Monday, December 15, 2008

changing the desire

If you think of the architects that we love the most, the ones that have really affected us, they didn’t simply build what they were asked to build – they built something that was surprisingly better than what they were asked for. They changed the desire. The good architect is the one who makes you realize that your desires could be more adventurous, and then who satisfies those new desires in ways that are very, very positive. That – that – is a really important social mission. If you say that the traditional architect monumentalizes existing desires, that doesn’t sound like such a hot mission anymore. 

-- mark wrigley in an interview with bldgblog.

it might be obvious, but isn't that what we want from every leader, and what we only get from the visionaries? the possibility for possibilities. 

but is it good enough that only architect (or the client) is actor? where is there room for the public?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Return to America

A middling Hollywood film from the mid 90s. Actually you don't know if it's from the mid 90s or the late 90s or the late 80s -- it doesn't matter -- but the first thing you notice, somehow, is the sloppy set design and beige colored walls and corny background music. And then the cornier half aware acting, all framed by angles and techniques described in the early chapters of film school textbooks. The lighting alone makes you want to want to sit far away from the TV, crawl into the corner of the foreign hotel room. But it also, all of it, sucks you in too. And though you could have sworn you've seen it before, you can't help but watch it, can't even help but watch the terrible advertisements that interrupt it all. The way you want to watch a big wreck.
Some excerpts from the film:

"In the worst case scenario...I have to sleep here." - man on cell phone with slicked hair

"I asked for an early holiday. They didn't tell me I could only take off two weeks before Christmas!" - handsome man with a TSA jacket

"Go beyond the image, the controversy...CNN Showbiz" - television

"Tomorrow night, Larry King talks to Caylee's grandparents." - tv

"...but today Oprah weighs 200 pounds. She says she's embarassed." - tv

"Whether the economy is up exponentially or down exponentially, things here keep rolling along very well." - a man from the DC government

"What a modern airport." - my father, upon landing at Dulles, 20 years ago

"Modernist funeral home." - me, upon landing at Dulles, last week

An old couple never looked so scared and pathetic to me.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Dawn of a New Century: Ordos 100


I have just returned from Ordos, for the second installment of what is now known as the "Ordos Project", where I found myself trying to document every last bit of it, not unlike Ai Weiwei, whose role hovered somewhere between bemused, fatigued camp counselor and mad scientist. What happens if we ferry 100 architects to the middle of nowhere -- site of architectural dreams, knotted setting of stories that could be by Borges or Kafka or Melville, but also epicenter of bewildering expansion, test bed for unprecedented urban experiments, a massive mine of coal and gas and milk and cashmere and so much. An ecological dare. And again, through all of that, or despite all of that, a place where architectural dreams are made. A laboratory where Western fantasies meet Chinese ones. How different can they be? And what will they have to do with realities? We'll see.

I should be writing more soon -- I have so much material -- because even if this doesn't get built (and I think it will) this is as interesting as an art project and a social experiment and a symbol, if not of future urbanism and architecture, of our desire to find meaning in it. It could be very interesting as a film, and an article or two, or a hundred.

This article originally appeared in Urbane magazine in April, before the second phase trip, and an earlier version appeared in the South China Morning Post.

Forget the Commune by the Great Wall. This month, dozens of architects will come to the Inner Mongolian desert to being laying the foundations for a new town that will be one of the world’s most sensational architecture extravaganzas. One hundred architects, one hundred villas, designed in one hundred days.

In 1226, on his way to rout the Western Xia regime, Genghis Khan is said to have picked his burial spot: the verdant grasslands near the modern city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia. On the same site today sits a mausoleum complex containing a wealth of Khanate memorabilia, ersatz Mongolian relics, and a vast fake ger, or traditional tent, where dinners of lamb come with a song-and-dance depiction of the warrior’s life, performed mostly by Han Chinese. Notably absent however is Genghis Khan himself, who ordered that his body never be found.

“Wherever they died, they would be buried on site, without a tomb,” says Cai Jiang, a leading local entrepreneur of Mongolian descent, as he flicks ash from his cigar. “We shouldn’t have any trace at our death, because by then we have already spent so much time building our living spaces.”

The 40-year-old billionaire from Baotou says he also intends to leave no trace, but that might be hard given his worldly ambitions. With a self-made fortune from milk and coal, and the backing of a government awash with natural resource earnings, Mr. Cai has launched a construction project that would surely impress Genghis Khan, and make even the most ambitious Beijing developer blush: a river-ringed RMB 4.5 billion “creative culture” town made up of museums, theaters, studios, office buildings, apartments, and, at the center, a set of one hundred villas, each designed by a young international architect in about one hundred days.

“This does not happen often in the history of architecture or in China,” Ordos’s deputy mayor, Yang Gongyan, said in January at the opening meeting for the quasi utopian project, called the Jiang Yuan Cultural Creative Industries Park. The unlikely meeting looked more like a UN summit than an urban planning consultation. Next to Cai sat assorted assistants, municipal planners, Party officials, and artist Ai Weiwei, who is working for Cai as master planner and organizer of the villa project, dubbed Ordos 100. Mr Ai famously helped Swiss star architects Herzog & de Meuron design Beijing’s Olympic stadium before slamming it as a state-sponsored “pretend smile.”

Also present were forty wide-eyed architects from 29 countries, who had been handpicked by Herzog & de Meuron, and flown in for the first phase of the project (another group arrives this month). “It’s like a fairytale,” said Alexia Leon, an architect from Lima, Peru, during a celebratory dinner. “China makes a lot of things real that seem unreal.”

Before reaching the mostly empty steppe land where Cai’s town will grow, half an hour by car from the current city center, visitors must pass through the city’s own new district. In less than three years, a 32 sq. km swath of grassland has been transformed into a super suburb, replete with giant Genghis Khan statues, futuristic cultural buildings, a forest of new apartment complexes, and hundreds of faux classical villas that fade into the distance. In the past year, hundreds of kilometers of piping and road has been laid, and nearby, a new airport has opened, placing the city within an hour’s reach of Beijing.

This hyperspeed approach to urbanization is a testament to the area’s breakaway success. Last year, Inner Mongolia overtook Beijing to become China’s second biggest economy after Shanghai (Ordos ranks 28th). The province also became the literal engine for the country’s economy: its 2007 coal output rose an estimated 75 per cent to roughly 350 million tons, surpassing the old coal-mining base of Shanxi. Foreign direct investment in Ordos is the highest in the province. In the old district of Dongsheng, where per capita income surpasses Shanghai, the parking lot of the five-star Holiday Inn hosts a revolving fleet of Range Rovers and Porches. A Shangri-La is under construction.

“Of course every city wants to be the best,” says vice mayor Yang. For Ordos, that means reaching beyond its typical industries of milk, cashmere and coal. To attract more investment, and diversify the city’s economic profile, officials have not only turned Ordos into a manufacturing base for car, chemical, and coal-to-fuel projects, but have also set their sights on China’s most emergent industry. Taking a cue from Beijing and Shanghai, officials now see creativity, enshrined in everything from art districts to advertising agencies, as the premium that could raise the city’s profile, and inject the economy with a boost of innovation. In 2006, the Ordos government announced its intention to become Inner Mongolia’s cultural industries leader, providing a base for film, music, web and fashion, and drawing in tourism from around China. “We want people to come here not just for business, but to relax, go shopping. We want to attract more creative talents, create a space where people can work, work creatively, and live comfortably.”

To get there, officials are turning to entrepreneurs like Cai, who have the funds and the “flexibility” that governments do not, says Yang. And whereas the city’s previous creative industry venture—the privately-funded Genghis Khan mausoleum—feels like a worn-out cultural theme-park, Cai’s Jiang Yuan town, what she calls “a world class architecture museum that’s also a place to live and work,” will “open the door to the world for Ordos.”

