(Continued from World Design Congress 2009: Day three. Written at the time, last October.)
798 Art District was arguably the first creative cluster in Beijing, and with M50 in Shanghai, perhaps the most well-known in China. For someone who studies and works with creative clusters, then, it was a near-essential visit. I was in town for the 2009 World Design Congress, whose venue at the College of Fine Arts was well-placed for a quick excursion to 798, via a now customary taxi ride.
Dashanzi is on one of the main arteries from the centre of Beijing out to the airport, so it’s being eyed hungrily by developers. Pulling up outside the gates to 798, it doesn’t look like much, with nondescript apartment blocks lining either side of the large highways that dominate the city.
798 itself is a vast factory site converted into ‘art zone’, so-named as it was 798 Factory (part of Joint Factory 718), which constructed military wireless equipment originally (and I believe the full, non-numeric name was Beijing North China Wireless Joint Equipment Factory). It’s an officially designated creative cluster, and has a fascinating past—and future. (There’s a good general history of 798 at Wikipedia)
(Acoustic side-note: The factory produced the loudspeakers for Tian’anmen Square and Chang’an Avenue, as well as the Beijing Workers’ Stadium and Great Hall of the People. The mechanism for the official sound of China was produced right here.)
To begin with, from an architectural perspective, there’s the relatively unique situation of both Russian and East German scientists and engineers arguing the site into existence, after the Chinese and Soviet Union agreed to joint development of military-industrial factory complexes. The East German scientists, and their implicit architectural style won out. (By the toss of a coin? Impassioned debate?) So Bauhaus rather than Russian style predominates.
Thus the DNA is somewhat mutilated Berliner factory buildings, rather than a more obviously expressive Russian. The large vaulted ceilings and arches let in natural light, though being north-facing they cast few deep shadows—50 years on, this turns out to be rather handy for an art space, as CAFA discovered when they kick-started the reinvention by taking a bit of cheap space here in 1995.
But in the mid-1950s, when the factory site was being constructed, the area was low-lying farmland. This is almost impossible to imagine now. It’s built-up all around, yet given its strategic location there’s every chance it’ll be demolished. To my mind, whilst not wanting to fall into the trap of nostalgia, or preserving poverty, nor enabling gentrification, this would be extremely sad. The place provides a unique experience. Partly, just walking around a factory is a unique experience for middle-class, camera-toting, knowledge-working Westerners like me.
But essentially it’s the slightly out-of-control air to the place. The ramshackle nature of things that have just been left are fairly unfamiliar to Western eyes, and lead to numerous surreal juxtapositions.
One building in particular catches the eye, with a swell of brickwork bulging gloriously out into the street. It looks utterly contemporary—and indeed it may be; it's difficult to know what's 'original' and what's a retrofit around here. Most of the buildings haven't been touched much, though, to the extent that few would pass any kind of Western building inspection—not that that matters.
One end of the Trans-Siberian railway—or at least a local connection to it—just sits quietly in the middle of the site, heaps of coke simply lying dormant next to silent steam trains. Look behind you and a scientist in a lab coat scurries past from who knows where (the site seems to have a few scientific research buildings behind guarded gates).
She’s followed by a troop of soldiers marching through with precise ceremony. This, right next to world class gallery spaces carved out of former industrial buildings. Anthony Gormley is being exhibited—it’s at that level. Local art superstar Ai Weiwei, and Caochongdi, is nearby, apparently, and legend has it that 798 artist Zhao Bandi purchased the first Alfa Romeo in Beijing.
But even these high-class galleries—and some are very beautiful spaces—are embedded within buildings full of workshops that are apparently still working. I walk towards one, but a man dressed in blue overalls quickly waves my camera away. It looked like it was casting something, though there was a fearful smell emanating from it. Sickly sweet. Wikipedia suggests the remaining workshops are doing mostly car repair and industrial laundry, but there are certainly other things going on. The smell is not familiar.
Some of the industrial spaces are rather beautiful in their well-crafted pragmatism, featuring tall windows, long axial corridors and curving vaulted ceilings.
Other buildings look utterly deserted, or should be, and the whole place just fades into nothingness on the south side.
Elsewhere again, there are café-bars, publishing houses, art bookshops and gift shops and it’s clear that 798 is almost gentrifying itself from within to some extent. And yet a high-rise by the entrance looks like its crumbling from within too. One entrance has a rough-ish ‘store’, with dodgy artworks spread out in the damp. Another just has people sitting around in the rubble, passing the time. You get juxtaposition and contrast in any good city—it’s an essential component of what a city is—but here the extremes are so, well, extreme.
A couple of decades ago, Sydney’s Eveleigh Railyards, London’s Truman Brewery, much of Berlin’s Mitte, Milan’s Naviglio, or New York’s Lower East Side were all somewhat ramshackle too, but not on this scale. When Wikipedia says “It is often compared with New York's Greenwich Village or SoHo.”, I can think of little so different It’s quite amazing.
