The RA's Kate Goodwin travelled to China recently on a design curators' study tour organised by the British Council. In part one of a series of photo-essays for this blog, she reports on the burgeoning design and architectural scene in Beijing
We were greeted in Beijing by the all too customary and infamous soupy skies - thick with fog, pollution and later rain that rendered everything a mute flat grey.
Beijing has changed an enormous amount since my last visit in 2005. It's glossier and sleeker, with more cars, fewer bikes, more English signs and more tourists. There are also fewer Hutongs - neighbourhoods of narrow alleys with traditional courtyard housing - and more Western chain stores. The great swathes of land I had seen in the middle of Beijing, with their hoardings promising a better life, are now covered in rows of high-rise developments.
A huge and modern metropolis is emerging, but questions arise. How will the city define itself as it continues to grow, both as a capital and in representing China to the world? How will it preserve its urban heritage, while simultaneously embarking on immense growth and development?
Arriving at the airport mid-morning, even the glossy new Foster + Partners building looked dulled.
Architecturally, anything seems possible (see right) – adventurous, wacky and sometimes whimsical facades line the wide streets as development grows. The question arises as to what urban scenes are being created and why.
Of the large commercial developments that are rising up all over Beijing, one of the more interesting ones was masterplanned by Kengo Kuma. It has a humanity of scale that seems to attract people and works as a piece of urban planning.
When driving through the streets, seeing the huge ring roads and rising development one wonders what scale of building is appropriate for this city.
The now well-established 798 Art district on the outer edge of Beijing is burgeoning with more galleries and studios attracting local as well as international artists and exhibitions. A complex of converted military and munitions factories, the industrial spaces are quite spectacular and often more or at least as impressive as the art.
The commercial value of the trendy 798 district has been identified.
In 798, design workshops sit alongside showrooms (pictured left) selling both Chinese and international work. Elsewhere in the district, an interesting show of Swedish fashion designers ‘exploring a new identity’ at the Whitebox Museum of Art (pictured right) was opened on the day of our visit by Princess Victoria of Sweden, to the great excitement of locals.
The impact of the Olympics can be seen in the streets of Beijing, for example this gentrified Hutong's street are now lined with small cafes and bars for the western traveller.
Visiting the Olympic site seemed a must, but was far more impressive than anticipated. Seen at night the stadium and aquatic centre - the ying and yang - glowed red and blue respectively, making impressive architectural statements and leaving a fitting legacy of the Olympics. When we visited on a Monday night, the site was buzzing with people - most of whom were just wandering around.
An attempt to bring fun to the aquatic centre, but three lone children were all who were enjoying it during our visit. What will sustain people’s interest, keep them there and lure them back to use the area?
Visiting amazingly well equipped studios at the Academy of Arts and Design, Tsinghua University.
‘The Fall of A Noble Steed - New Works by Chen Wenling’ at the highly regarded Today Art Museum. On the upper floors was an interesting exhibition called ‘Negotiations' that included the works of Chinese and international artists including Richard Deacon RA and Jannis Kounellis.
Looking across an installation outside the Today Art Museum at OMA’s distinct CCTV building (centre of picture)