Although I have visited Hong Kong, this was my first trip to mainland China. My first impressions of Beijing was one of scale: We entered through the new Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport, designed by Foster + Partners and ARUP. The building is said to represent a dragon in motion, with its undulating roofline. Stepping through the passport control, you see the building on axis for the first time and the way the columns extend out reminded me of drawings of the Italian Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia at the turn of the century, in the way it celebrates modern transportation infrastructure. According to Sir Norman Foster in a presentation at the DLD Conference, Munich in 2007:
[The new Terminal 3] is physically the largest building on the planet at the moment… larger by 17% than every terminal put together at Heathrow [London].
The scale of the building is also reinforced on the exterior, by using an optical illusion to make the building seem stretch out into the vanishing point.
As we were landing at the airport the pilot informed us that there was about a 3 mile visibility. I thought it rather odd that he was disclosing this information, the first time I’d ever heard it being mentioned inflight. Driving from the airport to downtown, I realized why this information was relevant. Although it was a clear day, there was a haze all around. "Yellow dust" or "hwang-sa" is what they call it in Korea. It’s the dust being blown across East Asia from China’s Gobi desert (See NOAA satellite photo).
Although the trip was primarily business-related, I did get a chance to visit a few local attractions. The Grand National Theatre of China in Beijing, was designed by French architect Paul Andreu, and completed in Dec 2007 after 6 years of construction.
It’s huge – the dome houses 3 freestanding building inside it: the opera, theatre and concert hall. They didn’t allow any cameras through security (but they did allow cellphones with cameras) so I wasn’t able to take any interior photos.
The entrance goes under the moat surrounding the building and you can look up through glass at the water as you enter the building. The dome surrounded by a moat make the building an easy target to be called a "egg" – a fried egg in this case.
798 Art District in Northeast Beijing is a thriving artist community, studios and galleries housed in former weapons factory. The "798" comes from the factory number.
The Chinese government seems to give artist a lot of breathing space these days, allowing open criticism of the government, its open market policies and the negative effects of capitalism on their society. In a way, Chinese artists have it easy, since they have an easy focal point upon which they can base their creative energy, unlike art in the west, which has lost its ideological focus and now can only resort to critiquing itself. My friend put it nicely: it seemed like the Chinese artists were like students in art school, trying to find their voice, uninhibited and full of raw energy.
When we visited it was under heavy construction and renovation in preparation for the tourists that are going to flood Beijing around the Olympic Games this summer. It a shame that the artistic character of area will soon be gentrified beyond all recognition. It will be yet another Soho, Greenwich Village or Williamsburg in New York, now full of galleries and shops with few traces of the artists who pioneered the neighborhood and made it possible.
One thing I found missing from Beijing that I expected was the presence of bicycles. I always remember photos of large cities in China full of masses of people riding bicycles. My friend told me when he first visited Beijing 10 years ago, there were thousands of bicycles on the streets, but now it’s hard to see any due to the ban on bicycles that has gradually been enforced since 1998. They say that China is the faster growing market in automobile sales, and public transportation infrastructure is growing. However I can’t imagine the effects of all those people switching to carbon producing cars will benefit the already fragile state of China’s environment.