Some locals have voiced opposition, citing the distance of the Jiang Yuan development from the old city, high costs of construction and ecological damage that a population boom could mean for an already fragile environment. “Ordos will become a hell on earth,” wrote one critic on an internet forum. Another commented: “It is impossible to have a few million more people, at best, on what is also a natural resource-based industrial city. Water supplies, the environment and other aspects do not create the conditions for a metropolis. And the distance between the two towns will only increase operating costs.”

With his open collar, Hugo Boss suits, and suave goatee, Cai certainly looks the part of the heady private investor the government is banking on. He plays it well too. “Because this is so costly, 4.5 billion renminbi, it’s not rational or practical for the nation to invest in this kind of thing,” he says. Though “one hundred” and “Ordos” have become almost mantras for him (“100 architects, 100 percent creativity, 100 pc everything”), Cai says quality, not quantity is crucial. “If we only focus on the numbers, we won’t be earning enough.”

Soft spoken and circumspect, Cai is nonetheless “really, really good at pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in China,” says Michael Tunkey, an architect who is designing separate villas and an opera house for the Ordos site. When he accompanied Cai to a meeting with top executives from Harley Davidson last year, Cai, who owns half a dozen of the company’s motorcycles, proposed opening a Harley Davidson café in Ordos.

“These guys went from being very polite to showing real interest,” says Mr Tunkey, who attended the meeting. “He had the ability to fly to Milwaukee and, without being able to speak the language, convince them that there’s this great thing happening and they might want to consider being involved. When most people get to his level of leadership in China, they want to avoid things that will lose face. But when he believes in something, he doesn’t see why anyone would see differently.”

Despite a cool, brooding visage, Cai is gracious, and can be infectiously enthusiastic. He is especially proud of the first buildings at Jiang Yuan: a set of utilitarian art studios by Ai Weiwei and a glass-and-slate contemporary art museum designed by Beijing-based architect Xu Tiantian, which contains pieces from his own collection by artists like Xu Bing and Fang Lijun. Though he avoids discussing the occasionally touchy political subtexts in his collection, Cai says he admires the “freedom” of art, and hints, carefully, that it doesn’t have enough. “The arts nowadays need the best climate they can get here in China, be it purely artistically or commercially. This is something the United States already knows.”

For Cai, finding a space for creativity and building audiences around it means embracing the link between art and commerce. “As Inner Mongolia has become more economically mature, I started to think there’s something missing in our cities, like a cultural life. Money alone doesn’t make a city rich. And yet, this isn’t just about a museum or even the other facilities, but an entire complex with a commercial bent, with advertisement firms, designers, cultural companies. I want to fill peoples’ minds, but also their wallets.”

When the new town begins to open late next year, Cai hopes to use it for his own companies, including ventures in engineering, natural gas, coal and, with a 50,000 cow ranch near Baotou, milk. Ordos, he hopes, will become the brand name for a series of projects. Though he currently sells his milk through provincial conglomerate Meng Niu Group, he plans to establish his own luxury milk and yogurt brand. By linking the city with his products, Cai imagines a synergy that could turn Ordos into a household word. “You can imagine after fifty or one hundred years, people will be talking about this project. Whether my name is remembered is not so important. But the name of Ordos will spread.”

The reason for that, Cai insists, is the architecture. “It’s the most obvious cultural name card of a city,” says Dai Xiaozhong, the vice director of the Jiang Yuan project. Last year, Cai made serious overtures to star architects like Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Herzog & de Meuron, but only the latter agreed to participate, selecting the one hundred architects who would design the town’s villas. That suited Cai perfectly. “We would like to support young artists, give them a stage and a voice. Also, because the young architects are barely affected by tradition, they will have some new ideas to offer.”

Even without big name recognition, and nary a design sketch, the project is already building buzz for its scale, speed, and collaborative style. “From the start, this should be a star project, because in our human history, nobody has done anything like it,” says Ai Weiwei, who last year opened a pavilion park in his hometown of Jinhua, Zhejiang province, featuring the work of 17 architects. On one hand, the Ordos project is about “cultivating” a developer like Cai, “who has a slight idea about architecture.” But Mr Ai is more concerned with the architects. “Architects are so educated, so concerned about protecting their knowledge, so attached to personal creativity rather than communicating and fighting and getting themselves into new circumstances and using their basic, original strength, their courage. Whenever you set up a condition questioning normal behavior it’s always interesting.”

Ann-Sofi Rönnskog, a Finnish architect involved, insists that the commission offers an escape from the profession’s culture of competition, which often results in wasted work and pitiful salaries. “Young architects always say there are not enough projects to do. This is the brilliant solution. Instead of competitions, collaboration!” Lyn Rice, who heads a practice in New York, says the commission provides not only “an incubator” for shared ideas but an opportunity to break out of the “McMansion” template of housing common to large suburban construction in the West—and increasingly in China. “That is an opportunity that we simply do not have in our home countries.”

Still, say architects and critics, many questions remain unanswered. Zou Huan, a professor of Architecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing wonders about the project’s relevance to the larger context. “What I doubt a little is how a city could be created without a deep analysis of its social and economic aspects.” Along with other concerns about how the villas will engage the public and each other, the architects also wonder if the entire area will end up fallow, like a larger version of SOHO China’s much-hyped Commune by the Great Wall. Cai rejects those ideas, but says the uncertainties are precisely why he convened the architects in the first place.

“I’m always looking for more talented ideas, more creative ideas to develop this concept,” he says. “That’s what makes this special. We need new ideas, right? Because nobody has done such a project before.”

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Love it


Women As Lovers (KRS)

His hair-pulling electro-dirges may not suggest it, but Jamie Stewart clearly knows how to get things done. With Women As Lovers, the dashing brainchild behind Xiu Xiu has managed to a) make his sixth full-length record in as many years, b) add a third member, Ches Smith, on drums, and c) produce an album that is, as a press kit puts it, "more approachable or communicative on a basic human level" than previous outings. That's saying a lot for experimental rock's most painstaking, pain-obsessed perfectionist, but Stewart likes it hard. Still, let's be clear about this claim to accessibility: Named after a heavy novella by Austrian Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek and with titles like "You Are Pregnant, You Are Dead" and "Guantanamo Canto," Women As Lovers is not exactly Norah Jones territory. It refuses to compromise the instrumental complexity (gamelan gongs, saxophones and a blitzkrieg of machines are busy at work), the razor-sharp vocal intensity and unrelentingly dark (and witty) lyricism that have become staples of Xiu Xiu's confessional oeuvre. But Stewart also offers some of his most delicate, straightforward work to date—on the tortured love song "I Do What I Want When I Want" and a cover with Swans' Michael Gira of Queen's "Under Pressure," he forgoes his mercurial tempos and yelps with the clarity of someone who has returned from hell. Amid a parade of misery, it may be Freddie Mercury, not Stewart's hero Ian Curtis, who gives the record its mantra: "Why can't we give love that one more chance?"

