Before the Bird’s Nest


by Ernie Diaz


Affordable housing and new schools are all very nice, nice for a three-inch column  in the Metropolitan section of the paper. Cutting-edge architecture, on the other hand, is one of the three indispensable tools in the national PR kit. Sports and desirable actresses are the other two, by the way.


So never mind the Bird’s Nest – us hipsters at China Expat are more into the 2001-2006 period. That’s when Olympic fever worked on bright architectural brains like a subtle narcotic, inspiration almost impossible to follow up on. By 2007 the trip had gone bad; too much paranoia about being finished in time. So here’s a tribute to that small, bright window of Chinese architecture, when designers played as wildly as kids expecting a birthday party.




Still going on about the new schools, bleeding hearts? Get a gander of Qingpu Xiayu Kindergarten – that’s right, kindergarten – smack dab on Qinglong Road in Qingpu New Town. “Qingpu New Town, what’s that, one of those ghost cities?” the cynical expat asks. For shame. Who taught you to believe in ghosts?


The architects at the Qingpu Enterprise Association tell us, “In order to emphasize the floating and uncertain feeling we sought, we detached the floors of the colored boxes from the roof of the ground floor.” Maybe you don’t think floating and uncertainty are appropriate themes for a kindergarten, unless you’ve seen the rapture of a six-year old playing Super Mario.




We know, we know. You’re thinking, “Graduate apartments at Wyoming State.” But that’s just the ironic wrapper.




This box is half-full, friends. The folks at Atelier Fechang Zhianju wanted to do the ol’ “traditional themes and materials in modern context” schtick. Head designer Yung Ho Chang, a big Kurosawa fan, took feudal Chinese modernism and translated into Japanese. “Please sit down; the Samurai school dean will see you shortly.”




Edge Design Institute kept it surreal with their Suitcase House. It sill had practical touches, like the retracting attic stairs for the back-at-home college graduate.




Edge avoided the pretentious and nailed it by cashing in on that super-hip fin de siècle Trailer Park Chic.




You can pack just about anything away in the Suitcase House, including employees. And you thought you worked in a cubicle. For managers, employee discipline is just a flick of the trap door away.




But who’s going to need discipline when bath time is just a work-station away! “Johnson, ya wanna rinse off and show us where your damn file is?”




Arata Isozaki knows a grade A office lobby is impotent unless it terrifies tenants into worshipping the gods of industry. Just try to make it to the top of that escalator without a vague sense of guilt for not getting your MBA.




Vamping on the Japanese management principal of motivating employees through fear and uncertainty of unemployment, Isozaki conjured a Shenzhen commercial space where occupants realize they’re like insignificant video game characters, changing levels and rooms, with game over always just a leapfrog away.




Jiakun Architects out of Chengdu get the urban realism, or at least the realism of China’s urban edge, where noisome rivers slog by nondescript concrete shells without number, connected by every species of improbable gangway.




But that’s the oriental mystique – you’ve no idea about a real Chinese building until the wheedling security guard lets you in. Inside the Lueyuan Stone Sculpture Museum, Han and Song treasures contrast the pre-stressed concrete nicely, pushed up against the wall for when said security guards play badminton.




More of this please – organic exteriors. How nice it will be when more buildings can be appreciated as  nice pieces of air-filtering topiary no matter what goes on inside in the name of profit.




Here in Shanghai, Kengo Kuma did the Zhongtai box decree. Clean, green, utterly civilized and thought-out in form and function, Kuma has built a tabernacle in which to contemplate what Japanese means to the world.




Hold that “utterly”. Now what are people supposed to do on that patio, explain their evil plan for world domination before dropping their interlocutors in the shark tank?




Another school, this one by Tsinghua’s Li Xiaodong. Send in for your free yak cheese if you guessed that’s Jade Dragon Snow Mountain off in the distance. Mr. Li keeps the spirit of the rural schoolhouse bright in Lijiang’s Yuhu (anyone there?) village. Who else is disappointed it’s not a hostel?





Yes, there’s something in a name. The architects at MAD pulled a back-to-the-future with their Hong Luo Clubhouse, telling the world, “We sure were futuristic in the late 60s!”




And we were, we were. One can almost see James Caan stalking into that living room to grumble about his upcoming Rollerball tournament.




The past comes to life, or is at least surrounded by life, at the Jade Village outside Xi’an. MADA S.P.A.M. were too busy fending off jokes about their firm’s name to get overly committed to design concepts, instead relying on the consultation of local peasant craftsmen. Practical men of the sod, they envisaged a structure you could fend off a Panzer attack in, to say nothing of restive northern barbarians.




“Ya got your courtyard, ya got your water for fengshui, and your back rooms for ernais,” the craftsmen seem to say. “Now we’ve got cards to play. We’re builders, not interior designers.”







This entry was posted in Contemporary Chinese Artists. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *