The city that ate the world

It's goodbye to mao and hello to Europe's top architects, all Australia's iron ore... and half the World's concrete. With its sights set on Olympic gold, Beijing is being rebuilt round the clock. By Deyan Sudjic

Sunday October 16, 2005
The Observer

Beijing's new airport is rising from the dry plains east of the city so fast that, in just four years, China will have designed, built and opened a structure larger than all the terminals at Heathrow combined. That's rather less time than the lawyers spent arguing about Heathrow's Terminal 5. 'It's the world's largest and most advanced airport building,' says the project's architect, Norman Foster. With airports at Stansted and Hong Kong already under his belt, he should know better than anyone. But it still looks more like a medieval battlefield conceived on the scale of a Japanese epic, rather than the sleek glass-and-steel bubble shown in Foster's glittering computer renderings. Swarming warrior armies cluster around giant cranes, more than 100 of them, ranged like ancient siege engines across a frontline almost two miles long. The dust swirling across the landscape makes it impossible to count more than a few of them before they disappear into the acrid haze. Touring the site in a Chinese-made Buick, it's hard as a spectator to grasp exactly what is going on. Eventually, all the furious activity crystallises into a pattern that begins to make some kind of sense. The banners flying from makeshift flagpoles sunk into the mud everywhere carry the names of individual work gangs, each with their own territory. The gangs move like disciplined cohorts of soldier ants, identifiable by the colour of their helmets, navigating blindly but effectively around the obstacles that litter the site. Some are handling new deliveries. Others are preparing them for use. Others shift barrowloads of nuts and bolts across the site or, two at a time, carry steel bars by hand. In the foreground, groups of men in crumpled suits stack heaps of reinforcing steel, ready to be bent into the hooks that will keep them securely in place when they are finally buried in concrete. There are dumps of steel everywhere. So much steel, in fact, that it starts to become only too clear how the Chinese hunger for the metal has pushed up world prices to the point that British construction sites are rediscovering the art of building in concrete. There is enough steel here to explain why Australia has reopened iron-ore mines and why ship brokers have taken bulk carriers out of mothballs from their anchorages in the Falmouth estuary. There are stacks of bicycles amid the welding stations and forests of concrete columns. Beyond them is a gigantic concrete raft, from which intricate tufts of reinforcing steel protrude like basket work. Far in the distance more clusters of helmeted dots swarm around craters sunk six floors into the ground. Huge white concrete-mixer trucks wheel and turn in packs at the lip of the void, marshalled by men with whistles and batons, delivering loads in a continuous stream, day and night. There are 35,000 men on this site, with another 5,000 due to join them by the end of the year. But from my vantage point, a kind of diving board projecting over the edge of the 500ft-wide channel that has been dug from one end of the site to the other, I can focus my mind only on two of them. One is dressed in a military tunic; the other is wearing a suit that must once have been his holiday best, but is now covered in stains. Both have yellow hard hats, both wear tennis shoes. The shorter man has a satchel slung across his shoulder, and holds a wrench. At first I assume he is the more skilled of the two, and so the leader. They are perched on a scaffolding tower 50ft high, rising from the bottom of a trench cut deep into the mud. The taller man, who looks barely out of his teens, stands with his legs wide apart, feet splayed, one hand fully outstretched, clinging to the nearest secure piece of vertical scaffolding. He has his safety harness wrapped around his waist, but its clip dangles uselessly behind him. Without looking down, he pauses to steady himself for a moment, then, with a single effortless movement, uses his free hand to swing up another heavy steel scaffolding pole and drop it into the clamp that will keep it secure. His slender body forms a big X as he defines the diagonals in the steel rectangle that frames him. He holds the scaffolding in position just long enough for his partner to bolt it into place, and it becomes clear that he is the one who is taking the risks, and making the decisions. The task complete, they rest for a minute. Then, without a word, they swing themselves along the scaffolding like tightrope walkers, to repeat the manoeuvre with balletic grace and precision. Working without their harnesses, it is a death-defying performance. I can't take my eyes off them for fear that if I do, one will drop the scaffolding pole and fall. They are earning around $7 each a day, not enough for the taxi ride back into town. Back in the site office (the hastily requisitioned ballroom of the current airport hotel, out of bounds now to the remaining guests) there is a winking red digital countdown to completion. When the 1,027 days remaining have flickered down to zero, the spot on which the two men are standing will be the track the shuttle train uses to whisk newly arrived passengers from the aircraft door to the baggage hall. 