, Eisenman dismissed the problems as the cost of great architecture. “There’s not an architect I know that doesn’t have problems with important buildings,” he told the New York Times in 2005, as the renovation neared its completion. “Wright, Corbu, Mies. Look at Mies and the Farnsworth House—enormous problems.” Aside from a few snipes, the community let him get away with it.

And thus the siren song of China. “What attracts me about China is that there is still a state,” Koolhaas said recently. “There is something that can take initiative on a scale and of a nature that almost no body that we know of today could ever afford or contemplate.” Politics comes in the back door. It’s not that Koolhaas dismisses anything but aesthetics; it’s that he dismisses liberal democracy, with its messy arguments and project-delaying interest conflicts. Andersen is right there with him, announcing breathlessly, “It’ll be up to our children’s generation to decide if this is—was—the beginning of the Chinese Century. But on the ground in Beijing, it’s hard to imagine otherwise.” Kurt Andersen, winner of the First Annual Walter Duranty Prize for Journalistic Sell-Outs to Nasty Political Regimes.

I don’t mean that foreign architects shouldn’t practice in China, or that critics shouldn’t assess their stadiums and skyscrapers on their aesthetic merit. But it would be nice to see a concern for actual human beings return to the center of the architectural field of vision: A recognition that architects build but also displace, that buildings can look great but facilitate repression, that the best-looking buildings might not be worth much to regular folks, while the most banal structures might actually make the biggest difference in people’s lives. A recognition that aesthetics can never replace ethics. If we did, we would still ooh and ah over the CCTV tower. Just a little less avidly.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen