The architecture of the new China

Nicolai Ouroussoff – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
July 13, 2008
BEIJING: If Westerners feel dazed and confused upon exiting the plane at the new international airport terminal here, it is understandable. It is not just the grandeur of the space. It is the inescapable feeling that you are 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.
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 in New York 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 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?
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