'The airport will be the gateway to the city,' says Foster. 'It's advanced not only technologically, but also in terms of passenger experience, operational efficiency and sustainability. It will be welcoming and uplifting, a symbol of place, its soaring aerodynamic roof and dragon-like form will celebrate the thrill and poetry of flight and evoke traditional Chinese colours and symbols.' In short, the airport is not simply about shifting large numbers of people in and out of the city. Just as important will be its part in the conspicuous assertion of a new kind of China and its modernity. It is one of a dozen huge projects Beijing is building at furious speed to transform the city in time for the Olympic games of 2008. For China, the Olympics are being used as the chance to make a defiant and unmistakable statement that the country has taken its place in the modern world. The site works in three shifts, seven days a week. Nothing stops the cranes, the concrete mixers, the welders and the scaffolders. Not even the discovery of fossilised dinosaur bones that turned up in the mud ahead of the bulldozers one day, or a carved ancient stone, saved from the mechanical diggers and re-erected next to a cluster of huts. The site is still working on the May Day holiday, when the rest of China shuts down for a week. The workers here stop only for the Chinese New Year, when it gets too cold for concrete to set properly. The site comes to a standstill and the armies return to their villages until the thaw comes. During the day they brave the dust storms and the summer heat. At night they work under arc lights. They sleep in ramshackle clusters of huts and green army tents in a series of shanty towns scattered around the site. The huts vary in size and shape. Some are made from plywood, with roofs of corrugated clear-plastic sheets, held down by bricks to stop them blowing away. There is no glass in the windows and nothing more elaborate than roofless latrine blocks for sanitation. These men are the 21st-century's version of the navvies who built Britain's railways and canals. They are the legal, the semi- legal and the illegal migrant workers, drawn from China's desperately poor hinterland in their millions by the prospect of jobs in construction and in the factories that the booming cities have to offer. One in every five of Shanghai's population of 20m is an illegal migrant. Beijing is not far behind. These migrants are Chinese citizens with fewer rights in their nation's capital than Colombians living illegally in California. Everywhere you go in Beijing you can see clusters of spray-painted numbers scrawled over walls, on trees and gateposts, under flyovers and on lampposts. In Los Angeles or Harlesden they would be gang tags. But there is no graffiti in China. They are the mobile phone numbers of people looking for work. The first time I went to Beijing was in 1992. There were no direct flights from London then, and the airport felt like a cold provincial bus station, with hard wooden benches. Its Sino-Stalinist architecture suggested the intimate connection between air travel in China and party privilege. Flickering black-and-white television screens signalled departures with erratic imprecision and a kiosk selling Napoleon brandy in bottles shaped like vintage cars, costing a worker three months' pay, stood in lieu of a duty-free shop. The two-lane road into town was clogged with carts bringing in mountains of winter-green vegetables to feed the city. And Beijing, once you finally got there, went dark after 9pm. By the time I went back, 10 years later, there was a brand-new airport dripping with travertine and lined with gold-relief depictions of the country's major tourist attractions. A six-lane toll road took you into town. In the city centre, already sprouting skyscrapers, vast areas of the traditional hutong courtyard houses were being flattened. There were five-star luxury hotels with their Australian chefs and their cigar bars. And the main streets were beginning to delineate themselves with neon. But the pavement cycle- repair shops and the kitchen hands outside the cafes chopping up trays slippery with poultry entrails made it still an unmistakably Chinese city. Now Norman Foster is building what amounts to the city's third airport, a vast structure that will handle 53m passengers a year, and Beijing is changing again. A decade ago, it still felt