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.
Off the bus, and into the main auditorium of CAFA’s immaculate museum building, settling in to the last day. I'm a little early, which gives me another chance to look at the Beijing Typography 2009 exhibition. It's an exploration of Chinese character sets, whose near-endless variations are endlessly interesting.
Into the auditorium. The (Chinese) girl next to me is running MacOSX on a Dell netbook - “a DIY Mac”, she explains. Masking tape over the Dell logo, hacked Apple logo on the other side. Let no one tell you this isn't a culture of originality. Some of the reappropriations and hacks here are amongst the most creative I’ve seen.
The great ident runs, and the first speaker up is Carsten Nicolai, whose work I’ve admired for a very long time, across numerous media (notes on his talk here). He’s followed by book designer Les Suen and the RCA’s Fiona Raby, which makes for a fairly high-class morning. Suan’s work I didn’t know, but now rate highly, and it was a pleasure to meet Raby, whose work I’ve also admired from afar for a long time. The format of the morning is essentially traditional — lectures/presentations, although Suen playfully subverts this, followed by panels and a Q+A at the end of the day — though it works. Notes on Suen and Nicolai to follow.
After these three sessions, I’m on the panel about multidisciplinary design, with Raby and the great Dutch graphic designers LUST … The notes I’d scribbled down on my phone beforehand — which I barely referred to at all, of course — went a little something like this:
- Multidisciplinary design is not something you do - it's more akin to a system, place, environment. You don't say "I'm about to do some multidisciplinary design" …
- Not interested in the idea of a broad ‘MA in Creative Industries’ and the like. I think the slow considered accretion of craft skills is important. You can switch gears and learn other disciplines later, but you need a strong craft skill - balanced with broad and general understanding of context and an ability to communicate.
- The difficulty of corporate environment which tends to mitagate against good multidiscplinary work (Fordist separation of labour)
- Also clients are not so interested in multidisciplinary design - it's something we might care about, but they don’t give a stuff how we get there (largely). We try to sell holistic service - but developers are rarely interested. They actually seem to find it easier to manage disparate components - perhaps they also prefer to spread their bets or divide and conquer.
- Either way it's difficult at that scale of 10000 employees, just as the corollary is partly true - that it’s essentially necessary or inevitable with only 5-10 employees.
- At the BBC, the apparently mundane tweaking of job titles, grades, process, and environments were as key in terms of enabling multi-dis as anything else. At Arup, there are similar issues. Always consider the environment around something, around design; create the conditions for multi-dis rather than enforce. (Always design a thing in its next larger context, Saarinen etc. etc. In this case, the larger context that needs designing is the organisation, culture etc.)
Whether I said any of things is another matter, and frankly I can’t remember. I do remember we had a good session, and addressed some of these issues and more besides.
I then, as is my wont, jettisoned myself from the conference to go exploring. Consulting with Yuan, it became clear that the semi-legendary 798 Art District was within reach by taxi, and so I head off in that direction. Yuan giving directions to the taxi driver meant I got there, too. You can read my thoughts on visiting 798 here.
After 798, and a brief wander around Dashanzi, I head back to the hotel, which means another taxi ride through the vast concrete highways of Beijing, sweeping up and over, through and around.
Beijing’s distinctive ring roads come from a 1982 city plan, designed to remove the bikes. Bike lanes still exist - it’s hard to imagine that there are more kilometres of bike lanes anywhere else in the world - but it’s ironic to see that a city that has so many bikes could’ve had so many more. There are many, many bikes on the road, and all kinds of motorised vehicles you can imagine. But there are vast amounts of cars, simply vast amounts.
Overall, moving through Beijing, or trying to, simply reaffirms the fact that roads create congestion, that the number of cars expands to fill the space available, for despite Beijing’s gargantuan roads, the choking traffic is going nowhere, in every sense. The air pollution is said to come from neighbouring cities, though this traffic clearly won’t help. Hong Kong residents say the same — the pollution comes from factories on the mainland — but in both cities the traffic must be playing a large part. Apparently it’s a lot better since the Olympics. The extraordinary air quality measures — from cloud-seeding to creating two new subway lines and replacing thousands of old taxis, and old buses with the world’s largest fleet of natural gas buses — have been well-reported, though that’s hard to fathom that it has improved. I rarely, if ever, get headaches, but breathing the air of 798 for four or five hours had left me with with a mild headache. I fantastise about being back in Sydney, heading down to crisp, bright perfection of Bronte beach and gulping in lungfuls of the cleanest air I can imagine, rolled fresh off the Tasman Sea. When I get back to the hotel to recharge various batteries, the interior air is fresh and cleaned.
To get to the hotel, you have to get off the highway, however, and there’s a peculiar spatial experience when changing direction on one of these highways. To get to the hotel from the south - and so on the left of the highway as drive past it on the right - you have to drive way past it (several blocks) and then loop around a couple of times to come back down again.
In general, the hulking scale of Beijing is extremely disorientating. You realise you're working at a completely different scale setting on Google Maps. You're using ‘map view’ to scope somewhere out and then you turn ‘satellite view’ on and realise it's an incredibly long distance. What looks like a 20 minute walk is at least a 60 minute walk.
(There is apparently a SOM masterplan for a district of Beijing which is roughly round here, but that does little to alter this scale)
After recuperating briefly, I head out into the vast, grey city again. Time magazine states that “everyone visits the Forbidden City”, so naturally I didn't do that. But I will go back. What I did want to see, however, was Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid mixed-use development.
