by Tong Lam (and images © Tom Lam)
Increasingly, civic leaders from around the world are using designer architecture to brand their cities as sophisticated global business and tourist destinations. China is no exception. The absence of a strong civil society to challenge these intrusive projects—which are often carried out in the name of “urban renewal”—means that in many cases Chinese cities have become a playground or laboratory for foreign architects, who normally would not be allowed to carry out such ambitious projects in their home countries.
In Beijing, the big-ticket buildings that saturate the city’s skyline include the CCTV Headquarters by Rem Koolhaas, the National Stadium by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Terminal Three of Beijing Capital International Airport by Norman Foster, and the National Centre for Performing Arts by Paul Andreu. Completed in 2007, Andreu’s curvy structure is particularly significant because of its proximity to Tiananmen Square, the capital’s symbolic center. While the building is colloquially known as the Giant Egg, some locals have also suggestively referred to it as a big “drop of tears,” which is a not-so-subtle reference to the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen uprising in 1989.
In any case, China is now the world’s biggest market for architectural services, and it draws established and young architects alike from all over the world. But what remains relatively unknown is that some aspirating young Chinese architects are also starting to make their marks on the global scene. A case in point is the Beijing-based architect Yansong Ma. In 2007, Ma and his MAD Architects won a major international design competition in the Canadian city Mississauga, which is located just outside of Toronto. The objective of the competition was to come up with a landmark residential building that could pack a visual punch and give the generic suburban enclave a new sense of identity. In the initial plan, there was only one tower. However, as a result of the popularity of Ma’s design, the developer decided to turn the project into twin towers, which have since been dubbed by the locals as the “Marilyn Monroe towers.”
Although a world apart, these two landmark structures are not just connected by their shapely contours (generated by computer aided design (CAD) technologies). They are also connected by the global circulation of consumer desire, fashion, cultural spectacle, architectural practice, and capital.
On the Edge: Ten Architects from China, edited by Ian Luna and Thomas Tsang (Rizzoli International, 2006): a critical anthology that examines China’s burgeoning architectural scene through ten emerging architectural and design studios in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture edited by William S. Saunders (University of Minnesota Press, 2005): a collection of critical essays that examines the relationship between contemporary architecture, commodity, and capital accumulation.