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Monday, November 17, 2008

Book Review: Two Books on China

Positions: Portrait of a New Generation of Chinese Architects edited by Frédéric Edelmann and Françoise Ged
Actar, 2008

Olympic Architecture: Beijing 2008 by the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design
Birkhäuser, 2008

This summer's Olympic Games in Beijing, China broadcast to the rest of the world the country's efforts in physically transforming itself, just one example being the 30 million square meters (320 million square feet) of building added annually to the city since it was awarded the Games in 2001. Perceptions of the boom in China focus on the rampant urbanization accomplished via cookie-cutter concrete towers packed tightly together, the destruction of the traditional fabric in places like Shanghai, and the high-profile commissions of foreign architects (OMA's CCTV Headquarters and Herzog & de Meuron's "Bird's Nest" Stadium, both in Beijing). These two books offer an alternative presentation of what's now being produced in China, by focusing on local architects and the "low-profile" buildings of the Olympics.

Positions, an exhibition conceived and realized by the Cité de l'architecture ed du patrimone, shows us 38 projects by 15 architectural studios, some well known (MADA s.p.a.m., MAD Studio, Ai Weiwei's Fake Design) but most not known beyond their country of origin. The quality of the projects presented is consistently high, no doubt stemming from the fact that 38 projects out of the recent glut of construction in the country is a tiny amount, meaning the curators could be choosy. Most of the buildings fall into one of two categories: those that immediately recall the country's traditions and those that abandon it in favor of a strong Modernis aesthetic. (Additionally one can break them into foreign- and locally-educated architects, though this split does not necessarily correspond with the stylistic one.) Some balance the two, and those that do it successfully are the most rewarding. All but one of the projects are built, ranging from a small clubhouse to a university campus. This testifies to the opportunities available to local architects and the diversity of buildings being constructed; it's not all high-rise housing and Olympic venues.

Olympic Architecture presents 37 facilities built or renovated for the Games this summer (11 by the book's author). Of course the Bird's Nest and the Watercube are included; they are, for good reason, the first two buildings in the book. And their presence, both in the book and the Olympics, means just about every other building pales in comparison. What might be considered original or even capable in another context comes across as derivative and clumsy. Some highlights include the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium by Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, the Beijing Shooting Range Hall by Architectural Design & Research Insitute of Tsinghua University, and Digital Beijing Building by URBANUS and Studio Pei-Zhu (a building featured in Positions). Unfortunately these are the exceptions in a collection that is a good record of what how China prepared for the Olympic Games, but not much more than that.

What these two collections have in common, and definitely not in a good way, is the need for decent translators and proofreaders for the English versions. Some passages border on the indecipherable and unreadable, particularly Olympic Architecture. The other book is not off the hook, even though its writers are primarily from France, and therefore its text does not have as many errors where meaning is "lost in translation." Due to this unfortunate shared trait, each book is valuable as a visual marker of a time when China made an entrance on the international architecture scene.

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