Alex Pasternack

Published in Paper on February 1, 2008

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Number one guy

Hot Chip
Made in the Dark

The "chip" in the band's name might be a reference as much to computers, which often provide the delectable beats and glitches, as to a piece of chocolate: that candy might best approximate the bite-size, sweet, and occasionally bitter sound of electro-pop, soul and R&B that this hip London outfit has nearly perfected. While the catchiness of the band's earlier dance tunes still lingers, namely on the exceedingly playful and playable Shake a Fist and Ready for the Floor, Alexis Taylor's seductive vocal and the band's slippery synths, slow claps and reverbs do best on slow-jam ballads like the title track and the charming longing tune We're Looking For a Lot of Love. With this, their second stellar album, the band deserves to find it.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Wu and the Wy

Music Reviews

Wyclef Jean
The Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant
Wyclef was once a wily MC in the Fugees. Today, every time a cell phone rings in Beijing, his voice can be heard chanting Shakira's name over a Latin beat. That's not a bad thing in itself, but his music is. The first post-Fugees album, The Carnival, was as great as it was visionary for the genre-blending that's become a staple of current pop music. Nearly a decade later, Vol. II is a lesson in what's wrong when you turn your albums into the musical equivalent of the UN. Sure, there’s something thrilling about seeing Akon, Norah Jones, T.I., Mary J. Blige, and Paul Simon on one record. But the buzz quickly wears off, and by the time the deluxe bonus tracks kick in – including the grating dancehall head-shaker China Wine, featuring Mandopop star Sun – it’s hard not to pine for that Shakira ringtone. Alex Pasternack

Wu-Tang Clan
8 Diagrams
The passing of Ol' Dirty Bastard in 2004, and signs of fracture amongst the remaining eight Wu-Tang members (RZA has recently fallen under public criticism from Raekwon as well as Ghostface Killah, whose new solo album is directly competing for chart space), sounded like the finishing moves for hip-hop's grimiest family. But this new album, their sixth, sounds like a return to happier times. Of course, nothing is happy about the Wu sound: Over RZA's dark, cinematic beats and kung fu flick samples, the Clan offers street-sweeping, timeless poetry to produce the most solid set of Wu bangers since 1997's Wu-Tang Forever. If the dud The Heart Gently Weeps, billed as the first song to "sample" a Beatles track, is the album's weak spot, Rushing Elephants and Wolves are its fists of fury. Alex Pasternack

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

In the Mood for a Road Trip: Wong Kar Wai Speaks

Earlier this year, Wong Kar-Wai became the first Chinese filmmaker to open the Cannes Film Festival, with the premiere of My Blueberry Nights. As his first English-language film hits the Chinese mainland, the director sat down with that's Beijing to talk road trips, music, Zhang Yimou and, of course, Beijing's ever-changing landscape ...

by Alice Xin Liu and Alex Pasternack; photos by Simon Lim and courtesy of Jet Tone Films

that’s Beijing: Some people have described My Blueberry Nights as a new beginning. Is it?
Wong Kar-Wai: Did I say that this was a new beginning? [Laughs] Yes, you can say that it is a kind of new beginning. A new attempt. I have made films in the West, but they were from the perspective of a Chinese person. This time we are telling the story of an American, not a Chinese. I am trying something new with a different language and culture.

that’s: Can you describe some of the difficulties of making your first English-language film?
WKW: I have written all my other films, but the scriptwriter for this movie [crime novelist Lawrence Block] is American, as I needed someone to help with expressions in English. In many cases, I also ask my actors to participate in the process of filmmaking. The actors this time helped me with the language in the film. Because you know that every language has its own culture, so I asked the actors how something would be expressed in their culture. I needed them all to get involved.

that’s: What was your experience of working with actors you haven’t worked with before, like Jude Law, Norah Jones, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman and David Strathairn?
WKW: At the beginning I thought there would be some difference. To put it simply, actors are … instruments. Perhaps the process of making the film is different in America compared to China, but the content of the film always stays the same. How the actors act, and how they participate in the making of the film, stays the same.

that’s: You’ve dubbed the film for the Chinese mainland. Tell us more about this decision.
WKW: Norah Jones is dubbed by Dong Jie, Jude Law by Cheng Chen, and David Strathairn is done by Jiang Wen. I thought at first that this could be a bit strange, but after making this version I don’t think so anymore. I think this version helps the Chinese viewer get into the film. Now I feel it can be shared. The dubbing methods here still belong to the ’60s, like when they dubbed Russian or Yugoslavian films. There isn’t a creative process – it’s a strict translation. But I believe dubbing should be a creative process. It should be like this the world over. This isn’t just a traditional dubbed version; it’s more.

that’s: If you could describe My Blueberry Nights in one word or sentence ...
WKW: I haven’t thought about one word [or sentence], but if I could use music I think it’s like Norah Jones’ song, The Story, which she wrote after the whole process of filming. Her voice is why I asked her to act in the movie, because I think it has a kind of … straightforwardness and cixing [magnetic] feel to it. Some films are high-pitched, but this one is low-pitched.

that’s: Sure, but compared to In the Mood for Love and 2046, My Blueberry Nights ends on a pretty upbeat note.
WKW: The film is about the beginning of love – what happens afterwards is left up to the viewer. 2046 is about the houyi zheng [after-effects] of love. The love has finished and the film is about how Chow recovers from it.

that’s: Do you think these sorts of stories really happen to people?
WKW: Aiya! Lots of men have said that it’s their story, that they are the man in the film! And I say to them: Aren’t you lucky! [Chuckles]

that’s: Music plays an important role in My Blueberry Nights, as with your other films. How did you choose it?
WKW: For My Blueberry Nights we drove from New York to the West Coast. We drove for five hours a day and didn’t do much apart from listen to the radio, which played songs particular to the region we were driving through. So we followed that pattern. This film describes the journey of one girl during one year, going to different regions in the US. And in each region the feeling is different based on the records of that region. So in the South, whose music do you look for? Someone gave us Otis Redding’s music – it plays as you walk into the bar in Memphis. In New York it was Cat Power.

that’s: In your other films, such as Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, there is usually one song that plays a vital role in the whole film. Did you ever choose the music first and then fit the story to it?
WKW: It’s different every time. Sometimes you make a film for the music, and other times it’s the opposite. For example, this bar [that we are sitting in]: If we came back tomorrow they would still be playing the same music, and if we came back the next day, they would still be playing the same thing. It would basically be playing this, which represents this same situation. A very big regret I have is that I never learned to play an instrument. But I would like to be a DJ.

that’s: I read that your father was a nightclub owner, and that as a child you followed him around and encountered the lowlifes that became subjects for your films.
WKW: Meiyou a! My father owned the best club in Shanghai at the time, and I was never allowed to go! In nightclubs like that in the past, they always had a photographer, and my father used to bring home the pictures they took – all of mei nü, many beautiful ladies.

that’s: How did you develop your artistic style, together with cinematographer Christopher Doyle and art director William Chang?
WKW: It’s a very organic process – we have collaborated for so many years. We have areas on which we agree, and areas in which we supplement each other. Of course the process didn’t come easily. Many tears were shed and there were fights, especially when we first started. But then we [Doyle and I] became an old married couple.

that’s: Your working relationship with Tony Leung has been compared to Martin Scorsese’s with Robert de Niro. What’s your take on this?
WKW: Didn’t you just answer your own question? [Laughs] We experience something intense together – like with Chris Doyle – and you also witness the changes during different stages of their career. So it is very hudong [interactive].

that’s: We know that you emigrated from Shanghai to Hong Kong at the age of 5. Do you feel nostalgic about Shanghai?
WKW: Of course I do – I was born there. I have my impressions, but the Shanghai I remember is different from Shanghai as it is now. But I still have relatives there, so I still feel close to the city.

that’s: Will your next project be The Lady in Shanghai [a tale of love and espionage rumored to star Nicole Kidman]?
WKW: [Smiling] This is one possible film, yes.

that’s: Some scenes of In the Mood for Love were originally meant to be set in Beijing. Have you any other plans to make a film in the capital?
WKW: I have. But chaiqian [demolition] is happening at such a fast pace. There is so much being demolished. For My Blueberry Nights, we wanted to take the longest journey – but the furthest Norah’s character went was the west coast [of the US]. But from the point of view of the earth, she should go to the other side, which is China. At the time we decided that it should be Beijing, and we wanted to film around Qianmen, but by that time they demolished the place that we had chosen. It was actually quite a commercial street. But Tian’anmen Square was in the background. It had a traditional ... structure, but it had many contemporary details as well – you could see that it was a changing city.

