Autumn 2007

Dancing and demolition in old Beijing

The destruction of ancient Chinese alleyways undermines the Olympic ideals of harmony and progress

In his Invisible Cities (1974), Italo Calvino sets out a series of fictitious exchanges between the Emperor Kublai Khan and Marco Polo.

Each chapter introduces a place that Polo might or might not have visited, each description offering a different way to interpret a city. It was Khan who had made Beijing the capital of an empire that ‘under a certain light appeared as nothing more than an endless, formless ruin’. A visitor taking a taxi today through the boulevards of hoardings, cranes and dust might be forgiven a similar observation.

With the 2008 Olympics fast approaching it seems that the starting point of the Silk Road is being dragged through an urban time-tunnel, and has re-emerged as a globalised trade centre full of international trade. Higher, faster and stronger: Beijing is SimCity on speed. For design tourists most of the photo opportunities are coming from an imported a-list: Foster’s International Airport; Koolhaas’s gravity-defying cctv centre and the heavy metal bird’s nest that forms Herzog and de Meuron’s Olympic stadium.

The call for global participation is also extended through the Games’ official emblem, ‘Dancing Beijing’, which sees the Jing character – standing for Beijing – revisited as a dancing figure, arms open wide in joyful invitation. The Games’ website confidently claims that the emblem represents a ‘celebration of peace, friendship and progress for all mankind’.

‘Dancing Beijing’ takes centre stage within an identity programme gently rolled out by a team of staff and students at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Academy of Art and Design at Tsinghua University. As with the dancing figure, the 35 pictograms took their inspiration from ancient seal characters and inscriptions upon bronze and bone. Experts from the respective sports were also consulted, in an attempt to capture defining movements, and meet the approval of 28 international federations and the International Olympic Committee.

Min Wang, the director of the design team, describes the Olympic identity as part of a broader challenge ‘to brand China as part of the world community, a country that should be associated with harmony, peace and progress’. Given China’s human rights record, this makes for a very difficult brief but their attempts will no doubt be boosted by the refurbishment of the Forbidden City and the various temples that act as potent reminders of China’s spiritual heritage.

Yet only a few minutes walk from the Forbidden City and Beijing reveals a darker side to £42 billion makeover. Through successive waves of land requisition and forced evictions, vast hectares of hutongs, the narrow alleyways that once defined the city, have been cleared to make way for high-rise developments, many of dubious architectural quality. The cultural loss is significant. Many of these tiny streets and courtyard houses date back to the Ming dynasty and many would have been build in consultation with the local feng shui priest. The term ‘hutong’ was imported by the Mongolians 800 years ago and signifies the community gathered around a water well, but as Ian Johnson describes in his book, Wild Grass, the hutongs ultimately conformed to the city’s broader ambition, to form a complex manifestation of ancient cosmology and ‘the purest urban expression of this fascination with attaching spiritual principles to earthly objects’. *

With celestial ambition now abandoned, the forms and structures of the emerging city represent quite different desires. By 2005, according to unesco, a third of the central part of old Beijing had been destroyed, and half a million people relocated, many to large high-rise developments on the edge of the city. The process has continued apace, accompanied by lawsuits against the authorities, the most keenly contested being the constant assertion that the hutongs are no longer clean or safe. The social impact has been devastating, with many reported suicides as families are wrenched from ancestral homes.

As the hutongs have been gradually emptied of inhabitants and their personal histories, they offer up a scene reminiscent of Calvino’s Zaira: a city that ‘does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand’. With demolition imminent, the narrow lanes reveal a complex typographic city: children’s chalk drawings; telephone numbers sprayed and stencilled, advertising the services of heating and ventilating engineers and sex workers; and everywhere the ‘Chai’ symbol identifying the property for demolition.

Desire and memory are dominant threads throughout Calvino’s text, as they are in the designers’ challenge to bridge China’s cultural memory with the desire for global respect and inclusion. But while the pictograms created by Min Wang’s team make a genuine attempt to gather and reconnect with a past severed during Mao’s cultural revolution, their efforts are crucially undermined as the city’s developers are allowed to remove other supporting points of reference at will. And so, as Calvino might suggest, desire begins to erase memory in another, more subtle cultural revolution.

Challenge or poisoned chalice?
So where does this leave the designers? Given competing demands of sponsors, politicians and television networks, and the public – witness reactions to the London 2012 logo – it seems that the once highly valued Olympic challenge has become a poisoned chalice. Furthermore, it seems virtually inevitable that any design will suffer unfavourable comparisons with Mexico ’68 and Munich ’72.

One of the four key people behind the Mexico Olympics designs, architect Eduardo Terrazas (see Eye no. 56 vol. 14), considered the identity ‘not so much a graphic image per se, but a political and a cultural statement’ that possessed ‘a kind of cultural logic’. Terrazas recognised that ‘graphics is more than drawing, image is more than repetition of symbols, great design is spirit’. The same altruistic ambition drove Otl Aicher’s identity for the 1972 Munich Olympics, which caught a powerful desire to move away on from memories of war. Delivered under the shadow of terrorist activity, Aicher’s blend of optimism and utility seemed to possess almost a healing quality.

By comparison, the Beijing Games – already steeped in controversy – may serve only to remind of the difficulties that arise when graphic design is not part of a coherent statement, and is not supported by genuine vision applied evenly across all sectors of design. Without supporting points of reference, without Terrazas’ spirit, graphic designers can find themselves isolated, required only to supply a surface. In a city that is losing its memory their efforts operate merely as another form of reminiscence therapy.

It seems likely that Beijing will follow the pattern Calvino presents through Marco Polo’s observation on Maurilia: ‘Sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another and without communicating among themselves.’

* Ian Johnson, Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China, Pantheon Books, 2004.

First published in Eye no. 65 vol. 17 2007

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