The first modern art exhibition I ever saw in Beijing was at the former house of a Ming-era court eunuch named Wang Zhen, who was known for being especially corrupt in a court famous for its corruption. After gaining the confidence of the young emperor, Zhu Qizhen, he took control of the government, executed his opponents, and encouraged the novice ruler to mount an attack on the Western Mongols in 1449, which led to the emperor's capture and Wang's own demise. After his death, his house, which comprised several structures linked by many courtyards, became the Buddhist Zhihua Temple. Some 400 years later, in 1988, one of the first unofficial art exhibitions to be held in the Old City since the Communists came to power took place there. A show of abstract ink washes, it was a sign of the experimental artistic enthusiasm that lay just beneath the surface.
Though the Old City dates back mostly to the Ming dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644, its jumble of courtyards, palaces, and temples arrived in the 20th century largely intact. The Ming court, its eunuchs in particular, could lay claim to a high degree of refinement. And the harmonies of color and design that characterized the furniture, porcelain, and paintings of the period were present in Peking itself, which, despite being an imperial city of grandeur and majesty, was also a green, quiet place built to human scale.
No one would say that of today's Beijing. It is flashy and modern and designed to showcase the new China. Zhihua Temple is now surrounded by regulation apartment blocks, and the Old City bears little resemblance to what it was even 15 years ago, with its quaint, half-derelict houses and shady scholar's trees.
In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is being subjected to some of the most extensive urban re-engineering ever visited on an existing city. What exactly will emerge from the construction is unclear. While parallels could be drawn with Niemeyer's Brasília, Lutyens's New Delhi, or Haussmann's Paris, it is Germania, Albert Speer's projected remake of Berlin as the new capital of Hitler's Reich, that comes closest to what is being effected in China's capital. The comparison is not incidental: the man behind a central element of Beijing's new look is none other than Albert Speer Jr. An architect like his father, he has realized projects all over the world, but this is his most significant yet. His design, commissioned by the Chinese government, calls for a north-south axis 16 miles long that will connect the center of the city with the Olympic Village, the Forbidden City, and a new railroad station in the southern section of Beijing. And although Speer Jr. has repeatedly denied that his plans for Beijing in any way echo his father's unexecuted schema for Berlin, there are similarities. Speer's Berlin was to have been a nexus of monumental arches and grand boulevards, a capital to end all capitals. Speer Jr.'s blueprint for Beijing is equally monumental, the kind of large-scale urban concept possible only under a totalitarian regime. Speer told the New York Times that he saw this rethinking of the city center as "an opportunity to catapult Beijing into the 21st century." No doubt the government officials who commissioned the project agree.
That's because, long as it is, Speer's north-south axis—based, he says, on the Chinese character for middle—is just the beginning. All across the city, great avenues, sweeping ring roads, grandiose ministries and banks, massive stadiums, towers, and shopping emporiums are rising up. Most of it is, as one Beijing acquaintance put it, "brutal, simplistic, and built on a vast scale at breathtaking speed." And a number of the city's top architects make no attempt to hide the fact that they find much of the architecture dead ugly.
"The planning is a big mess, really," says Kai Cui, a well-known architect and vice president of the city's planning department. "There has been a spirit of, 'We want to cut off history.' And there has been a lot of greed behind what is being done."
UNESCO has bravely raised its voice against rapacious developers working hand in glove with local authorities to extract maximum profit. Of the 3,000 original hutongs, or narrow alleys, some of which date back to the days of Kublai Khan, a mere 25 are being preserved. Out of 1,000 temples, a few dozen will be left, isolated islands in a grid of eight-lane expressways, overlooked by giant glass-and-steel towers.
If Hitler embraced Speer's backward-looking Neoclassical vision of Berlin, China's leaders are in love with technology. They want to show that the future belongs to them. "They press us to do something technically, artistically challenging, the bigger the better," Kai says. Over the past few years, Beijing has been holding competitions to attract the best of contemporary architecture. Some of the results are quite exciting—and quite new for China. There is nothing remotely Chinese, or even Asian, about the National Grand Theater, Beijing's new opera house. It is just a stone's throw from the Forbidden City and is scheduled to open in 2005. French architect Paul Andreu, who built the space-age Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris, was responsible for the design. "I admire the courage of any leader who made that choice," says Joe Carter, a Canadian architect who has lived in Beijing for 18 years and now works in the office of McBride Kelley Baurer. But Beijingers are less enthusiastic overall. They've dubbed the theater, which is topped by a translucent glass-and-titanium dome, the Alien's Egg and, perhaps less imaginatively, the Giant Doo-Doo.
"All of a sudden everyone is talking about art and design," says Adam Roberts, a British architect who has taught and worked in Beijing since 1993. "For a long time people like [Norman] Foster, who tried to get in, were blocked. Now all the big international names are here." (Since we spoke, Foster has won a contract to design a new $2 billion terminal at the Beijing airport.)
Rem Koolhaas, of the Rotterdam-based firm OMA, and fellow Dutch architect Ole Scheeren preferred to compete here rather than in New York for the World Trade Center project. Their design for the headquarters of the government-controlled China Central Television is a $725 million, 750-foot-high loop of irregular horizontal and vertical slabs that, when built, will be one of the tallest skyscrapers in Beijing.
"Architects here are under tremendous pressure to develop creative solutions in a ridiculously short time," says Daniel Nazdin, an American who designs everything from embassy projects to office blocks. "A project I would have six months to do in the States, I have three weeks to do here. But it is very exciting. You never know what will happen next."