that’s: Do you think you will return to the United States in the future?
WKW: I’m a tourist – I’m not returning! [Laughs] I just visited the country to make a film. If there is the right project and there are other stories I want to shoot, of course I’ll return there. But it’s not my base.

that’s: How do you see your work in comparison to that of other popular Chinese directors?
WKW: Every director’s vision is different. I think a film culture is interesting if it has different things.

that’s: But Zhang Yimou’s, Chen Kaige’s and Feng Xiaogang’s blockbusters all tend to look and feel the same ...
WKW: But this is a question of their motives and goals. I don’t think you can judge a director solely on one film. Judge them on their careers. There is a phrase that Beijingers use, right? Zhanzhe shuohua bu yao tong [literally, talk standing up and your waist won’t hurt; in other words: everyone’s a critic]. As a critic or a member of the audience, it’s very easy to say “I liked that film!” or “I didn’t like that film!” So simple, right? Zhang is still in a process … he has traveled from Red Sorghum to where he is now. He is still traveling.

that’s: Do you know where you are traveling to?
WKW: Who knows, right? Bian zou bian chang ba – I’ll sing as I walk! It wouldn’t be so good to know.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Foo for Dumb Thought

Foo Fighters
Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace
There was a time when the Foo Fighters’ name was not the only funny thing about the band. They made smart, playful alt-rock with videos to match (Big Me, Everlong, Learn to Fly); just recently they covered Prince’s Darling Nikki at the VMAs. But as their new album title indicates, fun is not exactly their thing anymore. While the last outing, the two-disc In Your Honor, saw Grohl and company baring their biggest hard rock teeth yet, and to somewhat good effect, now they have dulled into Yet Another Modern Hard Rawk Band. Tracks like Let it Die, Long Road to Ruin, and Summer’s End are as flat as their names suggest. They might take the advice of another song title: Cheer Up, Boys. Alex Pasternack

Monday, December 24, 2007

Inside the Egg

The French engineer-turned-architect Paul Andreu uses the word “wait” a lot in English, in the sense of hope, or anticipation. “This is the building they’ve been waiting for,” he says about the people of Beijing. Another use comes in the line he often tells critics. “I say, you don’t yet know how it is. Wait until you come inside and you’ll see what it’s like.”

Like anyone responsible for enormous, state-funded projects, the 69-year-old designer of Beijing’s National Grand Theater has done a lot of waiting. “I know everything about the difficulty of building such a big building,” says Andreu, decades of designing airports behind him, “but this process makes everybody stay tense, including me. Still, it’s a moment where everyone should not criticize it before it opens. We need to wait.”

One senses Andreu could keep waiting forever. Some five thousand miles away from his office near Paris’s Parc Montsouris, Andreu’s translucent, hermetic ovoid theater complex sits in the physical heart of Beijing, beside the Great Hall of the People, within eyeshot of Mao’s Tian’an’men portrait.

Those eyes are not indifferent: the idea of creating a national opera house was hatched in the late 1950s by Premier Zhou Enlai, who believed China needed a strong cultural symbol to match similar theaters in Russia, the United States and France. Some foundations were even dug, but the cost of such a project (the final tally is estimated at 2.7 billion yuan) kept the idea shelved until the 1990s, when President Jiang Zemin put it back on the table and, some say, had a hand in selecting the design.

For the past few years, the dusty dome peeked above its scaffold wall, a lingering monument to China’s ambitions as much to the challenges and controversies that dog such an enormous and sensitive building. More recently, a swath of trees was planted and the grounds open to the public; in September, the building’s central, 2,416-seat opera house hosted a much-publicized handful of nationalistic performances for displaced residents, construction workers and dignitaries (Jiang reportedly took the stage for a solo). But the building’s grand opening is scheduled to happen in the next weeks, some ten years after Andreu’s design was chosen. “We still have a certain number of things that are not finished,” he says, some two months from completion.

Whatever has been said of the opera up until now—it has become the central lightning rod for criticism of foreign architecture in China—Andreu is adamant that the building be judged only after the curtain officially rises, and everything is in place. (The soft opening also served as a test of the building’s lighting and acoustics.) “I hope the people coming into the building to see performances do not see the wrong image,” Andreu says. “If they come into a building in which the lighting by night is not good, is not the one that we wanted, and they say this isn’t any good, the reputation of the building is formed incorrectly.”

Andreu is anxious for his building to be embraced. “There’s nothing wrong with the design itself,” says Andreu. “But I personally want everybody to be convinced of it from the first day, and not after one year.”

In the evening, with its lights off, the opera house is stealthy, its shiny complexion and jellyfish-like form making it look as if it has silently, slowly risen out of the reflecting moat in which it sits. Illuminated from the inside, however, the building stands out vividly from its drab, state-blessed neighbors, as if it has been dropped there, a stunning bequest from another world.

Behind the veil of glass and titaniumTK however, nothing is so placid. An internet search on the Grand National Theater reveals a building under attack for its cost, location and appearance, a construction process proceeding in fits and starts (at least three opening dates have been announced), safety concerns, and a litany of nicknames from “egg” to “blob” to “dung.” Behind closed doors, the building faced budget cuts, bureaucratic hesitation, and at least one reassessment.

“Among the critics there were people who said, ‘This is very bad, you shouldn’t build this at all,’” he recalls. “It’s difficult to discuss with those people because they have their fixed ideas. It’s all about themselves. One should not talk with those people. The only answer I can give them, maybe, is to tell them to enter the building and then talk to me.”

This was not new ground for Andreu. In 1989, he completed the design of the gargantuan Grande Arche at La Defense on the outskirts of Paris, after the death of its main architect, Otto von Spreckelsen. An ultra-modern cubic arch commissioned by the government of Francois Mitterrand to complement the Arc De Triomphe, the Grande Arche, which looks like a more sober, concrete version of Beijing’s new CCTV building attracted a bevy of criticism when it was first proposed, for reasons that echo the criticism of the opera.

Andreu’s modern design of terminal 1 of Charles De Gaulle airport, completed in 1974, also divided opinion, before it came to boost the profile of Paris and the architect. As the chief engineer of France’s Aeroports de Paris (ADP) from 1967 until 2002, Andreu has brought his light, glass-and-steel style to more than 40 airport terminals. One critic dubbed him “airport architecture's dean of Futurism.”

Fundamental spaces though they are (Andreu says they “speak of very ancient things, going through limits, et cetera”), airports lack the sex appeal of cultural palaces. During a trip to monitor construction of the Pudong-Shanghai airport, he learned of the opera house competition, and entered with low expectations. “I went there just to participate because I’m very interested in that type of program. When I saw where it was I realized how important it was in the context of Beijing. The idea of bringing history, political power and culture so close together in a place like Beijing…that’s not something I can hope for again.”


On a Sunday afternoon in late May of 2004, Andreu was in Beijing on one of his routine site visits when the news came from Paris: a section of roofing at Terminal 2E, his final airport design, had collapsed, killing four travelers. Two of the dead were Chinese citizens.

“I would say it is the worst thing that can happen to any architect in his life, and it was for me. It was a terrible shock. And I look at it with a full sense of responsibility,” he says. “From the beginning, I never wanted to say, ‘It’s not me.’

The design for the tubular concrete jetty, which had been finished less than a year previous, was hardly revolutionary. But weaknesses had been detected during construction, and though they were addressed by engineers, a government enquiry determined that metal pillars and openings in the concrete kept the structure weak. But investigators refused to conclude there had been a “conceptual error”; the government as well as Andreu has acknowledged that the building’s budget may have kept it from undergoing more rigorous safety checks.