like a dim echo of the West. Now it looks disturbingly like the future. As part of the airport development, there will be a high-speed rail link to the city centre and a second motorway toll road. The government hasn't yet decided which rail system it will use, but it is likely to follow Shanghai and install Germany's Maglev, a low-flying aircraft of a train that'll reach 240mph on its 11-minute ride to the airport. Beijing is the capital of the world's fastest-growing economy, provoking a titanic struggle between a totalitarian political system and the liberalisation that is the presumed product of its economic transformation. By some estimates, half the world's annual production of concrete and one-third of its steel output is being consumed by China's construction boom. The second ring road that marked the city limits until the Eighties has been followed by the building of a third, fourth and fifth ring. The sixth is under construction. Cars move around disconnected clumps of newly completed towers. There are now more than 2m cars in the city - already enough to wipe out all the improvements in air quality achieved by the expulsion of heavy industry from Beijing's centre. The city map looks like a dartboard, with the void of the Forbidden City as its empty bull's-eye. And with the abruptness of a randomly aimed dart, entire new districts appear arbitrarily as if from nowhere. A city that, until 1990, had no central business district, and little need of it, now has a cluster of glass towers that look like rejects from Singapore or Rotterdam. And these, in turn, are now being replaced and overshadowed by a new crop of taller, slicker towers, the product of the international caravan of architectural gunslingers that has arrived in town to take part in this construction free-fire zone. Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Will Alsop are all building, or trying to build here. You can get some idea of what this new Beijing is going to be like in the brand-new museum of city planning, a suave six-storey structure faced in black marble, close to the southern end of Tiananmen Square. Cross the entrance hall and you find yourself slowly rising the full height of the building on a sequence of escalators. One wall of the atrium is dominated by a vast bronze relief map of Beijing as it was in 1949 when the People's Liberation Army made their triumphal entry. You can still see the Forbidden City where Mao spent his first night in a pleasure palace, and the Gate of Heavenly Peace from which he declared the foundation of the People's Republic also survives. But there is not much else left of the city lovingly depicted in miniature. Mao mutilated the ancient fabric of Beijing to carve out the megalomaniacal scale of Tiananmen Square. He had mile after mile of the city's ancient walls, and the gates punctuating them, demolished. The destruction took a decade. But Mao's Great Hall of the People and the Museum of the Revolution, two huge hulks on either side of Tiananmen, are little compensation for what was lost. They were carefully aligned on the axis of the Forbidden City that still defines Beijing, to claim the legitimacy of China's imperial past for the People's Republic. Mao's buildings are also big enough to eclipse the palaces and to demonstrate the superiority of his own regime. The main draw in the planning museum is on the top floor. A space the size of an Olympic swimming pool contains a vast model of how Beijing is going to look. You approach by walking over a huge series of aerial photographs taken from surveillance satellites that show you the city fringes. Lit from beneath and protected by thick sheets of glass, it feels like flying over Beijing's suburbs. It's a disorientating prelude to the city centre and is modelled in jaw- dropping detail, demonstrating not only how much of the city shown in bronze downstairs has disappeared, but also that the city Mao built to replace it has itself vanished. Tiananmen survives, along with the Great Hall of the People and the Museum of the Revolution, but everything else is up for grabs. And even the museum isn't what it was. The Museum of the Revolution became the Museum of China in 2003 and immediately closed for renovation and expansion. It will reopen, more than doubled in size, in 2007. In the meantime, there is a hallucinatory temporary display of waxworks. The first tableau portrays the astronaut China launched into space last year, accompanied by a schoolgirl in tartan skirt and pigtails. A sweeping curved terrace is populated by the founding fathers of the People's Republic. They are here enjoying a cigarette and a glass or two of whisky, with Mao a commanding figure, standing at the centre. But it clearly implies that this stage of the foundation of the republic is over. Deng Xiaoping - purged by Mao for taking the capitalist road, rehabilitated, purged again, and then rehabilitated again in time to