Posts Tagged ‘China’

To Live

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

tolive4

To Live
1994, 120 minutes
directed by:  Zhang Yimou

This is one of the most powerful, beautiful films I have ever seen.

It is the story of a small, Chinese family during the Cultural Revolution. It won the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Prize, Best Actor (You Ge), and was second only to Pulp Fiction for the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival the year it debuted. There may be no more powerful film than this one about a family caught in the wheels of history. Though the male lead, You Ge, won the Best Actor awards, the film is carried on the back of Gong Li,  who projects a quiet strength that few other actresses can. The title of the film, to live (huozhe), “conceals a universe,” as Roger Ebert put it.

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As China is currently experiencing incredible growth and expansion, it may well be worth remembering that the country has always grown in fits and spurts—conversely, it has also experienced periods of incredible backwardness. The idea of progress, inextricably tied to utopianism, has been used to justify all manner of political and social harm, of which the Cultural Revolution is but one recent example. It is a simple reminder of the evil that even good intentions can create.

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I remember my first trip to China several years ago, and being enthralled, disappointed, and just dumbfounded by the magnificence and potential of this rough, barely kept together coalition of 1.2 billion people. At one point I was at a street fair, and this vendor was selling turtles, about the size of a thumbnail, from a plastic tray the size of a dinner place setting. And there were hundreds of these turtles in that plastic tray, and only one rock. And for some reason or another, every little turtle in that tray wanted to be on that rock. And so the entire tray was just this mess of turtles clawing and swimming and climbing as if for their lives, all desperately trying to get some time out of the water and on that rock. I sat there and watched, for maybe 10 full minutes, my head not so far from the turtles, as one turtle’s paw would use another turtle’s head as a leverage point; as a little turtle eye would seem to get poked out, as one turtle would flip and fall down into the water tumbling over other turtles. And in that mess of hundreds of beings fighting so fiercely for so little resources, I thought, wow, this is China. If only I had another rock.

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In China, progress seemed to be measured quantitatively, as opposed to qualitatively. In Japan, progress seemed to be a matter of how a new product, experience, or service affected life. You could see it in each piece of sushi crafted by a chef, or by the music, film, video, and advertising that vied for your attention on the confident, strutting streets of Tokyo. But in China, there was no strutting, the people didn’t seem confident, and there were the quiet reminders of desperation that couldn’t be kept hidden (amputees and homeless single mothers begging on every corner). And yet the buildings are being built at what must be literal break-neck speed. And as Chinese companies are starting to appear on international markets–Chery, Lenovo–they do so not by virtue of their innovation or technology, but by their ability to just produce more, cheaper. It’s hard for me to imagine China becoming the next world power anytime soon because of the incredible lack of creativity and ingenuity that seems to be the result of the last generations’ Cultural Revolution. Because isn’t today’s most important export Culture? And it seems like it will take another government in another generation to reverse the astounding wrongs of the last.

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As China experiences another one of its periods of intense growth, of which it has had similar periods before, it may be important to remember the power of our ideas, to question the role architects have in the built environment, and the families who are affected by it.

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(originally written in 2008)

Bataille’s Dreams Come True

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Today’s post comes from Tala Gharagozlou, currently a graduate student of architecture at Yale.

Via Gizmodo

Via Gizmodo

i fell in love with the first cute girl that i met/
who could appreciate georges bataille/
standing at swedish festival discussing the ‘story of the eye’

–of Montreal

Bataille’s Dreams Come True

This was the subject heading of an e-mail from a friend of mine, a couple of days ago, Feb. 9th, 2009.

And of course, there were links to the photos of the CCTV’s unloved sibling immolating.

I was working in the architecture studio and the entire studio was of course abuzz within a few minutes of the event. But the pun on Bataille stuck with me for most of the day. This is after all, Yale University, and nerdy jokes take a strange life of their own.

Photos have been streaming in of this eerily “beautiful” spectacle. Jokes have been flying about what sort of fabulously bombastic manifesto Rem might make of this event, while others are about Ole Scheeren crying in Maggie Cheung’s arms.

Such a hubristic project is easy to mock, especially in the current times of economic gloom.

Yales A&A Building after the fire

Yale's A&A Building after the fire

But after all, the Yale School of Architecture is housed in one of the most emblematic buildings possible: Paul Rudolph’s A&A (I will never get used to the “Paul Rudolph Hall” name, btw. Will anyone ever call the CCTV the Rem Koolhaas Tower?? I doubt it, but Yale is a whole other type of totalitarian regime, thanks to a certain R.A.M.S…).

The burning of the A&A occurred at one of the most intense moments of social turmoil in America and on university campuses. The 1969 fire left the A&A battered, and it only survived due to a series of structural additions. Much has been made of the recent renovation project by Gwathmey/Siegel, but the fire itself remains a small source of fascination, especially because of what some students secretly felt was a justified sign to move on from a certain generation of patriarchs…

In a similar way, people have been wondering out loud if anybody even cared to “save” the CCTV? But as Bataille would put it, what would there be to save? CCTV was there to exist as the only voice. OMA’s pair of buildings has epitomized a certain architecture’s refusal to “serve” society. The CCTV is known as the building that has used the greatest amount of steel ever in history, for example. Its foundations are the size of several football fields (ask Cecil Balmond for the details here).