But he scoffs at the suggestion by some that the victims were wronged by an unswerving attention to modern design. “It’s not because it was beautiful that it collapsed,” Andreu said. “It’s not because we made it like that that it collapsed. It’s not because we took an uncalculated risk that it collapsed. I’m sure about that. Can we avoid it? I don’t know. I hope we can always do better. But does that mean, ‘Okay, let’s only do ordinary things’?”

Though the opera’s construction was unaffected by the collapse, it did stirred a fresh torrent of criticism. Domestically, much of it was aimed at the building’s total disregard for Chinese aesthetics. Unlike the upward-sloping roofs of the nearby Forbidden City, the lines of the aggressively modern building slid downwards and eschewed feng shui principles; the large main entrance, which tunnels through the exterior moat in an attempt to keep the dome “pure” and free of any apparent openings, has been likened to the passageway of an imperial tomb.

Unlike some of his foreign colleagues, Andreu never made pretensions to incorporating Chinese ideas in his design, opting instead for a determinately ultra-modern approach. “Instead of looking backward, we need to be only looking forward, and be responsible,” he says. It was fiscal responsibility that led an early governmental review to force the budget down by at least 25 percent; other minor changes to the design have been negotiated over the years between Andreu’s office, the client, contractors and local design institutes.

“All the way, I kept the same attitude: ‘Okay, if you have a problem, tell me and I’ll try to solve it. But don’t tell me what to do. You’ve selected my project. I am myself even more critical than you are.’” he says. “I want a dialog of architect with owner. I don’t want to be given typical orders.”

Andreu credits his own determination to stay close to the project for keeping it in his hands, literally. His visits to China, to which he has traveled every month for the past decade, included handling some of the construction himself. The metallic slabs that line the lobby floor, for instance, were made by molds cast by Andreu. “I was able to take my design fully, completely,” he says with obvious yen for a bygone era, and an architect’s fatigue with “not being understood.” For liability reasons, he says, “That’s something you couldn’t dream of in western countries anymore.”

The somewhat haphazard fashion of construction in China, says Andreu has also spurred him on, and not just because he hopes to push things forward. It has enabled him more flexibility in design, so that a change can be adapted relatively easily, without the need for pesky bureaucracy. “If you made an error, if you criticize yourself, and think you’re your work is wrong, in Europe you cannot change anymore, or it becomes a total drama. But in China you can.”

The sheer amount of demand has also made the country an appealing destination. “Very simply, the peasant should go where the grass is green,” says Andreu. So far, he has gone there to design the airport in Shanghai and a stadium for Guangzhou; a 370,000 sq. meter science and technology center is rising in Chengdu. “There are so many projects and so much ambition in China. I think every architect in the world tries to bring something of himself there.”

Whatever the final verdict on the “egg,” the risk of hatching it has been well worth it. “I consider it the chance of my life in fact,” he says. “What better building can I do?”


Though stylistically, the building most closely resembles a glass dome he designed for an aquarium in Osaka, Japan, in its public mission, Andreu admits the opera’s closest relatives might ultimately be the very public, functional buildings for which he is known. The opera’s enormous glassed lobby is reminiscent of an airport terminal panorama, while the complex’s symmetrical system of walkways resemble the branches one takes to reach a flight. Pushed far back from the street, and with its perfectly sealed envelope, the building can feel as removed from the city as its airport, a point both of arrival and departure.

“An opera in a way is a similar thing [to an airport]. You come from the streets and you enter into another life. You think of the opera, this fantastic art, speaking of your life and your dreams,” says Andreu. “The work of an architect is to make the passage possible.”

To a passer-by, especially an average Beijinger, the building’s shiny skin and sense of removal may just as easily inspire a sense of snobby aloofness. But Andreu hopes his strange building will draw in not only crowds of music lovers and architecture buffs, but those simply baffled by its design. He has in mind TK’s skeletal design for the Pompidou Center in Paris, another lightning rod for criticism when it was built in TK, but which today draws crowds who might otherwise not go to a museum.

For an example of architecture that surpassed expectations, Andreu’s favorite reference is to I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre. A better historical consolation however may be the Sydney Opera House. When Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s building was first revealed, locals scoffed at the bold expressionism of its jutting concrete “shells”; today the building is the most visited landmark in the Southern Hemisphere.

But for every Pompidou Center and Sydney Opera House there are a dozen examples of awful buildings. Unlike many of the testaments to architectural grandiosity that litter the capital, Andreu’s theater—at the vanguard of China’s most daring building projects in decades—will not be afforded a veil of anonymity. For better or worse, it will become a center for performance in Beijing, a lasting symbol of the country’s futuristic ambitions, and the marquis project of one architect’s long career.

“Sometimes, what the people wait for, what they desire, they don’t know. They recognize their desire only when they see it. Meanwhile, a painter, an architect, a musician, has to be totally convinced of what he does,” says Andreu. “He will know only at the end if the people have the same feeling.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Iron and Wine
The Shepherd's Dog

Like his thick beard, Sam Beam’s addictive voice is blanket-soft but not without a certain roughness. Where his previous bedroom-recorded albums buried his most valuable instrument in a hushed haze, almost covering up his rich lyricism in the process, The Shepherd’s Dog brings more detail to Beam’s voice. And he’s got a richer musical palette to match, a range of instrumentation and percussion on top of his old plaintive country guitar. Even as these add texture and help him explore genres, including bhangra (White Tooth Man), West African pop (House by the Sea) and even reggae (Wolves), beneath it all, Beam’s voice and lyrics still thrive. The sense of loss that so beautifully tied earlier albums together has faded, but on this, the best folk album this year, much has been gained. Alex Pasternack

Sunday, October 7, 2007

A Tool for Change

Elements of Style

For fixing China’s English, David Tool makes no apologies. “Some of the American media, even the Italian media, they say, ‘why are you doing that? You’re ruining all the fun.’” They might just have a point. In years past, signs with such gems as “Racist Park” (the Minorities Park) and “speaking English only” (a sign at a local school) have tickled Beijing’s foreigner community with even more linguistic folly than a press conference on the White House lawn. But thanks to the work of Tool, a 65-year-old professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University and the city government’s unofficial grammarian, that’s changing. He’s just, for instance, helped complete a list of 2,743 recommended dish translations for the city’s restaurants. Tool’s Chinese name, Du Dawei, or Lao Du, as he is called in meetings with city officials, dignitaries and Tsinghua advisers, means to “prevent” or “put an end to.”

Indeed, at well over 6 feet, with his imperial white beard lining a chiseled jaw, silk Mandarin jacket and slight South Carolinian twang, Prof. Tool is not the sort of person with whom you want to make light of English malapropisms. And yet even he sometimes has to admit that, yes, the material he’s working with is pretty good stuff. “‘The Dongda Anus Hospital’ is funny. ‘Garden of Curled Poo.' ‘Don’t fall down.’ All those things,” he says, over plates of sushi at Wangfujing.

The humor, he is relieved to know, is not the result of some cultural arrogance. “For us Americans or British, its verbally funny, not culturally funny. We’re laughing at the language,” he says. “But often the Chinese don’t hear that. And I just want to clear that up. I don’t want the laowai to look insensitive culturally. I don’t want that situation,” he says, “a bunch of asshole Americans standing in front of the anus hospital having their picture taken.”

