September 19, 2004


China Pulls Up the Drawbridge: Over the summer, a number of high-profile building projects by foreign firms were halted, scaled back or savaged in the press. (CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE, 9/19/04, NY Times)

Reports in The People's Daily and elsewhere said the government was weighing a plan to scrap as many as half the new venues for the Summer Games. And on Sept. 10, the National Museum of China announced it was giving the job of expanding its building, on the east side of Tiananmen Square, to a collaborating group of architects from the China Academy of Building Research and the German firm von Gerkan, Marg & Partners. The winning team beat out two other finalists — Foster& Partners and the United States firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox — that had proposed more aggressively contemporary schemes. Architects and critics in China, who had been watching the competition closely, took the results as fresh confirmation that the government was moving further away from the architectural forefront.

"There is now a real debate going on about these big projects — whether it's appropriate to be spending so much money on them, and hiring foreign architects instead of Chinese," said Yan Huang, who led the planning and construction side of Beijing's Olympic bid. After finishing a year as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, Ms. Huang returned to Beijing this summer and joined an emerging effort to rein in the Olympic budget. She said no official news about the fate of the Olympic venues was possible until after the visit of an International Olympic Committee panel late next month.

The question now is how many of the other high-profile plans for Beijing and other Chinese cities will be altered or canceled. What of Zaha Hadid's dramatic mid-rise Beijing towers, or a similar-scale project by the Australian firm Lab Architecture Studio — in both cases commissioned by Soho China, an architecturally ambitious real-estate company? Or, for that matter, what of Ms. Hadid's sleek opera house for the southern city of Guangzhou? What of Steven Holl's collection of linked residential towers slated for the capital, or the Foster & Partners airport scheme? What will Shanghai build as it gets ready to be host of the World Exposition in 2010?

"I think the really daring designs, especially public ones, will be more difficult to get built now," said Leon Yang, general manager of the Urban Planning Design and Research Company. Nonetheless, he said the nationwide interest generated by the prominent Beijing projects was not likely to disappear. "For a lot of medium-size cities, the first thing they do when they have the resources is to hold an international competition for a new building and invite foreign architects."

Mr. Scheeren said that his and Mr. Koolhaas's firm, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, had signed a contract in the last few days for an extension to a huge bookstore in central Beijing and received news that the CCTV tower was at long last moving forward, with groundbreaking possible this month. "So, surprisingly enough," he said, "it's been a good week for us." At the same time, he added, "Beijing is in the midst of an intense period of re-examining the largest projects that will certainly have a long-term effect on the architectural climate here."

Complicating the reassessment are lingering national anxieties about how great a role foreign cultures should play in a new China.

It's not as if anyone's ever going to use any of the stuff the government is building, or is if any of it will be functioning twenty years from now anyway.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 19, 2004 9:38 AM

The National Museum on Tiananmen Square is a complete joke. No amount of exterior work could solve the basic problem: the exhibits are totally lame (almost all are about the Revolutionn - the millions of pieces of beautiful ancient and Ming Dynasty art are all in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan). Despite its ideal location, no one visits it. Thus it makes perfect sense for the ChiComs to spend a bundle expanding it.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at September 19, 2004 12:21 PM

I wonder how long it will be before some high-profile building collapses because a corrupt contractor shorted on the materials?

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 19, 2004 2:34 PM

Watch the Dam.

Posted by: oj at September 19, 2004 2:44 PM


I was going to say that, oj!

Posted by: Oswald Booth Czolgosz at September 19, 2004 8:35 PM

The hutongs (old neighborhoods and alleys) in Beijing are more "architectural" than anything the Chinese are building in the city now.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 19, 2004 9:41 PM

The plans for the new CCTV HQ are way cool.
If completed as planned, the new development will look, at first glance, as if it were designed by M.C. Escher. In twenty years it'll still attract attention.

View an artist's rendering at:

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 20, 2004 4:01 AM

Yeah, nobody cared where the railroads went across our Midwest, because nobody was every going to use them, and the towns they missed grew just as fast as the ones they hit.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 21, 2004 2:36 AM


It wasn't the stops but the destinations that mattered.

Posted by: oj at September 21, 2004 7:05 AM

That's not true. I thought you'd misspent part of your youth in the Midwest.

I think it was Boorstin who noted that after the railroads were in, 3,000 post offices closed in Kansas.

Des Moines, Iowa, for another example, would not be there if it hadn't been for an underhanded political deal in Iowa City regarding railroad routes. Otherwise, it's on the road to nowhere.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 22, 2004 9:41 PM

Yes, none of them mattered, just the destinations.

Posted by: oj at September 22, 2004 11:24 PM