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Architecture can be interpreted as the image society would like to see of itself. But Bataille is fascinated with the Aztec temples [see “Extinct America”]. Fearless of this relation between society and the death of the individual, Aztec architecture is purely dedicated to the immolation of individuals as well. The Aztecs “neglected to put in place the infrastructures that would have secured its future” and their architecture represented that. In many ways, CCTV’s is the symbol of China’s disregard for any idea of progressive institutions and a capacity to heedlessly build its own Capitalist guillotine.

So after all, could Beijing’s inhabitants feel slightly bad about this fire? The spectacle of architecture burning always holds the anxious sign that we can do little to go beyond death.

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On a side note, thanks to Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker for making “critical theory a little easier to use on dates.”

–Tala Gharagozlou

Pants on Fire

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009
Via Shanghaiist

Via Shanghaiist

The Chinese have nicknamed Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Building in Beijing “Big Pants,” or “Big Shorts,” and as many Western news outlets reported yesterday, it caught on fire (or, the adjacent building, part of the same complex, did, apparently due to some errant fireworks). The Chinese media, which is controlled by CCTV, of course, tried to hide that news.

Several years ago, Rem famously directed his studio, OMA, to avoid the competition being held to redesign the World Trade Center and instead focus on building this building. He famously said it was due to a fortune cookie that they received while discussing the decision over some Chinese food. Supposedly, the fortune cookie read: “Stunningly Omnipresent Masters Make Minced Meat of Memory.” You can read his “Beijing Manifesto,” published in Wired magazine, here.

First of all, when has anybody ever received a fortune cookie written like that???

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Secondly, what I originally considered a brilliant move on Rem’s part, to avoid the WTC re-design debacle, was neutralized by his decision to design a monument to the totalitarianism of China (and moreover, to the information/media-controlling arm of totalitarian China). What Rem didn’t seem to realize was that the symbolism of the form of the CCTV tower (so obviousy a product of the blue-foam design school of OMA) carried no meaning when plopped into the context of China and Beijing.

Rem himself writes in his manifesto: “First, was it merely a landmark, one more alien proposal of meaningless boldness? Was its structural complexity simply irresponsible?” He doesn’t really answer himself, except to say that “A refusal of the Promethean in the name of correctness and good sense could foreclose China’s architectural potential.” Architectural potential to do what?

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He has mentioned elsewhere that this CCTV building “killed the skyscraper,” because it doesn’t participate in the race towards higher and higher buildings (for the most ridiculous example of this, see the Burj Dubai). But it nevertheless is a close to 2 million square foot complex (180,000 square meters), making it one of the biggest buildings, regardless of height. The building also uses no small amount of steel for its structural hijinks. In the end, it seems like the old debate about length versus girth.

Anyhow, as reporters noted, many of the Beijingers watching noted that the fire was “inauspicious,” occuring as it did at the end of the New Year’s celebrations. Well, inauspicious it may be, but it also seems shockingly predictable.

3/20/2006: East Meets West Meets Tomorrow

Friday, December 26th, 2008

The director of this film, Zhang Yimou, first became famous for small movies about peasant life in rural China (Red Sorghum, To Live), then went on to direct movies with ever-more expanding budgets (House of Flying Daggers, Hero) before directing the biggest budget movie of all, the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which took place in Herzog & de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest stadium. China is still presents complicated urban challenges and ideas, which may or may not have been paid adequate attention in these film notes I wrote back in March of 2006.

Shanghai Triad (1995), 103 minutes

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“Modern Shanghai combines the soul of Houston with the body of Las Vegas. . . it may not be beautiful but, in its staggering scale and intensity, it certainly is awe-inspiring.”  –Paul Goldberger

If there is any one city right now where it seems the future of architecture and planning is being fought out, it is Shanghai, China. Shanghai has historically been the geographical site of the allegorical East versus West culture clash, and nowhere is that more apparent than along the Huangpu River of Shanghai. On the east bank of the Huangpu is the world famous Bund, a riverfront collection of western colonial-era brownstones, home to various world banks, designer boutiques and world-class restaurants. But opposite the Bund is the new Pudong district, maybe the fastest growing, most attention hungry district in the world. Here, the pace of building is break-neck; there is no greater collection of construction cranes save Dubai. And just several blocks west of the Bund lies the French Concession, a hip, trendy, expatriate-filled district of Shanghai whose name speaks exactly to the history of the area; it was once designated for the French and is filled with French colonial architecture and the tree-lined shady boulevards taken from the planners of Paris.

Shanghai, partly for geographical, historical, and political reasons, is for all intensive purposes where East meets West. And China, with a conservative economic growth rate expected at 8-10% annually until 2020, has all eyes on it. Rem Koolhaas famously wrote about his choosing to work on a competition in China over the World Trade Center, saying:

In early 2002, my office received two invitations: one to propose a design for Ground Zero, the other to propose a design for the headquarters of China Central Television in Beijing. We discussed the choice over Chinese food. The life of the architect is so fraught with uncertainty and dilemmas that any clarification of the future is disproportionately welcome. My fortune cookie that night read: STUNNINGLY OMNIPRESENT MASTERS MAKE MINCED MEAT OF MEMORY. We chose China.

And thus part of the architectural attraction to China is the lure of the possible. Nowhere else in the world is the government/economy willing to build so quickly over ground razed so recently. Planners are able to experiment with designs on a scale that would be political suicide anywhere else; it is a dissent-free, totalitarian system unseen since pre-revolution France that would make George W. Bush weep with joy and makes experimental planned communities like Xintiandi and Dongtan Eco City possible.

And so Shanghai, being one of the first Chinese cities open to Western influence, but with its own distinctly non-western political and cultural heritages, is truly the site where East will meet West will meet the future.