After having a laugh, it’s common procedure for foreigners to wonder how sign language like “On the taxi the guest stands forward” could ever get past the authorities. Some might even for a moment consider filing a complaint. But Tool, a former Army colonel, assistant dean at the University of Southern California, and an avid lover of Chinese culture, will not stand idly by. When he’s not teaching nearly 300 university students, writing a cultural guide to the city or lobbying for the city’s elderly and handicapped, the professor is known to regularly stop into shops to inform shopkeepers, in the best Chinese he can muster, about their bad signage. It was a visit by him last year to Dongda hospital that led to the hospital’s name change. “We’re talking about a huge sign—the letters are bigger than me. But within a week they changed it. Even the common man on the street is appreciative.” On more than a few occasions of store-wide language sweeps, other shoppers have even given him the thumbs up.

Tool’s syntactical crusade began in October 2001, with a letter he wrote to the Ministry of Culture, after seeing a Peking opera in Xi’an. Tool’s attempts to enjoy the hijinks of the Monkey King were foiled as much by the translation (“there were ‘auspicious clods’ in the sky instead of “‘auspicious clouds’”) as by a group of Germans laughing loudly in the audience.

“My first reaction, was, this must be really embarrassing to the Chinese, as opera is one of the highest art forms in China,” recalls Tool, who has spent 11 years in China. “The bigger issue is how can the laoban, the management of this theater be so thoughtless as to present their own culture in such a careless way?”

Tool wrote to the government that he would go to any cultural institution and correct English for free. To his surprise, they replied: “‘We’ll let you go to the museums,’ they said, ‘but first how about first doing the subway?’” Soon after came the ring roads. Then the city’s cultural sites. A committee was formed, Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages Committee. A retreat last year resulted in six heavy manuals, covering signs for everything from transportation to hospitals to Olympic venues.

When someone once mentioned the city’s menus, Tool balked at the idea. “That’s too big an issue,” he says. But not wanting to confuse Olympic visitors (“Wikipedia chicken,” anyone?), last year the authorities ordered a sprucing up of dish translations. “We’ve gone through 189 pages of menu items twice,” says Tool, with no small tinge of exhaustion in his voice after last month’s final discussion about the list. Between controversies over direct translations (“fish-flavored pork”) versus more poetic ones ("Hunan style pork"), and the use of French phrases (“shrimps with leeks” or “shrimps en casserole”), it was a tiring process, with a few too many cooks in the kitchen.

But at the end of the day, cleaning up phrases like “hot steamed crap” – for the good of China – is one of Tool’s loves. “Most Chinese think I’m a fool because I do this for free,” he says. “And I do feel underappreciated sometimes. But if you are doing something just because you want praise, you probably aren’t doing it for the right reason,” he says. “If people don’t appreciate it, that doesn’t lessen the value of what I’m doing.”

A Not-So-Quiet Desperation

The emotional arc of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

There seems to be little in Karen O’s explosive stage presence with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs that reveals much about Karen Orzolek, the soft-spoken, contemplative 30-year-old beneath the lead singer. “My persona in the band is unhinged and empowered, a bit mad,” she says of her famously fearsome charisma. But what may not be apparent in O’s performance still speaks volumes. Like, for instance, her little-known Asian heritage.

“I believe that a great deal of my persona in the band is a reaction to the more conservative side of myself,” says Karen O, who is half-Korean. “I have enjoyed playing concerts in Japan and Korea because I feel as though the Asian audience can relate to this reactive persona of mine and the celebratory aspect of our shows. It’s a big celebration of passion in the human spirit, the deeper darker side as well as the soaring transcendent side.”

On paper, talk of ethnicity and a universal human spirit might sound trite for a band that made its name with the loud and messy garage-punk fireworks of its 2003 debut, Fever to Tell. But listen to Brian Chase’s studied but raw percussion, Nick Zinner’s howling guitar, and Karen’s primed voice, swerving between pathos and punk, and you hear how emotionally sincere rock music can be. Live, the music gets acted out through Karen’s paroxysms, her glam costumery, beer spitting and modern dance; if the human spirit ever existed in indie rock, it is in their show, and it’s being celebrated.

“When I was a kid, going to rock shows changed my life, and it became something and somewhere where I found my identity and purpose,” says guitarist Zinner. “I would hope that we are giving an experience like that for some people.”

When they bring that hope to Beijing for the first time at this month’s Modern Sky Festival, it won’t just be another milestone for Beijing’s international music cachet, but probably for the band too. The surprising breakaway success of Fever to Tell was as much a testament to a popular fatigue with slick production as to the pop sensibilities knit within the band’s messy, brutal art-rock. Blogs buzzed, venues sold out, the record went gold; the band is still baffled by it.

“I can’t make any sense of why we have had the success we’ve enjoyed,” says Karen, who first formed a duo with Zinner in 2000 before enlisting her college buddy Chase as drummer. For Zinner, whose bewilderment with rock stardom is registered in an ongoing photography project, the first big shock came last year in Dublin. “We played to 30,000 people, with everyone singing along. Before that, our last show in Ireland [in 2003] was to 40 people in a pub.”

“It was one of those ‘Whoa, how did this happen?’ moments,” says Zimmer. “I still don’t know the answer, but I’m grateful to be asking the question.” To be sure, there have been many other markers of success – some obvious, others more dubious, such as when Karen O was featured in a sneaker ad. “Nowadays, you hear indie bands on commercials all the time, as it’s become a way for people to hear your music, so it’s not such a black and white definition to ‘sell out,’” explains Zinner. Drummer Chase underscores the ambiguity: “It’s definitely possible to do things for superficial gain and keep the integrity of the art. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.” Gold Lion is the opener to the band’s second album, Show Your Bones; that the song should be named after a music award won by the sneaker commercial is as much a statement of the band’s ambition as of its poise.

If it hasn’t soured their ideals, the turbulence of success has touched their music, and for the better. Their more recent material, including the new EP Is Is, reflects their maturation, with greater drama and dynamics than before. And, aside from darker costumes, Karen promises more of an “emotional arc” on stage. “Musically, it was very important when we started for everything to be very minimal and direct,” says Zinner, “but over the last few years, we’ve wanted to incorporate more sounds, more elements, more emotions, for the biggest expression we could make, without limits.”

That open-eyed approach is also evident on the band’s blog, where a headline about their Beijing visit flips around the typical PR jargon: “China To Rock the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.” For all their apparent self-confidence, the band’s blistering live show would be hollow without a strong bond with their audience – a bond they’re looking forward to building in Beijing. “Success is about connecting with as many people as possible,” says Karen, “giving them something to feel passionate about in a genuine way.”

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs play at the Modern Sky Festival. RMB 60. Time TBA. Haidian Park (6282 2006/7/8/9)

from That's Beijing

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Biggest Middle Kingdom

With the world’s biggest sporting event only 11 months away in the world’s most populous nation, it’s hard to resist the urge to spout superlatives. Sure, we all know that China is home to the largest restroom (Chongqing), largest audience at a flute performance (Hong Kong), largest horse race (Inner Mongolia), largest condom (Guilin), as well as longest rubber dam (Xiaobudong in Shandong), longest family genealogy (Confucius), and most golfers on a single golf course in 24 hours (Shenzhen). But let us not forget Beijing’s own claims to bigness.

Statue carved out of white sandalwood
In Yonghegong’s Wanfu Pavilion lies the Maitreya Buddha. The 18-meter-high statue is carved out of a single sandalwood tree trunk.

Weighing 8,184g, the world’s largest ruby is owned by Beijing Fugui Tianshi Jewelry Co. Ltd. That’s what we call a very crazy stone.

Human-chair stack
Sit down for this: the world’s tallest stack of human chairs was 21 feet high, assembled, of course, by the Peking Acrobats.

Plastics recycling plant

Last month, Beijing opened the world’s largest plant for processing recycled plastic, capable of taking in 60,000 tons of waste annually, or one third of the city’s total waste in plastics – equal to saving 300,000 tons of petroleum per year

Domino run
In 1999, a record 2,751,518 dominoes were toppled in 32 minutes and 22 seconds at the gymnasium of Peking University. The dominoes had been set up over 40 days by a team of 53 Chinese and Japanese students.

