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Land of confusion

ajenda - The Venice Biennale, which is still in full swing, may be the biggest and the best, but now it seems that any city eager to make its mark has to join the bandwagon.Rob Gregory reports from the latest and most troubled biennale: Beijing

When visiting Beijing, be prepared to spend a lot of time in a taxi. Any journey, threading through narrow hutong alleys or circumnavigating the city on one of its three major ring roads, takes an age. It is, however, a good opportunity for casual sightseeing; no two drivers will ever take you by the same route, so before long you have seen most districts - and, at speeds that rarely exceed 20 miles per hour, there is plenty of time to adjust your camera lens, lean out of the car window and survey all that the city has to offer.

And there is a lot to observe. Beijing is, after all, a 24-hour building site. As well as the neon hoardings that promote consumerism in advertising executives' emerging language - Chinglish - nocturnal Beijing sparkles with light from welders' torches, and pulses with the rhythmic clanging of hammers against steel. It is little wonder then, as one of the largest construction sites in the world, that Beijing has put itself on the international architecture circuit. And it made big plans: for two weeks, between 20 September and 6 October, it would present eight exhibitions and eight accompanying forums, in 200,000m 2 of space; it would present the work of 10,000 international professionals and attract two million visitors. At least, that is what we were led to believe. The reality was, in fact, a shadow of these ambitious predictions.

Due to internal squabbling between organising committee members, a sabotage attempt very nearly killed the biennale before it began. Letters spread rumours that the event was cancelled and advised international contributors to withdraw. As a result, a fraction of the anticipated visitors turned up, and exhibits were incomplete. Organisers desperately convinced students to fill the empty auditorium seats, giving tickets away for free, and relatively unknown architects were dragged up to the podium in the absence of the keynote speakers whose portraits adorned the forum's publicity banners (Botta, Perrault, Hadid, MVRDV, Rogers and many more). Worse still, when confronted with the reality of the biennale's shambolic organisation, some even refused to participate despite having made the long journey east. Lars Spuybroek turned on his heel and returned to his hotel when presented with an audience that he considered too small, refusing to address Chinese students who would no doubt have benefited enormously from his presentation. Rumours were also abundant: 'Rem's coming! Rem's coming!' But, of course, he didn't.

Stay positive But all this is perhaps irrelevant to the real issues regarding the emerging culture of Chinese contemporary architecture and to the future of one of the world's most rapidly expanding cities. Although it didn't run to plan, the biennale should be seen in a positive light. That it happened at all was miraculous, relying - as is so often the case with such events - on the unpaid, enthusiastic and relentless efforts of a number of committed individuals. Furthermore, at an international level, the biennale represented a new recognition on the part of the Chinese authorities that architecture has a significant contribution to make to the nation's future.

Until now the city's construction boom has not been supported by any coherent architectural or urban development. Beyond the city's second ring road, developers have scattered low-grade Post-Modern buildings on isolated sites that fail in anyway to integrate, extend or magnify the grain of the historic city core. Nowhere in contemporary developments is there any evidence of the intricacy and sensibility that typifies the classic Chinese integration of internal and external spaces. Even the profession's structure conspires against any progressive architectural invention, as most buildings are stylised by members of the China Building Decoration Association, while architectural institutes (state-run offices) traditionally focus on technicalities and structures.

The biennale has opened up China's emerging profession to scrutiny by a wide audience for the first time, and while the exhibitions were perhaps over-dominated by the work of foreign architects, it did give a small number of emerging Chinese architects an international platform. Wang Hui's FLAT design, part of the 'Infinite Interior' exhibition, was easily the best in show, a contemporary interior with a handcrafted timber skin that mixed rich craftsmanship with Minimalist restraint; Yung Ho Chang's work also continues to bring the traditions of the courtyard up to date. The best of the imported designs were schemes that were fully integrated into their Chinese contexts:

Herzog & de Meuron's project in Jinhua, for example, was the only urban planning proposal that began to encapsulate the intricate scale, texture, and ordered diversity of the hutong neighbourhoods. And Steven Holl's proposals for Nanjing ambitiously reinterpreted the live-work typology of what he called the traditional 'mom and pop shop'.

Going global Beyond the exhibits, however, the most pertinent discussions focused on a single question that remained largely unanswered:

in the same way that Moscow is desperately seeking a new form of expression after years of isolation (AJ 8.1.04), when considering the city in a global context, what is the essence of the Chinese city? While many of us recognise China's influence on certain architectural traditions - such as the relationship to nature, use of materials, courtyards, gardens and sculptural roof forms - we know little about its urban condition. How will Beijing resolve the scale shifts between the domestic and the civic? Between the extremes of crumbling hutongs, and the alienating and imported Soviet glory of Tiananmen Square? What else of any distinction defines the anatomy of this city?

For me, after my short stay, the city remains a mystery. My journey ended as it began, in the back of a taxi, and as I approached the airport terminal building, a cheery radio DJ summed up my feelings in his regular broadcast slot: 'Let's learn English'. Repeated ad infinitum. And despite the event's appalling organisation, a Chinglish message continues to echo in my mind: 'No hard feelings. No hard feelings. [Beijing] I still like ya.' See you again in 2006, with folding bike, I hope.

Rob Gregory is an architect and assistant editor of The Architectural Review

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