The third and final day of the conference - for me at least - and the sky in Beijing is cool, grey and damp, shrouding any memories of the clear blues and crisp shadows of the opening day. The air itself seems thicker, somehow.
The air quality here is usually bad, at least by the standards of Sydney, say. There’s a Twitter feed of Beijing air quality, which paints a fairly clear picture. (Intriguingly though, it’s from a measuring station atop the US Embassy, which is not far from a motorway and whose daily reading at 1900 hours catches the end of rush hour. If I were China, I’d feel that this, and the Wall Street Journal’s Beijing Air Quality widget might be a none-too-subtle form of propaganda. There is a difference in measurement too, with the US figures measuring different pollutants to the Beijing sensors.)
However, it occurs to me later that it’s also possible to too easily connect the way the sky looks with air quality issues. Beijing (and much of Eastern China) has always have been subject to a misty atmosphere, as much ancient Chinese visual media attests.
There’s no doubt, however, that the air quality can often by filthy. By the end of an afternoon spent walking over the city, I’m suffering for sure. However, there’s also something genuinely fascinating, even thrilling, about the air and the particular conditions it creates, as Bryan Boyer described after his first visit to Beijing, when he was similarly breathless (pun intended.) The way the immediate environment fades in the near distance, everything feels tantalisingly out-of-reach and the city itself seems as if it could simply continue for ever, as if beyond the edges of the map.
“As a visitor it's pathetically easy for me to put aside the sad reality of the pollution and its long-term effects on the people who live there. For the moment I'm in thrall with the incredible optics of a city that is so vast it yields the potential for, but ultimately denies, infinite vistas with vanishing points in every cardinal direction. These forever-boulevards literally choked by smog are tragically beautiful with something akin to the sad sadism of foie gras. In so many ways, Beijing is the foie gras of cities: ethically complicated but undeniably exquisite. It's a city that any kid who grew up with video games already knows: the Z-buffer culling of distant objects to reduce render time is exactly what dense smog produces. Successive layers of massive buildings and leafless trees rendered as increasingly pale outlines encapsulate you in a little sphere of existence, your own little microcosm of the endless city, as if seeing the whole thing at once would simply require too much processing power from your human brain. Please upgrade your buffers before you visit the city of the future Beijing has vanquished the vanishing point. What's next?” [Bryan Boyer, Of This We Are Sure]
That’s exactly right, and I too am that careless visitor entranced by the chilly fug enveloping everything around me in a beguiling poisonous embrace. I do later feel the visceral effects of being outside in Dashanzi all afternoon, but early this morning the atmosphere is simply intriguing.
Interestingly, Steven Holl, in the excellent Urbanisms: Working with doubt (Princeton Architectural Press), describes this an entirely different way. He talks not about the Z-buffer but the Z-axis, reclaiming the section for 21st century urbanism, and about “multiple horizons and vanishing points” in Beijing. He nimbly side-steps (or ignores) the failed ‘streets in the sky’ model of mid-20th-century housing projects and instead proposes that the “Z dimension of the development of buildings in section has overtaken the planimetric. The section can be fifty times more consequential than the plan, especially in metropolitan centers such as Manhattan, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.”
Referring to Linked Hybrid (of which more later), and in suggesting it directly “responds to the real pressures of rapid urbanisation”, he writes:
“All architectural works are in some way urban works; they either deny or affirm the potential of the city. The metropolitan density of the twenty-first century asks for a further spatial affirmation in the vertical and the diagonal. A diagonal rise by elevator through overlapping spaces of a modern metro station yields an open-ended spatial sensation. The limited conditions of linear perspective (from planimetric projections) disappear as modern urban life presents multiple horizons and vanishing points.” (Steven Holl, p.25 of Urbanisms)
But as interesting as this strategy is, driving from the Chaoyang District to CAFA on this grey morning, the vanishing points vanish rather than multiply.