Dancing dragon
In February 2000, the advent of the year of the dragon, a 3,333-yard-long dancing dragon came to life on the Great Wall, near Beijing. No, it wasn’t real, but the 3,200 people inside it were.

Largest theatrical performance building
The 12.9-acre Great Hall of the People, which can seat an audience of up to 10,000 people, is the world’s largest space for theatrical performances. It also happens to sit near the largest palace in the world (with 8,886 rooms), on the world’s largest square (97.9 acres). Just to set the record straight, that’s the size of 74 American football fields.

Next year, the world’s biggest Ferris wheel – or what its builders call “Iconic Viewing Platform” – will rise 280 meters above Chaoyang Park, each air conditioned capsule taking up to 40 passengers on a 30 minute rotation. But given Beijing’s pallid skies, what exactly will they be able to see? “The visitors will have a fantastic view over the park and its surroundings,” says Stephan Matter, CEO of Beijing Great Wheel Co.

Largest jumper
The largest hand-knitted sweater, manufactured by Beijing’s Heng Yuan Xiang Co. this past April, had a chest measurement of 8m (26ft, 3in), a body length of 4.3m (14ft, 1in) and sleeve length of 3.1m (10ft, 2in) – room enough to fit a Beijing bus full of people. Alex Pasternack

Saturday, September 8, 2007

An Olympic Makeover

How the capital is reinventing itself for 2008 and beyond

by Alex Pasternack

"Not bad.” A fresh-faced young man from Hebei province was talking about his job – cleanup around the Olympic Park during an eight-hour workday – as the hulking steel girders of the remarkable National Stadium rose in the distance behind him. He wore a slight grin that seemed completely unrehearsed, far from the city’s ongoing “smile” campaign intended to spread Olympic spirit to the world.

With a year to go until the Games, the biggest coming-out party the world will have ever seen, it’s hard not to find traces of that spirit everywhere in Beijing – on lips, on billboards, on the city’s massive construction sites. Clearly though, it’s a buzz that has little to do with athletics.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for China,” says Sun Weide, deputy director of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games (BOCOG). Despite perpetual concerns about a post-Olympics bubble-burst, the Games, he says, will be nothing short of a great leap forward. “When Sydney held the Games, it had already finished its development,” he explains. “One major difference is that Beijing is in the process of fast modernization and urbanization. We’re not worried about any kind of slowdown.”

Sun’s ability to rattle off statistics is almost as impressive as the numbers themselves: 12 percent annual GDP growth, a USD 8 billion Olympics budget, and half a million visitors – but also 241 “blue sky days” last year, 198km of new subway track, 1 million cars off the roads, and 11 new world-class venues.

But what will those statistics mean on the big day? And with all the attention focused on the largest orgy of international love and nationalism ever to hit China, who has the time or energy to consider what they will mean the morning after?

I asked some in the know to give a glimpse of what the city will be like when the torch arrives, and when it leaves.

Congestion question

This month, Beijing will stage what will likely be the world’s biggest car prohibition in history – one year before the big event. The city will “persuade” one million cars off the roads, including government vehicles and other “non essential” vehicles, in a dry run for next year’s even more serious traffic control measures. Beijing has said that come August ‘08 only “Olympic related” traffic will be allowed to park near the venues; for the rest of us, the best options will be an upgraded public transit system, which will be free to all ticket-holders and Olympics staff.

The officials are optimistic: “Traffic,” says Liu Xiaoming, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Communications Commission, “will not be a headache at all, but rather will become an enjoyable experience by 2008.”

Others are not so sure, but the results, whatever they may be, will not be for lack of trying. Along with road additions and improvements, the city will expand its use of electronic traffic notice boards and intelligent traffic signals, which change depending on traffic conditions. The government is also said to be exploring car restrictions like those of Shanghai (with its prohibitively priced licenses) or London (with its city-center congestion charge). The city is also attempting to ease traffic in downtown areas by building new municipal centers in places like Yizhuang, Shunyi and Changping. After the Olympics, it is rumored that the city government’s offices will move to the eastern district of Tongzhou, while the former headquarters of the relocated Shougang Steel Group in western Shijingshan will provide the new seat of China’s national government.

But RMB 250 billion in public transit upgrades – said to be the Olympics’ greatest physical legacy to the sprawling metropolis – will likely mark the greatest change to the lives of Beijing’s commuters. By the closing ceremony, a mix of faster bus routes and three much-touted spiffy new subway lines – including the Haidian-CBD line 10 – will make IC (yi ka tong) fare cards a necessity (paper tickets, in fact, will be completely phased out). Also helping push public transit will be an upgraded bus fleet, an increasing portion of which will run on cleaner natural gas or electric hybrid technology. A high-speed airport rail will also whisk travelers to the city’s airport (and its stunning new Norman Foster-designed Terminal 3) in under 20 minutes from stations at Sanyuan Qiao and a massive new transportation terminal at Dongzhimen.

As for Beijing’s reputation as the capital of the “kingdom of bicycles,” it can’t last forever. “With more and more cars in Beijing, they need that road space,” says Duan of Tsinghua. That – and the small possibility for future restrictions on cars – is why even he’s willing to put up with waiting in traffic: he says he’s trading in his bike for a sedan.

Breathing easier
As the city ramps up its USD 13 billion efforts to prepare for the “Green” Olympics, the “haze” (up until this year, the official term was “fog”) is also getting harder to scrub. Though 2006 saw 241 “blue sky days,” exceeding the government’s target by three days, the target of 245 blue skies for this year is one that officials admit will be “very difficult” to achieve.

No wonder: the car, one of the biggest culprits, is growing in number on Beijing’s roads at a rate of 1,100 a day. Starting last month, the city was the first in China to impose Euro-III auto emissions standards, a move that should cut automobile pollutants by 30 percent; by 2008, it has promised to take 300,000 high-emission vehicles off the roads.

Attempts to clean up coal plants and factories in nearby provinces, efforts to tackle heavily polluting companies, and a temporary cessation and slow down of construction projects before, during and after the Games may also improve air quality for the time being.

At the very least, officials say that residents can expect better publicized alerts that will warn of pollution by city district – and an increase in the “experimenting” with rainmaking technology, which will come in handy not only for clearing the summer skies during the opening ceremony, but for washing away the city’s dirt and, er, haze.

Home sweet home?

Breaths are bated, some anxiously, some hopefully, for a burst of Beijing’s property bubble. When the spotlight fades and everyone goes home, the logic goes, the city will no longer be a seller’s market. Problem is, the spotlight isn’t set to fade, Beijing’s population is set to keep growing, incomes will rise, and the addition of new, world-class infrastructure like metros and malls will help keep up overseas and domestic interest.

“Post-Olympics, we don’t really forecast a decline in prices,” says Anna Kalifa, head of research at property firm Jones Lang LaSalle. Though Beijing’s first housing price downturn might be on the cards, due to added supply in the city center and an exodus of foreigners and migrant workers just after the Games, prices won’t dip significantly, especially for areas downtown and near the Olympic venues. And, though schools and other amenities will keep most foreigners on the east side, Kalifa predicts that improved public transit, new shopping centers and the vibrancy of the college areas will draw more attention and development to Beijing’s western side.

One thing sure to make the city more appealing will be a slow down in construction. The city has ordered cranes to stop city-wide this October, and even after they start up again, post-Olympics, the rate of construction is expected to be nothing like as furious as it is at present. That should mean less noise and less dust streaming through the windows of our (rented) apartments.

