In anticipation of the influence of architecture to change the face and lifestyle of Beijing, the 1st Architectural Biennial Beijing (ABB 2004) celebrated its opening last Monday in a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People.
Never before has there been such interest in creating an urban architectural masterpiece, with Chinese and international designers ready to place their mark on a city plan that will be recognized as an example for all new cities in the future.
Patronized by the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Construction,this is the first of a series of exhibitions on architectural and building culture and industry, the largest event of its kind in Chinese history, to be held every two years.
Records have been broken, with the biennial occupying a total exhibition area of 200,000 square metres, attracting over 10,000 professionals from around the world, and involving 2 million visitors in ABB 2004 activities.
Running until October 6, ABB 2004 is composed in three parts: nine exhibitions, eight forums, and several architectural theme parks. The exhibitions and forums cover the works of internationally acclaimed architects, students works, urban planning, community culture, interior design, new building materials and technology, cultural architecture, and the new planning of the international architectural theme park.
"In the past two decades, China has become the largest construction site in the world.
After China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and Beijing the host of the World Olympic Games for 2008, China confronts a tidal wave of construction, "said Zhao Zhijin, director of the Urban Planning Society of China.
"A revolution of fast urbanization is now taking place in China at an unprecedented developing speed of 1 per cent every year. " added Shi Jian, a famous Chinese architect.
This is only one of the reasons why ABB 2004 has attracted thousands of architects, developers, engineers, manufacturers, and government personnel from different parts of the world.
The problem of losing China's unique cultural identity in cities and towns is the hottest topic discussed at the biennial.
"During the past three years, I have surveyed many smaller cities and towns around China. I have discovered that they are all becoming clones of each other; no variety, no characteristics, no innovation, and seldom any long-term planning. This is the current appearance of booming Chinese cities, " signed Chen Guili, one of the authors of China Farmers Survey.
His opinion is echoed by other architects, local and international. Zhang Yiwu, a professor at Peking University, described the phenomenon as "an unprecedented explosion of Chinese cities." China is developing fast towards a well-to-do society, with at least 20,000 towns in the process of being destroyed, pulling down the old authentic Chinese residences for apartments.
"It is stupid to sacrifice our architectural culture to pursue artifices that have no bearing on human life, " Zhang stressed.
"Against such a backdrop, ABB symbolizes a turning point in the Chinese construction industry, emphasizing the value of architecture as art and culture, " said Zhang Baoquan, developer and chairman of the Jindian Property Group.
"In the exhibition, more than half of the Chinese architects are exploring a new Chinese style, to combine modernism, tradition, and nationality in their designs. "
Nevertheless, it is the foreign compatriots who are given a greater opportunity to realize their blueprint and ideals to mould the new appearance of Chinese cities. Almost all the focal projects in China have been designed by international architects, for example, the Guangzhou Theatre by Zaha Hadid, Shenzhou Cultural Centre by Aratu Isozaki, the National Stadium by Herzog & De Meuron, the new CCTV offices by Rem Koolhaus, and the controversial National Theatre by Paul Andreu.
The conquering of foreign architects to win the contract for China's civic buildings is also a hot debate at ABB.
"Instead of utilizing well-educated domestic architects, we canonize these international designers, " Zhao Baoquan criticized. "This put limits on Chinese architects' imagination."
He admitted that many local architects lack original designs, but this is not the case for all of them, with some Chinese architects producing astounding work.
"Chinese architects are desperate to enrich their experience and explore new methods of expression."
Xu Weiguo, the organizer of the biennial, is more optimistic.
"As in many other fields, local architects are only now beginning to emerge onto the international scene, and they are learning very fast. "
All Chinese architects are confident that domestic designers will have more to say in the next few years.
"The biggest barrier for international architects is that they must face a country with 5,000 years of culture and history. For them, the greatest difficulty in designing is not technical, but cultural. Many have tried to integrate our unique culture in their works, but most can only express it on the surface, " said Zhang Zaiyuan, also a researcher at the International Architecture Association.
"Chinese architects, with their naturally in-depth understanding of their own culture, can create great works in their own countries, as their technical level, and building product supply, improves. "
The "experimental" designs by foreign architects will only be successful if they find a way to integrate these inherent cultural conflicts.
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