Everything is happening here all at once

Rebuilding Beijing: pure geometry versus the awkward squad.

Although Beijing is as big as you expect – a dauntingly gridlocked, teeming, dust-laden bigness – it is only the third largest city in China. It trails behind Guangzhou and Shanghai. But as the capital most likely to take over from Washington as the world’s effective centre of supreme power, Beijing has a hell of a swagger to it. And this is one reason why it’s such a joke that London is doing the Olympics in 2012. Because when you see what Beijing is doing for 2008, you wonder why we bother.

Just as well we started Heathrow’s Terminal Five in good time, since – by the time Richard Rogers’ building finally opens next March, it will have taken nearly 20 years from initial concept to reality. In contrast, China decided it needed a vast new air terminal in 2003. They asked our Norman Foster to design it. Then they brought in an army of 50,000 workers to build it, along with an extra runway. And it is finished, bar the final testing. Which means it will open at the same time as Terminal Five.

In front of the new air terminal is a large glass bubble, which could have been a botanical glasshouse but which turns out to be the railway station that will connect the airport to the city centre. “Do you know,” says Foster casually when I bump into him later, “That you could fit Heathrow’s Terminal Five inside that station alone?” As one-upmanship goes, that takes a whole barrel of biscuits.

Foster was in town, along with the likes of sculptor Anish Kapoor, former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and a million art dealers and collectors and curators and auctioneers, for the opening of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA). This is a rather fine converted factory at the centre of Beijing’s thriving art-production district. The first big modern-art gallery in China, it is a response to the way Chinese art has got very, very funky over the past 20 years. Wealthy entrepreneurs Guy and Myriam Ullens have been buying it for a lot of that time, and have now gone a lot further by hiring French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte to turn what was previously a Mao-era armaments factory – built by comradely East German engineers at the top of their game – into something potentially very good. The opening show is a bit pedestrian, though. There are rumours of big fallings-out among the curators in consequence.

Prices for good Chinese contemporary art are now at western levels, which is to say, absurd if not quite Damien Hirst. Artists here drive around in swanky cars and cut fat-cat deals, often directly. Charles Saatchi has bought into it, along with many another collector and investor. Western artists such as Kapoor are rushing to exhibit in the edge-of-town art district – he has a show on in one of the bigger commercial galleries there – because it’s a very important market. It’s like anything else made in China – efficiently produced, often clever, wonderfully exportable. The world’s museums are taking note. Next year in Britain, exhibitions on Chinese art, architecture and design will blossom everywhere from the Serpentine Gallery to the V&A. It’s that hot.

So you get that sense of being at a new centre culturally as well as commercially and politically. All of which gives the world more reason to flock to Beijing, where Foster’s freshly-minted airport will await us. As it’s not yet open, that meant I had the equivalent of a billion pounds worth of building to stroll around, without any crowds, security checks, passport control, any of the things that usually make airports hell.

Compared to the monotone palette of earlier Foster buildings, the terminal is, relatively speaking, a riot of colour. It shades almost imperceptibly from red at one end to yellow at the other, passing naturally enough through orange in the middle. The entrance canopies appear to be a dull gold, the curving roof a terracotta hue. If you’ve been to the Forbidden City, you will be familiar with these colours. They are imperial.

For their public buildings and spaces, the Chinese always opt for the grandly symmetrical approach. The Olympic park in the northern sector of the city is arranged on just such a rigidly disciplinarian axis, with the various big lumps of sports buildings lined up like army cadets on parade. Not that many people are going to mind this, because they are all going to be gazing at something so wildly improbable it steals the show completely. This is the main Olympic stadium by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, who gave us Tate Modern back in the days when they were a lot more puritanical than they are now.

Nobody could claim that this crazy bird’s nest of steel structure is remotely functionalist. OK, so it does the job of containing a stadium, but stadia as a rule are more than a little dull. Designed in concert with British engineers Arup, it is a seemingly random – but in fact precisely calculated – basket of steel noodles. As with the Foster airport – another city-scale grand axial plan – the closer you get, the more extraordinary it becomes. Can this thing possibly exist, right in front of your nose? In China, it can. The stadium is the world’s biggest scribble, drawn in free space.

Artists in the city are already adopting it somewhat literally, in one gallery showing it perched in a giant tree. No doubt somewhere in the edge-city avant-garde community, someone else will have thought to show it with a giant egg laid inside it. In which case, the egg in question will be the city’s new National Grand Theatre by French architect Paul Andreu, which is still having the finishing touches put to it. Andreu is best known for airports, most notably Paris Charles de Gaulle. Beaux-arts symmetry – neoclassical modernity, if you like – is his thing.

The Grand Theatre is an object so relentlessly, geometrically pure it almost hurts. Set one block west of Tiananmen Square on the city’s main boulevard, in reality it is not so much an egg as a giant soap bubble. Only made of titanium and glass, and costing £180m. In the west it would be at least three times as much. Inside are three auditoria – opera house, concert hall and theatre – altogether seating 5,500 people. It is one of the least approachable buildings I have ever encountered. Surrounded by a square moat – which of course has to be prodigiously large and which was disappointingly drained dry when I dropped by – it clearly sets itself up in comparison with the nearby moated Forbidden City. This is a dangerous game to play, and Andreu’s slippery dome loses the contest.

There is nothing about it that says what it is, or what it does. Theatres? It could be the Communist party headquarters, or a nuclear reactor, anything. It is a wonder all right – a thin scattering of people line up to be photographed in front of it – but as photo-opportunities go, it doesn’t compare with that famous portrait of Mao looking out over Tiananmen Square. That’s what draws the real crowds round here.

There’s geometry and geometry. Where Andreu’s bubble achieves a strange kind of almost kitsch banality, Arup’s Cecil Balmond, master of the informal, complex structure, pops up again helping Dutch superstar Rem Koolhaas build the knotted skyscraper of the CCTV building in the north-east of the city. It might sound like a security camera but this is China’s state broadcaster, the equivalent of the BBC only with even more channels.

Koolhaas does not do polite architecture. He rejoices in the perversely difficult. He is therefore the very opposite of Andreu. This makes CCTV interesting, though I suspect it is more dramatic right now, half built, than it will be when finished. Its two angled legs are rising into the air, getting ever closer. They have reached maximum height and are now starting to grope for each other like blindfolded party guests. There they stand, implausibly poised in the Beijing smog. But in the end, it’s just another object-building by another superstar European architect.

Everyone wants to build in China, and these state-sponsored projects are as plum as such jobs come. At least the Ullens gallery is, at around £5m, a relatively low-budget conversion of an existing building, in the middle of the artistic community it serves and feeds. Had this been left to the state, you imagine they would have cleared a slum somewhere and plonked down a monumental container to the New Art surrounded by hectares of empty space. As it is, the arrival of UCCA effectively saved the hugger-mugger arts district of former factories from being cleared in just this way to house yet more rampant commercial sprawl. So let’s be thankful to the Ullenses for suggesting ever so subtly that there is another, more incremental, way to develop a world city. Even though you know that, in the end, it won’t make a great deal of difference. Because everything is happening here all at once. In one way, it’s terrifying. In another – whatever you think of the political regime – it’s awe-inspiring. As for London 2012 – I think it’s time to start promoting the virtues of modesty.

Text and photographs © Hugh Pearman. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, on November 11, 2007, as “An Olympian victory”.


Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing: www.ucca.org.cn