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The first time I went to Beijing, in the early nineties, the city felt like a metropolis at the end of the world. There were no direct flights from London, and you arrived at a Sino-Stalinist terminal that had all the character of a provincial bus station. Flickering black-and-white television screens signaled departures with erratic imprecision. In lieu of a duty-free shop there was a single, neon-lit kiosk that peddled Napoléon brandy in bottles shaped like vintage cars at prices equal to an average worker's three-month salary. The two-lane road into town was choked with carts bringing in mountains of vegetables to feed the city. Once you finally got there, the city went dark after nine p.m.
By the time I returned a decade later, there was a brand-new airport, dripping with travertine and plastered with gold reliefs depicting the country's tourist attractions. A six-lane toll road took you into the city, where vast areas of traditional courtyard houses were in the process of being flattened to make way for sprouting skyscrapers. Still present were the sidewalk bicycle-repair shops and the kitchen hands outside cafés chopping up slippery trays of poultry entrails—elements that serve to identify Beijing as a Chinese city. But the changes afoot were unmistakable. Luxury hotels, with Australian chefs and trendy cigar bars, had arrived. The main streets of the city were beginning to delineate themselves with neon signs. Fashion boutiques and art galleries had replaced the dowdy Mao-era Friendship department store.
Those first steps into the 21st century have accelerated to a full sprint, as Beijing plays a frantic game of catch-up with Shanghai, its flashier, brassier rival to the south. Shanghai had been the mainland's most industrially advanced and commercially sophisticated urban center for the better part of a century before communism, and after the death of Mao it was the first to exploit the opportunities for change offered by Deng Xiaoping's liberalization policies. An avalanche of construction activity that began in the late eighties transformed the city into a Manhattan on the Yangtze in less than ten years. But while Shanghai has done most of the running so far in China's warp-speed modernization, Beijing is working desperately to leapfrog it. As Beijing prepares to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, the city has implemented a breathtakingly frenetic, multibillion- dollar building program of its own—one that is destined to alter its skyline on an even larger scale.
Locked in this undeclared race toward the future, the two cities are the most conspicuous emblems of the new China, a nation bent on becoming a genuine superpower, ready to sacrifice Marxist ideology, the environment, and huge swaths of its architectural heritage in the pursuit of economic growth, trade, and political engagement with the international community. By some estimates, half the world's annual production of concrete and one third of its steel output is being consumed in China's building boom. Johannes Dell, an architect with the Frankfurt, Germany, firm Albert Speer & Partner, has been working on a major project in Shanghai for the past two years. He describes himself as being "at the front line of the battle to keep the city at least partly under control." In 20 years, he remarks, "they have done what it took us two hundred years to do in Europe."
Up to now, all this development has contributed little that could be called important architecture. For the most part, builders have tended to follow Mao's guidance on construction, which, he suggested, should be shaped by considerations of "utility, economy, and, if possible, beauty." The latter certainly seemed in short supply in the anything-but-subtle Shanghai of the late eighties and nineties. The buildings from that period look like warmed-up postmodern leftovers, typified by John Portman's Bund Center, with its bizarre, 580-ton steel pineapple top.
Because Shanghai led the process of change, Beijing has been able to learn from its failures. Beijing is building bigger and, in many cases, better. While Shanghai was content to work with the lower end of the architectural food chain, Beijing has gone for international celebrities. Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture in the Netherlands have created a pair of leaning towers linked at the top and bottom for China Central Television (CCTV). The Swiss duo Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have designed a boldly sculptural Olympic stadium. And British architect Norman Foster is doing a dramatic expansion of the capital airport, which is not yet a decade old.
Scheduled to open on December 31, 2007, the pair of new streamlined terminals are joined by a shuttle that runs along a narrow spine stretching for more than a mile. A high-speed rail link, most likely an electromagnetic train, will whisk passengers to and from the city center. Declares Foster, "It's the largest and most advanced airport building in the world."
For the moment, at least, Beijing's high-profile, image-shifting projects are still just buzzing construction sites, and Shanghai remains China's most visibly modernized city. But some people are already preparing to pass that mantle to Beijing. Sitting at a rooftop bar in Shanghai, a French expatriate in the fashion business gazes across the river to the glittering skyscrapers that dominate the horizon and talks about the differences he sees between the two cities. "Shanghai looks great on the surface, but the more you scratch, the less you like what you find," he explains. "With Beijing, it's the opposite. At first it appears terrible and gray. But when you start to polish it up, it looks better and better."
