Saturday, December 01, 2012

Pricing the "Ring of Life"

Today I just learned about the "Ring of Life," a monument under construction in Fushun, China. Attention has been directed at its form, its function (or lack thereof), and its cost; I'm most intrigued by the last of these three. Before delving into that, I think that ArchDaily inadvertently hit on a potential inspiration for the form in mistakenly calling it the "Ring of Fire." A quick search for that term brings up numerous images of an annual solar eclipse that is visible in China; this photo at National Geographic shows a slight shift between inner and outer circles similar to the photo of the Ring of Life below.

[Ring of Life under construction in Fushun, China | image source]

The prevailing view of the object's (lack of) function is summed up at Gizmodo: "According to Fushun Municipal Government's officials, this titanic structure does absolutely nothing except serve as an elevated sighting position." [Italics in original.] It seems that people are using a fairly narrow definition for the term, ignoring that symbolic function can be just as important as practical function. And clearly the description quoted recalls a historic precedent that also serves to only present an elevated sighting position—the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Of course, close to 50 years after the completion of Saarinen's design, very little criticism is levied at the purposelessness of the "gateway to the west." (And didn't Aldo Rossi write about the importance of monuments—of which the Ring of Life clearly is one—not having a function?)

So what about the cost of the project, which is reportedly $16 million? Gizmodo, again, talks about that figure in these terms: "The Chinese media has been harsh about the building after a blogger posted [some] photos on Sina Weibo, which is the country's 'largest microblog platform.' Not surprising, since this thing costs $16 million." Is this to say that $16 million is a lot of money to spend on the monument? It seems to be worded that way to me, but I think that figure is very low for a construction of this scale (515 feet/157 meters high).

In comparison, Wikipedia quotes the cost of realizing the Gateway Arch at $13 million in 1960s U.S. dollars, approximately $96 million today. The arch in St. Louis is about 100 feet taller, but the variance is nevertheless clear. While some of the difference can be ascribed to China's relatively cheap labor, that doesn't really explain why people are making a big deal about the cost of the Ring of Life. Compare the $16 million Ring of Life with the $220 million China pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai, which one could argue is just as purposeless, and was temporary, to boot. It seems like the Ring of Life is a pretty good deal after all.


  1. It is so expensive because it is Stargate 1!

  2. It was Adolf Loos that said that architecture and art can only coincide under two programmatic distinctions, both of which are inherently "functionless": the tomb and the monument. The history of building these "functionless monuments" is older than recorded history, and indicative of the creative human nature of building itself. The fact that we now consider such construction "iconic," perhaps due to its design by the Goddard Group and not a "starchitect," is fairly irrelevant. Icons are signifiers of importance, and like many mid-sized Chinese cities (read massive metropoleis in China that do not include Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and perhaps Macau or Guangzhou), Fushun is in the midst of an identity crisis relative to its population (compare with similarly-sized cities of international fame such as Vancouver, St. Louis, and Havana). We should not be afraid of the creation of identity in places that have yet to establish it, but we must process critically the function of "iconic" structures for their cultural relevance, sustainable impact, financial implications, and architectural polemics. Ultimately, the issue of cost is moot as well, since the China Pavilion at Shanghai and St. Louis Arch vastly outweigh them in that category. The crux of this criticism is that we now know about Fushun and are intellectually stimulated by the problem they confront: another indication of the succès de scandale.


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