China’s New Buildings–How Harmless?

Now that the buildings in Beijing are finished, and the Olympics are here, it’s been a time to ask questions. Should these architects have agreed to work in China? Doesn’t that mean they are endorsing the system. Oughtn’t they to have said no in solidarity and protest? They are legitimate and necessary questions, which if we are to be true to our own values, we have to ask ourselves. Of course, they are questions with an underside, ought foreign architects refuse to build in the United States if they oppose the war in Iraq? But let’s not unduly complicate the issue. Let’s stick to China’s new buildings for the Olympics.
They are impressive edifices, architectural milestones. Just as Frank’ Gehry’s Bilbao’s museum ushered in a 21st century architecture, these anchor it, expand it, issue a call to celebrate what can now be achieved. With his spare lines and clear concepts, Mies van der Rohe gave us a keynote for the 20th century and now Rem Koolhaas, Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog sound one for the 21st.
To take a building from idea to completion is even at best a very long process fraught with obstacles, setbacks, conflicts, challenges. China in its eagerness to excel streamlined the process and made it possible for the firms involved to work with a bit less hassles. The centralization of the government, for example, made certain permits and the like much easier to obtain. And then there’s the sheer opportunity. How many governments have the resources to undertake such projects? Very few besides places like Dubai. In the private sector, the opportunities may be somewhat more plentiful but doubtful they would be on the scale they’ve been in China.
To some what these buildings are doing for architecture would be enough to eliminate the question of ethics. Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic of the New York Times keeps an open mind. The National Stadium, nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest”, for example, was created with open spaces and open interactions in mind, allowing people to meet and mingle, and he reminds us that whether the government will allow these uses after the Olympics, or trivialize them in some way is still in question.
But there’s to me a still better gauge: harmlessness. Are these buildings more helpful than harmful? Will they contribute to the fabric of a new society or reinforce the limitations of the old one? Be it China, architecture, the world…do they help more than hey harm?