Architectural Utopia and China: A Love Story

Installation View of The Legacy of Architectonic Futurism at BANK
Installation View of The Legacy of Architectonic Futurism at BANK
Lebbeus Woods, Aliens III, 1984. Drawing. Pencil on stock, 36.6 × 58.4 cm
Lebbeus Woods, Solohouse, 1987. Drawing. Color pencil on stock. 38.1 × 27.9 cm.
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On the occasion of the 16th Venice Biennial of Architecture, Shanghai-based gallery BANK presents “The Legacy of Architectonic Futurism” – a group show in honor of the visionary and fantastical spirit of Lebbeus Woods (1940-2012). Woods was an artist, theorist, educator, and architect of the highest level whose politically charged and provocative illustrations were designs of systems in crisis: the order of the existing being confronted by the order of the new.  

TEXT: Jacob Dreyer
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists and BANK

Installation View of The Legacy of Architectonic Futurism at BANK

 

“Whether it will be a pleasant or unpleasant experience; exciting or dull; uplifting or merely frightening; inspiring or depressing; worthwhile or a waste of time, is not determined in advance by the fulfillment of our familiar expectations, because we can have none, never having encountered such a space before.”

In 2014, Xi Jinping called for an end to “weird architecture” in China, a gesture both reasonable and populist. Xi doesn’t mind huge monuments to cabbage or hotels which look like Confucian ancients; rather, he specifically objects to the notion that Chinese cities would be the sites for architectural experimentation, the results of which can at times be stunning, but at other times be unwieldy vehicles for corruption, lightning rods for public anger at an elite lifestyle that seems to diverge from the life of the common people, in their suburban tower blocks. This summer, Shanghai’s gallery BANK is hosting a show on the experimental architect Lebbeus Woods’ visions; today, with Xi’s power more secure than ever, the show comes at a perfect moment to look back and reassess the mark that international architects made on China during her golden age.

 

Installation View of The Legacy of Architectonic Futurism at BANK

 

Architecture has always been in dialogue with painting and other visual arts; usually, architects mix socially with the art world, but their work is of public concern in a way that art is not. If the general public often is blissfully unaware of experimental sculpture, film and painting, buildings such as the CCTV headquarters in Beijing, just as much as the Bauhaus buildings in Germany or Constructivist architectural experiments in Moscow, are all too visible to the residents of the cities they take place in. For the so-called “real people,” experimental buildings often feel like spaceships landing in their midst, with alien beings- or humans whose lifestyles are alien to the ordinary folks- within. Whether it is the Montparnasse Tower, famously so ugly that the only way to avoid looking at it, is to work inside of it, or Pyongyang’s Ryugong Hotel, whose quixotic incompleteness has come to symbolize the North Korea regime, or Trump Tower with its golden escalators, these hideous buildings have come to symbolize a hideous way of life; we resent looking at them, and we resent being looked at by the people in them. They say that behind every great fortune lies a great crime, but architects have tended to plead innocent to charges of complicity with the clients that pay them, even when their own buildings are directly involved. “I have nothing to do with the workers…It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it,” said Zaha Hadid, apropos the conditions of the laborers who built her pyramids. At times, architects themselves are prepared to think critically about these questions; Tat Lam, of Shenzhen’s Urbanus, wrote his (brilliant) PhD on the construction of Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid in Beijing, examining the process by which a socialist compound was demolished to create it to the reasons why in a China with low crime rates, guards, walls and gates are considered necessary. If the cities thrown up in China’s exciting decades from reform and opening to 2012 were exciting, diverse, with shadowy financial origins, and fundamentally unsustainable, built with inadequate materials and prone to accidents, that’s because the society from which they emerged was, as well. It is notable that Guo Wengui, the billionaire whose critiques of Xi Jinping have led to high stakes international intrigue, made his name constructing the Pangu Hotel in Beijing, one of the world’s only 7 Star Hotels. (Your correspondent has visited both. They’re both pretty tacky).

 

Lebbeus Woods, Aliens III, 1984. Drawing. Pencil on stock, 36.6 × 58.4 cm
Lebbeus Woods, Solohouse, 1987. Drawing. Color pencil on stock. 38.1 × 27.9 cm.

 

Lebbeus Woods seemed destined to go down in history as a brilliant teacher at New York’s Cooper Union, of the kind dismissed as creating talk-itecture rather than architecture; but then China, and the economic boom years, came in to give a living chalkboard for him to sketch upon. Steven Holl’s “Sliced Porosity Block” in Chengdu was the first- and as it happened, only- opportunity that Woods had to realize his ideas in urban practice, with his “light pavilion,” evocative as much of minimalist artists such as Donald Judd and Bruce Nauman, or of other “paper architects” like his old classmate Yaohua Wang as it is of architecture as such. The light pavilion doesn’t really fulfill a commercial or residential purpose; it’s an intervention along the lines of Richard Serra or Anselm Kiefer, works placed into urban space to provoke us to question what communities can be, and how the spaces which we move through every day are structured.

Today in China, dreams of new cities continue to bubble up, whether in the informal drone-driven commercial infrastructures created by JD.com and Alibaba, in Xi Jinping’s pet project, Xiong’an New District, or in the paintings of rising star Cui Jie. But if in the boom years, architects like Koolhaas, Ma Yansong, and Lebbeus Woods played around with the formal possibilities of building offered by computer-driven engineering, the dreams of today are relentlessly structured around the lives of actual people, even if those are not as glamorous or profitable as the ziggurats of the Hu Jintao period. Indeed, in the BANK show the only image of a “real” piece of architecture is of the Five Hundred Meter Aperture Telescope, in Guizhou. This structure is marvelous indeed, but only superficially similar to the works of Lebbeus Woods; the telescope’s dimensions have a strictly functional purpose, and if much of the works of architects from Lebbeus Woods to Peter Eisenmann to the so-called “Parametricist” school is meant to be seen, the telescope is purely functional- and it is from this functionality that its grandeur is derived. Lebbeus Woods’ works might inspire us to dream; but the five hundred meter aperture telescope is a dream materially realized.

Downtown Shanghai has seen spaces such as BANK and the new “Urban Cross” focusing attention on the architectural legacy of the boom years. Nobody wants to live in a failed experiment; we’d rather live in actual communities, full of chance encounters with friends, the “sidewalk ballet” of different small businesses bustling, and street-level urbanism. With exhibitions like the one at BANK- a space whose openings consistently draw dozens of the most interesting people in the neighborhood of Shanghai’s French Concession- China might have stopped being the petri-dish for experiments, and instead become, like New York or London, a place where people talk about architecture more than actually doing it- perhaps not entirely a bad thing. What is the Chinese city of our dreams, a post-capitalist community of creative vitality, which we might be headed towards? In Woods’ words, “Whether it will be a pleasant or unpleasant experience; exciting or dull; uplifting or merely frightening; inspiring or depressing; worthwhile or a waste of time, is not determined in advance by the fulfillment of our familiar expectations, because we can have none, never having encountered such a space before.”

 

 

The Legacy of Architectonic Futurism
Jun 15, 2018 – Sept 2, 2018
BANK Gallery, Shanghai

 

 


 

Jacob Dreyer is a Shanghai-based writer and editor. Recently, he has edited a special issue of LEAP magazine, and contributed to The Atlantic City Lab, the Architectural Review, and Domus. His book The Nocturnal Wandererhas recently been published by Eros Press; he is researching a second book about urban space and the creative economy in China.

 

 

 
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