Culture of Change

PUBLISHING info: Monocle 2005

In the past five years the buildings on Chang An Avenue – Beijing’s major east-west axis – have doubled in number and the skyscrapers in the Central Building District have more than tripled. Magazines have gone from five or 10 dusty copies sold from the back of a bicycle to hundreds of glossy editions sold at newsstands, fashion has emerged as a means of expression, and clubs are jam packed every night of the week. Cars, which until a few years ago were only red, white, or black, now come in a starburst of colours. In a mélange of noise, smell, acrid air, demolition, and dust, Beijing is transforming and at a pace and scale previously unimaginable.

It’s a culture of change that is embodied not just in the physical changes to the city but in its very essence. The historic structure of Beijing is being overridden; the rigid restrictions that once limited life here are being subverted, and overcome.

It’s a change that doesn’t translate to quality of life in terms of increased comfort and convenience, nor in a sense of order. And although this belies a number of contradictions — a predictable byproduct, perhaps, of rapid transformation — there is also a flexibility and adaptability here, which offers tremendous potential to produce new conditions, ideas and spaces. This state of continual transformation — in which you can hear and see the city drastically change day-by-day — has stimulated and produced quality. The potential for the most monumental undertakings — Herzog and de Meuron’s National Stadium or CCTV — exists alongside the minute undertaking on the street, where someone might dare to paint their protests on a building façade.

The individual subject is emerging within new forms of collective enterprise. A new generation is better placed than any before them to explore a freedom that, when looked at from an outside perspective, might not be immediately apparent, but in the end might provide possibilities in a more subversive way than maybe Western culture has, or Western systems currently do.

While efforts still continue to control access to information, it has essentially become uncontrollable: bloggers out run the censors, text messaging avoids the firewall, and the remaining insistence and imagery of control only help to disguise the activities and new realities that are arising throughout the city.

In the context of rapid modernization architecture still plays a larger role than in the stable environments of finished cities, such as New York or even London, and Beijing’s skyline has emerged as perhaps the most visible representation of its dramatic transformation.

[Excerpted] co-written with Ole Scheeren


Work: Writing