By Xu Xiaoran
Roaring bulldozers, busy cranes, ubiquitous scaffolds, and tall buildings are everywhere: Such is Beijing. For years this city has been a big construction site. So who is the winner? The indisputable answer is foreign architects.
They indeed have had a very fruitful time here. The first three super high-rises in Beijing ĘC Jingguang Center, Capital Building and China World Trade Center ĘC were designed by Japan's KUMAGAI GUMI CO., LTD and SHIMIZU KENSETU CO., LTD as well as Sobel Roth from the U.S. That was just a beginning. In recent years, almost all extra-large projects in Beijing were designed by foreign architects: the new building of CCTV, which involved an investment of nearly US$800 million, was designed by Rem Koolhaas, a great Dutch architect; the English designer N. Foster won the bid for the new terminal of Beijing Capital Airport, which involved an investment of US$2 billion; with an investment of US$600 million, the much-talked-about National Theater eventually was won by Paul Andrew, a French designer.
From super-large national projects to Olympic venues, from five-star hotels to high-grade business buildings in CBD zones, from large enterprises' headquarters to some common residential areas, foreign architects have taken over everywhere. Meanwhile, some foreign architectural design companies have shifted their focus to this country. In merely a few years, China became a main source of their business revenues.
In early March, in a report titled "An Architectural Revolution in Beijing", BBC described the pre-Olympics Beijing as a city that was blindly pursuing works by world top designers, eager to get rid of its image as a follower and show off its modernity to the world.
The decision-makers in China's building sector are highly "accommodating". As a result, this country becomes an "international exposition of architecture". Some "blueprints" come true in China that are of highly bizarre styles and can hardly be realized in the designers' own countries. As a result, although on the whole wonderful works are created, potential troubles are left in some aspects. At the same time, more foreign designers are lured to China to "make experiments". And eminent and poor architects are mixed up. Some second-class and third-grade foreign architects and even those unqualified ones are having their ways in China. Consequently, good and bad designs are intermingled, raising uproars in the society, especially in the building industry. Of course, such sentiments have something to do with the failure of local architects on some major projects.
It is undeniable that because China's architectural education started late and failed to keep abreast with the times due to self-closure, Chinese architects lag behind world-class rivals. However, Chinese designers and scholars are not convinced by the foreign masters, who take away enormous amount of money full of cheer, and their works. From the "eggshell" (the National Theater) to the "bird's nest" (the main stadium for the XXIX Olympiad), to the new terminal of the Capital Airport, China"s architecture circles are engaged in endless debates over the fact that foreign architects are taking over the design of more and more landmark buildings in China.
In July 1999, the scenario for architectural design of the National Theater was finalized. The successful bid turned to be a proposal hammered out jointly by the celebrated French architect Paul Andrew and Chinese designers. The image is a huge "eggshell" situated on a quasi-square pool. The eggshell-shaped roof is like a water drop that lops down gradually. The pool outside looks like a lake. Despite its novel design, heavy cost resulted from the irrational design and the inharmony with the surroundings (the Great Hall of the People and Tian'anmen) sparkled much criticism.
At the end of July 2003, Swiss architects Jacpues Herzog and Pierre de Meuron won the bid for the master venue of the 2008 Olympics ĘC the National Stadium. The design is like a bird's nest woven with tree branches. The outside is a gray steel mesh covered by transparent materials, and the inside is a red ochre stadium stand shaped like a bowl.
Proponents of the design maintain that the "bird's nest" precisely represents a new architectural language, and contains Chinese philosophical notions. Yet the oppugners argue that such a design is too "avant-garde" and does not accord with the traditional awareness, and that the excessive emphasis on an unusual style makes it impossible to exhibit the appeal unique to Chinese culture. The design overlooks engineering, structure, culture and cost.
The debating will stimulate deeper thinking. And in this sense it is a boon. Wang Mingxian, a renowned architecture critic, noted, "Everyone wishes that these landmark buildings were designed by Chinese architects. But unfortunately, Chinese architects indeed are not in a position to do so. Then what reason we have to reject these great architects who have achieved immense prestige and success in other countries? After all, their previous experiments have been recognized by the international architecture circles. Among those architects who have come to Beijing, Koolhaas is the recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize for 2000, the foremost authoritative prize in the field of architecture; Herzog Schlumberger and de Meuron won the prize in 2001. They are master architects recognized worldwide. And their experiments in China offer more benefits than harm to the evolution of Chinese architecture."
Today, at a time when the Chinese economy experiences robust development, the successful bids of celebrated foreign architects precisely signify enhanced self-confidence of the Chinese nation. While learning from eminent foreign masters modestly, Chinese architects are turning out excellent works endlessly, and the artistic level of their works is improving. Chinese architects' works will also win major bids held abroad in the future.