I try to make the crumpled tourist map of Beijing, Google Maps and various architecture websites converge onto one point that should be the location of Linked Hybrid. I simply can’t. So I take my best guess at marking up the map for the taxi driver. It turns out to be almost good enough, but as ever in Beijing, you approach the building from the wrong side of the road and have to continue past it in order to turn back onto it. I can see it from the window, and point it out to the slightly bemused taxi driver, who is probably wondering why this western fool wants to see a building site but graciously tries to manoeuvre towards the distinctive linked towers.
So we slowly drift past Linked Hybrid and I don’t see it again that evening. It literally disappears into the murk, and the mist, and the smog, and then eventually the night. The taxi deposits me in roughly the same area, and I set off in what turns out to be the wrong direction.
After a while, I realise I’m not going to find it. I get quite lost, though feel perfectly safe. I know roughly which direction I’m going in relation to the mall/metro stop - or rather the large roads provide a sense of orientation and that I could find my way out if need be. It’s like I have a compass but not GPS.
I sense I’m walking through quite a bourgeois neighbourhood, for Beijing at least, albeit laced with vast overpasses. There aren’t many street lights, but the traffic’s lights and the lit underside of flyovers provide enough light for visibility, albeit cast almost entirely in red.
There are lots of barbers round here for some reason, as if I’ve hit Beijing’s famous Hair Quarter. There are also good, small grocers and convenience stores, with produce spilling outside onto the street, some of which I recognise as food, some of which I don’t. There’s a large tied bundle of long bamboo stalks - what’s that for? The produce looks great quality, which reaffirms my hunch that this is a fairly well-off Beijing neighbourhood.
I walk past another foreigner, dragging two heavy suitcases up the bike lane (it’s not obstructed by long bamboo stalks, I guess.) The traffic is near-stationery, as usual. The frequency of jabs on the horn increases as the junction approaches.
Linked Hybrid is possibly just about visible in the towers around me, though I can’t tell. After all, it was a murky view when the sun was up, and it’s long gone now.
I head back to the Metro, enjoying the walk anyway. The Metro stop is surrounded by some enormous buildings — there’s a thing — and is essentially forms a retail-oriented TOD (transit-oriented development, in the parlance of recent urban planning.) Eventually I arrive at what turns out to be the Raffles Tower development at one side of a massive roundabout, and multi-directional crossing.
Getting across the road in Beijing is fun. Essentially you wait until a group of pedestrians have safety in numbers - as if they’ve achieved similar mass to the oncoming traffic - and then the group edges out into the road, facing off the cars, calling the traffic’s bluff.
It’s not really the high risk strategy it sounds at first, as the cars will stop. I suppose. It feels almost like the Roman Army’s famous ‘tortoise formation’, and it’s almost like we’ve collectively implemented a ‘shared space’ approach to transport planning and pedestrianisation, but organically and temporarily, in ad-hoc fashion and in the face of dense oncoming traffic.
In fact, the cars behave like pedestrians anyway, switching lanes at will and darting around the ‘crowd’ of traffic, bobbing and weaving at a different pace, the horn standing in for the eyesight, proprioception and other senses. It takes a while to get across, as critical mass of bodies is required at the central reservation too, but of course everyone gets across perfectly safely, all the time.
The Raffles Tower mall is quite luxe, for sure. Approaching the gently curving building (which also contains a hotel I think), you walk through a kind of plaza with fountains dotted around the paving. These fountains are augmented by dry ice and coloured lighting, which is just great. Hidden speakers play flamenco.
Inside, it’s a very swish bit of retail floorspace indeed. There are quite a few ‘coming soons’ but still. And it’s not quite as empty as the Western press had suggested that Beijing’s malls were. The retail interiors are often quite extravagant.
Disconcertingly, it’s stuffed with Western brands: Mango, H+M, Zara, Costa Coffee. (Costa Coffee?!)
I eat at the authentic-sounding Bellagio, which is at least authentically Taiwanese cuisine, and a franchise in Shanghai, Hong Kong etc. (It’s also known as Lugang Xiaozhen.) (Very good pork stew and chinese broccoli with oyster sauce.) Google and ye shall find that it has a great reputation - I just chanced across it.
The waitresses all have the same haircut, somewhat bizarrely (a sort of tidy ‘90s British footballer’s crop. Or mid-period Harry Kewell.) Chaoyang’s middle class were there in force either way. Music was Nat King Cole’s bossa stuff in Portuguese - “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” - which at least reminded me of the In The Mood For Love soundtrack (again, not authentic at first glance, but authentic at second glance.)
This wasn’t a very Wong Kar-wei environment, though. Too bright. Then the music shifts to Clannad - which I can rarely see a rationale for, anywhere in the world, least of all here - before moving on to The First Time Ever I Saw His Face.
Given this was The First Time Ever I Saw Beijing, I simply lapped all this up, just as I had the pork stew. Then, a housed-up version of "I Will Survive" marks the shift into evening mode. Single diners’ hour is over.
Malls like this seem to indicate how China is teaching itself to shop, or at least shop in the Western style. You can see an entire culture trying on the new clothes of another. While I’m here, I read and hear conflicting stories around consumption. Some feel that China’s increasing consumer spending levels will save the world’s economy; others that it will destroy the world’s ecology. In actuality, from what I read, the consumption of the average Chinese household is 1/40th that of an American household, so this is still a moot point either way. That consumption level might shift through the gears a few times but it’s hard to see how it’s going to emulate the Western model. This is a good thing in almost every sense, it seems to me.
Yet walking around the circular floor-plates of this gleaming white mall of simplistic pleasures is a little like circling the lip of a sputtering volcano, watching a billion-strong culture about to teeter into the abyss of consumerism and individualism. Will they, won’t they?
However, as is now becoming clear, Beijing, and China, effortlessly defies high-handed pronouncements and superficial reflections such as these. I retire to the Gehua New Century Hotel, head spinning again.