What makes Shanghai special is the Bund, an esplanade along the Huangpu River that was the exotic heart of the city in its pre-World War II heyday. The Bund's colonial-era banks and offices—resembling a hallucinogenic transplant of European buildings, with domes and clock towers—have been spruced up and turned into complexes with stylish cafés and boutiques. The most prominent (and gaudiest) of them, Three on the Bund, was gutted by American architect Michael Graves to create an echoing hall in marble, with an art gallery at its base and rings of bars and restaurants on the upper floors. Opened in 2004, it's become a fashionable hangout, establishing a model for how to preserve old façades while putting innovative design on the inside.
When Shanghai started its rush to become a modern metropolis in the nineties, the Bund was still regarded as an embarrassing symbol of the city's colonial legacy. The decision was made to create a new financial district on the other side of the river in Pudong, where shipyards and warehouses were demolished to make way for office buildings. From the Bund, one gets the signature views of Pudong, dominated by the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a piece of juvenile science fiction, and the district's most impressive high-rise, the Jin Mao Tower. Designed by the New York-based firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the 88-story building—China's tallest—has the cinematic quality of a brooding Art Deco skyscraper in the backdrop of a Batman movie.
Next to the tower, the Mori Building Company of Japan is currently at work on what will eventually surpass the Jin Mao in height: the Shanghai World Financial Center. Under construction intermittently since 1997, the building was designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox of New York and resembles a square knitting needle with a huge hole punctured in its top. If all goes according to plan, it will open in 2008.
hanghai has also embarked on the construction of a ring of satellite towns, each designed in a different national style, ranging from German to Italian. The idea is to bring the tidy order found in European suburbs to China, in the form of six- and eight-story blocks of apartments that surround parks and public squares.
Looking ahead, Shanghai's biggest project is the redevelopment of shipyards and steelworks on either side of the Huangpu, upriver from the Bund, for the 2010 World Expo—the city's answer to Beijing's Olympics. The mayor has budgeted $3 billion and aims to attract at least $15 billion more in private investment to convert the sites into exhibition spaces, parks, and riverside walks. The city is billing the event as a six-month party that will offer food, entertainment, and high-tech exhibits for some 70 million visitors. Afterward, the area will be left with a new residential and commercial district, a park with a series of cultural buildings, and a permanent trade-fair venue.
Architecture in Shanghai is undoubtedly becoming more ambitious, but it is far from the primary interest of city officials. Jiang Wu, vice director of Shanghai's planning bureau, makes it very clear that the goal is not to build some kind of utopia. "Construction is aimed first and foremost at economic development," he says. "Everything else comes second."
In Beijing, the imperial city, the pattern of the walls, gates, and courtyards changed little in the centuries before Mao carved Tiananmen Square out of its ancient fabric. These days, however, entire districts are being transformed in the blink of an eye. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen are untouchable—as are the Great Hall of the People and the Museum of Chinese Revolution, but almost everything else is up for grabs.
Indeed, Beijing may have started redeveloping later than Shanghai, but the city has taken to the task with an even greater zeal—and avoided the mediocre knockoffs of Japanese, American, and European skyscrapers that dominate Shanghai. Private developers such as Pan Shiyi and his wife, Zhang Xin—who brought Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid to China to work on plans, now stalled, for a new town on the edge of Beijing—have played a major role. The couple was the force behind the Jian Wai SOHO project, an eight-million-square-foot, mixed-use development with shops, apartments, and offices on an old factory site near Beijing's financial district.
"We had a chance to do something special," says Zhang. The couple hired Japanese architect Riken Yamamoto to design the cluster of elegant white towers that make an impressively cool mark on the Beijing skyline. "We had to build it in four years and sell it all in two," she explains. "The architecture is what made the difference." The SOHO project tapped into the desire for something more sophisticated than the usual cookie-cutter buildings.
The city's eagerness to invest in progressive architecture is perhaps most evident in Koolhaas's CCTV headquarters. The striking pair of leaning towers, which are joined like a Möbius strip, are scheduled to be finished in 2008. At 750 feet tall, they won't be in the high-rise big leagues, but they'll nevertheless offer a conspicuous six million square feet of space for offices, TV studios, movie theaters, and a hotel. This is not just a case of Beijing getting ahead of Shanghai in terms of radical architecture, it is Beijing leading the whole world in redefining the skyscraper.
Beijing's development, unlike Shanghai's, hasn't exclusively focused on shops and office towers. The capital has chosen to put an emphasis on culture and sports, adding libraries, museums, art galleries, and an opera house, along with a host of athletic facilities for the 2008 Olympics.
The funky Factory 798, an industrial complex built in the sixties by the East Germans, has been recycled as a thriving district for artists and galleries. It introduced China to the idea that even the recent past might be worth keeping.
Less impressive is the National Grand Theater by French architect Paul Andreu, which resembles a giant glass egg in an artificial lake. The design has been criticized by many Chinese for showing insufficient respect for the neighboring palaces of the Forbidden City.
