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Beijing: Bright lights, big city

The UIA Congress in Beijing looked to future challenges

A new measure of architectural approval was coined at the uia (International Union of Architects) Congress in Beijing last week - the flash count. Eager Chinese students, who dominated the conference sessions, launched a barrage of flash photographs every time they saw a slide they liked. Since the images would scarcely register on the students' photos, speakers chose to believe that the incessant photography was less an indication of naivete than a new form of applause.

Highest scorer on the flash-count was Japan's Tadao Ando, who was himself mobbed by students eager to snap his picture. Ando addressed himself specifically to students, and showed his increasing concern with creating places for people and with the importance of landscape - topics that were raised frequently by speakers who expounded on the problems of globalisation and the degradation of cities, and of the need for a greener approach.

The official theme of the congress was 'Architecture in the 21st Century' but for most delegates the real theme was 'bigness'. Not that this was by any means the largest such event in terms of delegate numbers - in Barcelona three years ago, there were 10,000 compared to Beijing's 6000 - but because of the sheer scale of the city, and the conference venues. Beijing has a population of 11 million and an urban area of 1040 square kilometres. Most delegates were staying near the Beijing International Conference Centre, 18 kilometres from the centre of town; the journey into the city highlights the rapid scale of development in the past 20 years, with the low-level traditional housing in hutongs replaced by a network of freeway and massive buildings - tawdry, concrete-panel residential towers and bland office buildings with 'authentic' touches which might be dubbed post-modern if there were the slightest irony involved.

The first two days of the congress took place in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, a grandiose building which can seat 10,000 and has a banqueting hall to match - the joining instructions said: 'Telescope will be helpful for better visual result due to huge Congress Hall.' At lunchtime delegates spilled out to picnic on the steps of the hall, an event unprecedented in the history of this very proper place, where you had to show identity to soldiers to get in.

Tiananmen Square itself, which is a 10-minute walk from one end to the other, was still under wraps for repaving, ostensibly to prepare it for the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic, but, many believe, to prevent a repeat of the demonstrations of 10 years ago. The scaffolding came down on Monday, two days after the congress ended, probably not a coincidence. Rod Hackney, for example, past uia president and riba council member, maintains that the Chinese knew all about the riba's debate over the ethics of visiting China, because China has bugged the Portland Place HQ from its embassy across the road.

The Congress opened with an array of dignitaries and platitudes. The deputy mayor of Beijing hoped to use 'knowledge from the conference to help build a better Beijing,' a wish echoed by Westerners shocked by the way the city is developing.

The first keynote speech came from Professor Wu Liangyong of Tsinghua University, who had drafted the 'Beijing Charter' which the Congress adopted. This charter calls for 'a conscious reconsideration of the role of 21st Century architecture' in the face of the challenges of globalisation and environmental degradation with 'an integral architecture' which fuses architecture, landscape architecture and planning, in the service of creating a better human habitat. It involves adopting technology from around the world and integrating it with local conditions. The importance of the architect can, says the charter, only be re-established if professionals come to see architecture 'in its full socio-political context, rather than in the narrow techno-aesthetic sense of the term'.

In his keynote speech, Professor Wu warned that ' 'Consumer democracy' will not be the feasible pattern for our future,' and said that, 'At the present crossroad, we should try to do our best in clarifying our own orientation and avoiding wrong directions.'

Critic Kenneth Frampton, the other keynote speaker, started by referring to the hall as 'this vast monumental and even perhaps tragic space', and said, 'it makes you think of all those heroic Modernists who have entered into history and the vast transforming time that has elapsed since the founding of the uia in 1949.'

For Frampton, 'the greening of the world is the only project today,' and he called for architects to be trained in landscape architecture, the one field that would allow them to have an effect on the development of cities. He argued 'that the current tendency to reduce the built environment to an endless proliferation of free-standing objects of more or less aesthetic quality ... could be overcome by a paysagiste strategy which would in effect integrate all such free-standing objects into the surface of the earth,' and said that 'if there is a single apocalyptic invention in the twentieth century, it is the automobile rather than nuclear weaponry.'

He inveighed against the abuses of power, warning: 'The idea of the Enlightenment that rationality can be applied without counter-rational forces is an illusion.' This, he said, 'is the tiger we have to ride through cunning and subterfuge'.

Many speakers tried, with more or less subtlety, to point the Chinese towards a better contemporary architecture. Nils Carlson from Sweden said: 'The developing countries are repeating the mistakes of the past. Do the Asian cities have no new ideas?' He called for a new regionalism, for local solutions.

Mexican Ricardo Legoretta, who was awarded the uia gold medal, showed arts and residential projects in Mexico and the us, and said: 'The 21st Century will see a rise in humanism. I would like to see architects work for the benefit of the people who are the users of our buildings, and not ourselves.'

In arguing for buildings that are unique to their place, Israel's Moshe Safdie said that '25 years of change in Beijing is a kind of fast-forward film of what happened in other countries in the 20th Century'. He proposed responses to the dehumanising effects of megascale.

From Costa Rica, Bruno Stagno described his 'architecture for a latitude,' developing ideas specific to an environment, and said: 'If we study traditional architecture, we may formulate a contemporary architecture based on innovation.'

Britain's Terry Farrell argued that urban design does not have to mean dull building with no landmark structures. 'Courage and imagination should go together,' he said, calling for comparative studies with other countries rather than slavish copying. 'Your own history is a great part of your own identity - what is there, the patterns of the streets and what is under them.'

Malaysia's Ken Yeang, who won the uia's Auguste Perret award for technology, put the case for his green skyscrapers, and revealed that his proposal for a 600m-vertical Expo in Nagoya in Japan in 2005 is more likely to be accepted now that a rare hawk has been found on the site, making preservation of as much of the area as possible imperative.

Germany's Thomas Herzog showed environmental architecture, which should not only inspire the Chinese, but puts the British to shame, since so much of what is heralded as 'new' in the field was being done by Herzog nearly 20 years ago.

Colin St John Wilson showed that influences run both ways, saying that the roof of his British Library had been influenced by traditional Chinese architecture. He also showed a magnificent aerial view taken by Norman Foster from his helicopter. 'I don't have a helicopter,' he said.

If talk is a major pre-occupation of the uia, it is demonstrating its belief in action through a development study with the city of Jinzhou in Liaoning province in northern China. Led by Tony Rigg from Israel, the project has co-operation at the highest level in this port city of 600,000, just poised for the scale of development which has transformed Beijing.

Another initiative on which the uia is acting as the agent for unesco is the setting up of a website listing all the 20th Century buildings in the world that deserve preservation.

But the Beijing Congress was also a huge social occasion. There was a banquet with entertainments by the Chinese Railway Arts Group (prize-winning plate spinning) and the Chinese People's Liberation Army (music included Rosy Clouds Run after the Moon and Shear Sheep with Crack); an evening with the Chinese Opera, and a student jamboree at which they performed tableaux which some interpreted as loosely veiled criticisms of the Chinese government. Two Greek delegates even got married at the Greek embassy.

Most delegates visited the Forbidden City where they discovered that the massive scale of Tiananmen Square is not a new idea for the Chinese. And as most of the guests departed from this city which is now choked with cars - although it still has 8 million bicycles - the uia assembly got down to business: formulating policy, electing its next president (the hot tip is Greek) and, with the knowledge that 2002 Congress will be in Berlin, picking a venue for 2005: Nagoya, Florence or, most probably, Istanbul. The camera shops of Istanbul had better start stocking up.

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