I finally got around to reading Nicolas Ourassouf’s love letter to Beijing’s new architecture in Sunday’s New York Times. Content-wise, it doesn’t offer much that the dozens of other similar essays, on the same buildings (Bird’s Nest, CCTV, Terminal 3 … repeat!) have already said. But in the opening, and in the conclusion, Ourassouf makes a claim that I haven’t heard before. He writes:
If Westerners feel dazed and confused upon exiting the plane at the new international airport terminal here, it’s understandable. It’s not just the grandeur of the space. It’s the inescapable feeling that you’re passing through a portal to another world, one whose fierce embrace of change has left Western nations in the dust.
The sensation is comparable to the epiphany that Adolf Loos, the Viennese architect, experienced when he stepped off a steamship in New York Harbor more than a century ago. He had crossed a threshold into the future; Europe, he realized, was now culturally obsolete.
The obvious problem with this analysis is that Adolf Loos arrived in a New York designed and built by Americans (naturalized or otherwise). Ourassouf, however, arrives in a Beijing commissioned by Chinese, but designed by Europeans and Americans (he doesn’t mention a single Chinese architect in the article). Which make me wonder if he really considered the last couple of sentences to his piece:
… there is no question that its role as a great laboratory for architectural ideas will endure for years to come. One wonders if the West will ever catch up.
Obviously, the West’s architects have caught up (if not caught on) to the notion that big, expensive, architecturally flamboyant buildings are best built in developing countries with large foreign currency reserves and leaders covetous of international attention and respect. Dubai, as much as Beijing, has these characteristics. The only difference is in degree and detail.
Now, I have no doubt that, in the coming decades, China’s architects and engineers will develop their own language and style, and critics like Ourassouf will come to China and have genuine Adolf Loos moments. Until then, though, I hope that they’ll stop mistaking great Western architecture for the next iteration of the Forbidden City.