The Western is suddenly Eastern?

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.

6 comments

  1. Bird’s Nest and Terminal 3 have Chinese design motif. They would not build that way in the West. Thus they are specially Chinese.

  2. XuBin – I was sort of wondering if somebody would point that out. In any case, yes, you’re right: the buildings have Chinese motifs. But look at it this way: Frank Lloyd Wright incorporated all kinds of Japanese design elements into his buildings. But even if those structures had been built in Japan, they wouldn’t have been Japanese (though the roofs probably wouldn’t have leaked). Likewise with the current crop of starchitect buildings in Beijing. I realize, of course, that this discussion can lead down a dark hole, ie, “just how indigenous must architecture be, before it can be claimed by a particular culture as its own?” So let’s keep it simple: a British-designed airport terminal is a British-designed airport terminal.

  3. The real comedy in this NYT piece comes just after the opening paragraphs you quoted. After making reference to Adolf Loos and the obsolescence of European culture, the author proceeds in the very next paragraph to list off all the new architectural wonders in Beijing designed by, uhm, Europeans.

    Oops. Seems the “Old Continent” caught up just fine.

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