Thursday, August 14, 2008

Kurt Andersen's Vanity Fair piece on Beijing architecture

The article begins in the same way as so many like it, wowing and drooling over Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron's National Stadium, Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid complex, Rem Koolhaas's China Central Television headquarters, and Norman Foster's Terminal 3.  At the end, however, instead of condemning Beijing for not building for its local population or the environment, or criticizing the Chinese government for its human rights record, Andersen justifies (persuasively, to my mind) the architects' engagement with China. 

His first move is to put China's record in context by comparing it with America's past and present report card. This move does not aim to whitewash that record, but to show that the wrongs are not unprecedented, and that the same wrongs are still perpetuated by American policy, for instance, doing oil business with tyrants in Saudi Arabia. Andersen warns fellow Americans, ". . . let's not completely conflate our national self-interest with self-righteous moral judgment." 

In his second move, he argues that the architects' engagement strengthens the hand of the more enlightened, progressive members of the Chinese elite. The Koolhaas building's extravagant form breaks open the public self-image of the Chinese establishment. A public circuit, which extends through the whole loop of the building, allows civilians to wander at will, peering into broadcasting studios at all times of the day. To quote Koolhaas in the article: "It's a good thing . . . to introduce public access to this institution at the heart of the Chinese establishment." 

(image from OMA)

Anderson does not make a third move to further his argument, a move which I think is a natural extension of his first two moves (but, perhaps, not germane to the article's architectural focus). A stronger way to influence China's political development is not to hector it, but to put Western liberal democracy's own house in order (i.e. Guantanamo in USA, anti-immigration backlash in Europe). Doing the latter not only removes ammunition from detractors , but provides a positive model for national development. And China is looking for models, in its vast, tentative, uneven search for modernization. It is even looking to Singapore, sending many of its top city and provincial officials to learn from that authoritarian but prosperous one-party state. But Singapore is too small a model for a complex country like China. Everything should be done to encourage Chinese officials and students to study, work and live in the West. 

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