From Mao to Wow

Kurt Andersen – Vanity Fair

Copyright Vanity Fair
August 2008
Beijing is flat and sprawling and smoggy and jammed with traffic and nearly all new, which is why an American friend who’s been working there for the last couple of years calls it “the People’s Republic of Houston.”
When it comes to urban analogies, though, New York City actually seems more apt. Beijing’s historic core—the area with Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the main national government buildings, and some of the few remaining hutong neighborhoods—contains 1.3 million people in its 24 square miles, almost exactly the same as Manhattan; fully urbanized Beijing closely tracks the five boroughs of New York City in area and population; and the greater Chinese capital is about the same size as metropolitan New York.
But having just visited for the first time, I realized that what early-21st-century Beijing even more deeply resembles is New York at the turn of the 20th century. That’s the moment at which modern New York was inventing itself by showstopping leaps and bounds—swallowing adjacent cities and towns and farms, booming in population, and erecting what would become its defining landmarks.
The parallels are uncanny. Beijing’s population has doubled during the last 30 years, just as New York’s did between 1880 and 1910. The first great river span, the Brooklyn Bridge, was built in the 1880s, and New York’s first subway line opened in 1904. Beijing’s dominant piece of urban infrastructure—its five concentric Ring Roads, which loop around the city—was begun in the 1980s and has just been finished. Beijing’s new subway system—100 miles built, 250 more to come over the next seven years—is proceeding apace.
Architecturally, today’s New York is primarily an artifact of that earlier turn of the century. Indeed, most of New York’s greatest iconic buildings sprouted in one breathtakingly brief period. Between 1902 and 1913, the city got Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, and both the Flatiron and Woolworth Buildings—and within the next two decades the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center. The rich, state-of-the-art metropolis that suddenly emerged was this country’s swaggering announcement to the world—Hey, get a load of us!—that the American Century had commenced. The 1939 New York World’s Fair was an exclamation point.
Just as today Beijing is hosting the Summer Olympics and entering its own modern architectural golden age. During the last 30 years, China’s economy has grown sixfold. Like a classic nouveau riche, eager to impress the Establishment of which it has just become a member, China is bragging about the sheer scale of its new go-go monuments: Lord Norman Foster’s new, $3.8 billion terminal at the Beijing airport is among the largest buildings on earth, Rem Koolhaas’s headquarters for China Central Television will be the world’s second-largest office building after the Pentagon … and so on.
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