trigger China's opening to the world that led to the paroxysm of construction reshaping Beijing - stands apart from his comrades. He is portrayed against a backdrop of the skyscrapers from Shenzhen, rather than in a rest home for retired revolutionaries. Immediately west of Tiananmen Square, hundreds of courtyard houses were flattened to build the national opera house, a megalomaniacal glass egg designed by Paul Andreu, a French architect specialising in airports. His contribution to Beijing is to put the opera house in the middle of an artificial lake. It's the perfect contemporary face for a regime that believes in the use of tanks as a modern instrument of crowd control. Away to the north is the Olympic district, with its 100,000-seat stadium, designed in the form of a giant bird's nest by Herzog and de Meuron, who were responsible for Tate Modern. Last time I was in Beijing this so-called Olympic Park was still being cleared of the acres of small-scale housing that had once covered it. Teams of bent old men were picking through the rubble to salvage what they could of the homes and shops and workshops that had just been destroyed. Now its circular shape has emerged from the ground, giving it the look of a ruined colosseum. Even China has been known to suffer occasional bouts of vertigo in its breakneck transformation. There was a pause last year while the Politburo did its sums to see if it could afford everything. It decided that it couldn't, and axed the retractable roof on the stadium, saving some money. The area to the east of the city centre, where the new embassies were built in the Fifties, was the obvious place to build the first international hotels, and the commercial towers followed. In the planning museum, this area gets a huge model all to itself. It is dominated by Rem Koolhaas's new headquarters for Central China TV, a single development that, with 6m sq ft of space, is as big as Canary Wharf. It is just one of 300 towers that will constitute Beijing's answer to Lower Manhattan. Building it has involved tearing down the state motorcycle factory that was once the pride of the Mao era. The construction workers - from the same firm that is building the airport - have moved into the last surviving production hall. 'Long Live Workers' Self-Management' proclaim the fading slogans on the walls. The ground has already been prepared for Koolhaas's project, a colossus that takes the form of two leaning towers, 70 floors high, that prop each other up with links at top and bottom to form a gigantic Mobius strip. The two main towers lean towards each other and are connected at the tip by a 10-floor L-shaped wing that juts out into space. To the non- expert eye it looks as if the unsupported structure spanning the void is increasing the load on the two towers. In fact, it allows them to stabilise each other, so reducing the quantity of steel needed. Koolhaas has emerged as the most challenging of the crop of architectural celebrities working in China, and he has been the subject of bitter criticism for it. His Chinese opponents complain that his building is ugly, inappropriate and wasteful. Westerners such as the critic Ian Buruma question the propriety of designing a building that can be seen as endorsing the propaganda arm of a repressive state that tells a billion people what to think. It is criticism which Koolhaas dismisses with growing impatience. 'Participation in China's modernisation does not have a guaranteed outcome,' he told one interviewer. 'The future of China is the most compelling conundrum, its outcome affects all of us and a position of resistance seems somehow ornamental.' Beijing's new landmarks promise a new China, one that is sophisticated enough to move beyond the traditional limits of totalitarian architecture and the banal expediency of its first attempts at modernisation. It promises a glossy future, but one which is being built with Stalinist despatch, very much like the old one. To ensure that everything is ready before the games start, the government has decreed that every crane at the airport, at the stadium, at CCTV and everywhere else in Beijing must be down by the end of 2007. It may help lay the dust that hangs over the city to rest, but it is going to be bad news for the armies of construction workers from the airport, and the stadium, and the China TV towers. Their jobs will come to an end, and with the construction industry in Beijing effectively shut down for a year, there will be nothing for them to do. They will be shipped back to their distant villages, and two centuries back in time, leaving the glossy new city that they have built to the party elite and the foreigners. The new Beijing will be a hugely impressive demonstration of China's newfound status as an economic superpower. But it will also serve to highlight the faultline that divides the country's rich and poor.

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