“The area today sits right on the strategic corridor between the Capital Airport and downtown Beijing along the Airport Expressway. In the context of China's current real estate bubble, the district is highly likely to be demolished in the near future. Hints of development are already appearing with the western entrances of the complex flanked by the Jiuxian and Hongyuan luxury apartment towers. There is al the current government projects which call for the expansion of the neighbouring industrial park to turn all of Dashanzi into a high-tech development zone similar to Zhongguancun. Landowner Seven-Star Group thus hopes to re-employ some of the 10,000 laid-off workers it is still responsible for.” [From Wikipedia]
Those 10,000 workers are not going to find jobs in an art-zone, however. This place is both a tribute to industry and art simultaneously, and with the smell of both still about it. It strikes me there could be no better way of exemplifying the ideas implicit in the World Design Congress of 'Made in China and Created in China' than to take the Dashanzi site forward by recapturing the production as well as the consumption. How could industrial production be reintroduced to this area on the smaller, cleaner, distributed scale enabled by rapid prototyping, 3D printing, smart manufacturing and the other activities of the re-industrial city, alongside live:work spaces, retail, cafes and galleries? Or is this a Westerner's desire to 'sanitise' what is perfectly economically viable productivity that employs people at wages the area can afford?
Exemplifying production as well as consumption here might prevent the space from careering up the cul-de-sacs that Western cities previously have, in terms of creating spaces of consumption out of spaces of production, in what turns out to have been a kind of 'reverse alchemy'.
But this aesthetic transformation is too magnetic, it would seem. One section of the site has become '751 D-Park', a space for fashion shows, as china.org.cn breathlessly reports:
"Beautiful models, stylish designers, excited visitors, and colorful fashion collections were everywhere."
To be fair, there are apparently production spaces—for designers—but they're not evident at all, at least not as evident as the industry that was once here (opportunity for new smokestacks?)
It's intriguing also to see the iconography of China's past (and present?) refracted through this new use of space. There are subtle—and not so subtle—variations on this everywhere you look.
798’s history makes for fascinating reading, and walking around it today is a fascinating experience. Yet as many feel its most interesting phase has already happened, and it is slowly subsiding into a museum of itself. Making a new kind of factory out of an old kind of factory may not be a great leap forward as such, but then we don’t want another one space of pure consumption. It might be, however, a plausible future for a site delicately poised at a crucial junction.
In 798’s photography gallery I pick up a monograph of photographs of Chinese cities at night by Wu Qi which are quite extraordinary. The series is called “The Night You Don’t Understand At Day Time”, and the title is apposite, describing a night that I don’t quite understand, or at least have never seen.
They’re images of Kaifeng, Zhengzhou and Chengdu, rendering the cities as wartime ruins peppered with lost souls. The photographs are eerie, surreal, alluring, grainy darkness smeared with light. Worth looking out for.
Stepping outside the front gate of 798 into the highway, the area around it does not feel wealthy. It’s not poor, by Chinese standards anyway, but certainly rough-hewn.
My camera battery gives out at this point, so I switch to iPhone. There’s a pedestrian bridge over the busy road, and I wander over towards a shopping strip. The overhead cables running alongside the road are barely overhead at all. They’re head-height, for me at least. I could reach out and touch them easily though this does not seem A Good Idea.
This rapidly lashed-together exoskeleton of services like electricity and telecoms is common to burgeoning cities like this of course, and like the more regulated municipal infrastructure enabling trams and trolley-buses in European cities, these thickets of overhead cables provide an appealing porous canopy for the street, aligned with and reinforcing the pavements, walkways and bridges below. It's a sign of life.
Past the shops, a small hole in the wall leads to a back-alley with a form of market straggling up the street. It’s busy with people walking, people on bikes, people buying, people selling.
I'm confronted right away with a bit of graffiti that shifts my understanding of China, yet again. A Banksy-esque defacing of a faded police notice, that is of course better, more interesting than Banksy in every respect.
A man on a bike calls something out as he cycles round the streets, some kind of message to potential punters. It reminds me of el butanero, the gas bottle men who wander about El Born, calling out to the residents, but this guy's not carrying energy. What he’s selling?
Amidst the shops, there are units full of telecoms and related: faxes, modems, PCs, scanners, photocopies. A shared infrastructure, for the moment at least.
There’s a kind of hierarchy, from actual shops, to stalls, to people selling things off a table erected on the pavement, or simply a sheet laid out on the floor.
I look across to a street vendor selling goods off a table. As I take his photograph, he gives me the look of street vendors the world over whenever I take their photograph, probably quite rightly.
Who am I, afer all, to be cheaply taking their photograph as some kind of representation of authentic workers' culture in 2009. It's not like I'm Dorothea Lange for the WPA in the ‘30s dustbowl or something. What are the politics of me taking his photo? This is a thought that has occurred in numerous guises over the last few days, actually. "What are the politics of this?" It’s not a thought that occurs as frequently when I'm in Western culture, which is certainly an oversight, upon reflection. It’s just here that the politics are writ more sharply, as everything seems to be writ more sharply.
Either way, I take his photo, and move on.