The 90,000-seat Olympic stadium, on the other hand—which was designed by Herzog & de Meuron in the form of a giant bird's nest—will be another agenda-setting building. "We wanted to get away from the usual technocratic stadium architecture and try to create a building that would make the fans feel aware of each other's presence," says Herzog.
Two years ago, the site of the future Olympic Park that will accommodate the stadium and swimming pools was still being cleared of the acres of small houses that had once covered the area. Old men could be seen picking through the rubble to salvage whatever they could of the homes and shops that had just been destroyed. Now you can see the stadium rising from the ground. Its circular shape has already emerged, looking a bit like a coliseum in ruins. Next to it will stand a translucent jewel box—made with state-of-the-art materials and designed by the Sydney firm PTW—that will contain the pools for the swimming, diving, and water polo competitions.
There was a pause last year while the politburo did its sums to see if it could afford everything Beijing wanted to build for the Games. It decided it couldn't, and axed the retractable roof on the stadium. But these days construction is very much back on track.
Officials have already decreed that there will be no cranes anywhere in Beijing during the Olympics—everything must be completed by the end of 2007. As a result, things are being built in a manner that would be inconceivable anywhere else. The construction site of Foster's new airport terminals, located immediately next to the runways of the existing one, is awe inspiring. More than 100 tower cranes have been brought in for the job, and some 40,000 laborers swarm across the sandy soil, working three shifts, around the clock. Paid less than $7 a day, they live in makeshift barracks on the site, like medieval armies. They labor in tennis shoes and cheap, thin suits, with a minimum of safety precautions and amid fluttering red flags that are no longer symbols of revolutionary vigilance.
It's a scene one can find on varying scales all across China. In Shanghai, which has a population of 20 million, one in four residents is an illegal or semilegal migrant. They are the so-called floating population from the inland provinces, and they are building the country's booming new cities.
Rampant urban growth is creating not only traffic nightmares but escalating environmental concerns as well. The second ring road that marked Beijing's city limits until the eighties has been followed by a third, fourth, and fifth, and a sixth is under construction. More than two million cars move sclerotically around the city—enough to negate any improvement in air quality achieved by moving heavy industry out of Beijing's center.
Almost too late, China is waking up to the heritage that is being destroyed in the name of progress. Beijing was once famous for its hutong—small streets and alleys lined with traditional courtyard houses—but in many areas these have been completely wiped out. Only now are the first tentative measures being taken to ensure that they are not all lost.
Yet the country's rapid transformation, reflected most dramatically in the rivalry between its two biggest cities, has generated a demand for bold, innovative plans on a scale that's unmatched anywhere in the world. In the realm of contemporary architecture, China is providing an incomparable spectacle.
On the Horizon
SHANGHAI ORIENTAL ART CENTER
Performing arts complex that has been compared with a glass orchid
DESIGN Paul Andreu, Paris
BUDGET $120 million
COMPLETED January 2005
SHIMAO INTERNATIONAL PLAZA
60-floor, high-tech spire housing a shopping mall, luxury hotel, and private clubs
DESIGN Ingenhoven und Partner, Düsseldorf, Germany
BUDGET $370 million
COMPLETION DATE 2006
SHANGHAI WORLD FINANCIAL CENTER
One of the world's tallest towers, with a hole in its top
DESIGN Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, New York
BUDGET $825 million
COMPLETION DATE 2008
Redevelopment of a large riverfront site into exhibition spaces, parks, and housing
DESIGN Various architects
BUDGET Roughly $20 billion
COMPLETION DATE 2010
NATIONAL GRAND THEATER
Vast, egg-shaped performing arts center of titanium and glass set in an artificial lake
DESIGN Paul Andreu, Paris
BUDGET $365 million
COMPLETION DATE 2006
NATIONAL SWIMMING CENTER
Cube with a steel frame "based on the geometry of soap bubbles" clad in transparent Teflon
DESIGN PTW, Sydney
BUDGET $100 million
COMPLETION DATE 2006
BEIJING INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Streamlined, light-filled terminal capable of handling an expected 31 million passengers a year
DESIGN Foster and Partners, London
BUDGET $1.9 billion
COMPLETION DATE 2007
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CHINA
Glass-box addition to the Mao-era building that houses the Museum of Chinese Revolutionand the Chinese National History Museum
DESIGN Von Gerkan, Marg und Partner, Hamburg, Germany
BUDGET $220 million
COMPLETION DATE 2007
90,000 seats inside a bird's nest-like network of concrete strips
DESIGN Herzog & de Meuron, Basel, Switzerland
BUDGET $285 million
COMPLETION DATE 2008
Leaning twin towers, joined at the top and bottom
DESIGN Rem Koolhaas/Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rotterdam, Netherlands
BUDGET $800 million
COMPLETION DATE 2008