And while all the development has meant that the city’s famous hutongs may be going the way of the bicycle, some point out happily that the city’s fixation on oppressively large streetscapes is waning, while a sense of civic duty is growing. It’s a shift due to private rather than public interests, says Anna Kalifa. As public gathering areas are becoming more common at shopping centers and office developments, she notes that residential community groups are growing in number as well. Bolstered in no small part by private property laws set to go into effect this autumn, such groups have a strong incentive to maintain the public spaces around their buildings. “It’s the difference between people hanging laundry outside their windows or throwing trash everywhere and not being able to do that,” she says.

Reaching out
When the lights go up on the opening ceremony on August 8, 2008, the occasion will be significant not just for what’s seen, but how. Beijing’s will not only be the first Olympics to be broadcast in high definition TV, but also across digital channels and the Internet, allowing a Beijinger, for instance, to choose to watch the ceremony on a so-called “3G” mobile phone, a growing number of screens in the back of Beijing’s cabs, or the city’s new TV-equipped subway lines.

“The Olympics gives us time to catch up in technology, but it also changes the entire communication infrastructure in China,” says Hu Bo, who produced the promotional films for Beijing’s two Olympic bids. A host of new “hardware” isn’t the only thing Beijing gains from the Games, he says, but a chance to push forward the “software” – the technical skills and creative content – crucial to shaping the country’s cultural realm and, come the lighting of the flame in Beijing, its international image.

“Beijing will have one hour to contain 5,000 years of history,” says Greg Groggel, a writer studying the Olympics Games’ effects on their host countries, of the opening ceremony. The stakes in Beijing are arguably higher than they were in the host cities typically compared with Beijing: Seoul in 1988 and Tokyo in 1964. “This is a chance for China to share something beyond economic power,” he says.

That something, says media analyst Shaun Chang, is now growing in the capital, thanks both to cultural institutions like museums and foundations but also to the widening creative realm opened by the Internet and digital technologies. “There’s this space in which we are allowed to grow and develop,” she says. Despite some hurdles faced by China’s web-based culture, “the government is creating a more relaxed environment to allow investment into this area.”

Public works and a charm offensive
Creating a good impression for the hundreds of thousands set to land in Beijing in 2008, and the surge of visitors expected afterwards, is an Olympian challenge that Beijing is not leaving up to chance. On an aesthetic level, the city government’s plans include traditional renovations of popular streets, such as Yonghegong Dajie, and the expansion of green spaces. In addition to the sprawling Olympic Forest Park in the north, Beijing is doing what it can to spruce up the city’s canals and has promised 30 more parks will be added to the outskirts of the city by 2008.

Handicapped access is also a concern for Olympics and city officials. David Tool, a volunteer advisor to the city, says that while the city’s cultural sites are beginning to improve access, hotels are lagging. For instance, Tool says, the hotel hosting the Paralympics Organizing Committee only has ten wheelchair-accessible rooms.

And among those initiatives set to leave a mark on the city, perhaps none is as obvious as the spread of English across the city’s street signs and menus. “The English signage and recorded messages will be okay for the Olympics for the most part,” explains Tool, who has also led a campaign to clean up Beijing’s written English. Spoken English is just as much a concern for him as for the government, which is behind a seemingly unending stream of English campaigns. Enabling more interaction between foreigners and Chinese volunteers, especially retirees and students, could be one of the Games’ greatest legacies, not only enriching the experiences of visitors and locals, but further blurring the sometimes uncomfortable divide that separates Beijing’s laowai from its laobaixing.

On a more basic level, improvements have also been promised for public bathrooms and food safety, while the government has helped organize training sessions for service staff in everything from professional skills to “Olympic knowledge” (which may or may not mean that hotel staff will be able to settle bets about medalists in the 400 meters at Helsinki ‘52).

Experts are also hoping for a smoothing of the visa procedures at Beijing’s Public Security Bureau, which has yet to announce how it will cope with an unprecedented number of potential lost passports and visa extensions – and an international crowd like none it has ever seen. At least fixing the queuing at places like the PSB is a no-brainer: “Judging from the pre- and post-Olympics situation in Japan and Korea,” says Tool, “Beijingers and eventually all China will adopt the line as the civil way to behave while waiting for anything.”

Also helping to comfort visitors and foreign residents will be a continued influx of international-level services, like hotels (currently about 40 are five-star-rated), movie theaters and malls. “Beijing is easier now than it was just three years ago,” says Jones Lang LaSalle’s Anna Kalifa. In the past six months especially, she detects a shift from a city “where [as a foreigner] you had to know where to go” to a place more like Shanghai or Hong Kong, “where you can see what’s going on.” She claims foreign property investment, which helps draw international brands, helps in noticeable ways. Recently, for instance, the luxury Parisian grocery Fauchon chose to open its first Chinese mainland store at the shopping center Shin Kong Palace.

“People are getting more confident,” says Hu Bo. “When there’s a great expectation on you, you have to deliver more good work.” David Wolf, of corporate advisory firm Wolf Group Asia, says that added confidence will mean improved services and language skills. “When the Olympics are all over, the most important change will be in the minds of the people of Beijing. They will see themselves as living in an international city, and that simple change in perception will have long term consequences.”

Friday, September 7, 2007

Greg Groggel: Olympic Watcher

Greg Groggel is on an Olympian mission. The 23-year-old Thomas J. Watson fellow from Omaha, Nebraska has spent two months in each of the former host cities – including Mexico City, Munich, Sarajevo, Sydney, and Seoul – to study the social, economic and political impact of hosting the world’s largest event. Before he left Beijing in July – to return next year, of course – that’s Beijing caught up with the intrepid Olympic observer.

that’s Beijing: What makes Beijing’s Olympics so different from any other?
Greg Groggel: To understand this we need consider the similar Olympics: Tokyo [‘64] and Seoul [‘88]. First came economic dominance (but not global respect), then knowledge of these countries’ culture, politics and art. Beijing is hoping to use the Olympics to share something beyond economic power. That’s exactly what the other countries did too. That’s why there’s such a nationalistic element to these games. Think of Atlanta [in ‘96] – no one would call those America’s games, but these are China’s games, not Beijing’s games.

that’s: What do you make of the way that Beijing is changing in advance of the big event?
GG: All the projects happening now are happening because of the Olympics. That includes widening roads, adding subway lines – they’re giving a facelift to their entire city. And they’re being bold with their graphic and architectural design. The only comparison I can think of is Munich, with their Olympic stadium [the Olympia-stadion]. They opted for a very unconventional, very modern, iconic design. It was really controversial at the time … but it symbolized the country’s new direction. It is as architecturally relevant today as when it was built in the late ‘60s.

that’s: So much seems to be under control. What unexpected
issues do you foresee?
GG: People are starting to make the connection between the stadiums and the issue of migrant laborers. That’s going to be a pretty prominent issue that will come to the surface in the next year. There were street sweeps [in Atlanta], with homeless people kicked out of the city for two weeks. Cities get so overzealous that everything goes perfectly, they forget about the issue of how you treat their citizens.

that’s: What have your travels told you about the post-game scenarios?
GG: The best example is Sydney, which underwent a post-Olympic depression. You also had all these planners saying that there should have been a plan … how they were going to use the venues afterwards. The media started to give the venues the dreaded white elephant label. From what I’ve read and tried to ask, there’s not really an emphasis on post-Olympic planning [in Beijing]. Most of the energy is going into those two-and-a-half weeks.

that’s: Let’s be frank. How ready is Beijing?
GG: The city is behind linguistically. A lot of that is going to depend on the work of the volunteers who are coming in and the international visitors. And right now, Beijing isn’t really the global capital that they [the organizers] think it is … they’re not close to being done, though they talk a lot about how far ahead they are. Alex Pasternack