REPORT FROM BEIJING 4: Big and Empty (2)

Text and Photos by Cheng Feng Lau

Big and Empty – Part 2 – Capital Museum

If the National Museum is a place to exhibit the entire country’s history, should the Capital Museum be considered a museum that showcases the history of Beijing since the time it first became the capital city, or should it be considered a museum that happened to be located in the Capital city of China?

Why am I asking this question?

First of all, one would not build a museum for no reason, right?

There is probably more stuff than exhibition space in a city like Beijing, right?

If the imperial architectures can be transformed into museums, they would probably only be suitable for exhibiting imperial history.

So it seems to make sense to have another separate museum that is dedicated to everything else about Beijing?

If the architectural form of the National Museum is one of Western Neo-classical influence, what should be the style of a Capital Museum?

The architects and the politicians were probably thinking about a “modern-looking architecture that incorporates certain Chinese character, done with modern materials and construction technology, capable of showcasing a future-oriented spirit that is representative of the status of a capital city in a country that must not forget its past, and is capable of walking proudly into the new era…..” instead of something like a “traditional-looking architecture that is nostalgic about the capital city’s past, done with modern materials and construction technology, and has the capacity to hold any exhibition that shall exemplify great achievements within the city in this modern era”

One begins to read much contemporary architecture in China as not the manifestation of certain architectural concepts, but as certain struggles against some ideology/statement from higher up…

I find myself asking these questions:

Why do so many projects here seem so incomplete?

Or are these projects very well completed yet unrefined?

We know there is the problem of short construction phases in many buildings, but should that be considered as the most determining aspect in making certain architectural experiences less compelling?

If one is to look at certain Soviet architectures, the construction can be done rather poorly, but is still capable of conveying passion….

So how come so many architectures/buildings in China look so “unfiltered and full of noise”?

I begin to wonder, if that is not the issue of bad architecture, but simply the issue that the building is telling exactly that story behind its conception to realization…… too many inputs from too many important people might have led to the architect’s sacrifice of the purity and integrity of the project, and the short construction phase simply meant that the architect never had the time to “fight back” (if he/she is so capable, if he/she dares)…

In any case, should the exhibition tell a story, it should be a story about success, right?

So here we have the successful story of the successful architect/developer John Portman who is very much involved in major architectural/development projects in Beijing and other cities. (But we care about him in Beijing mostly because he did many big projects here, as one can point out a landmark on the exhibition poster.)

Strangely, there is something that catches more attention than the John Portman exhibition.

So what exactly is that bronze looking thing that sticks out of the façade that looks like a cone yet turned out to be a gigantic post/drum/column that sticks diagonally into the ground inside the museum?

[“It is a big gesture, so it must have a legitimate idea/function behind it to back it up, and this thing must not be a huge sculpture, because first of all this is not the bronze museum, and even if it is, there is no single artist in China whose name is big enough, whose connections are solid enough to make a sculpture this big”. At that moment, I felt I was thinking like my project manager….]

So it has a theater, a gallery, and a few bathrooms inside it. The circulation along the interior walls of the museum atrium is too distant from the main exhibition hall to be considered major access into the “drum.” But that still, in my opinion, does not quite justify the use of the circular ramp within that thing to take people up. The space inside is simply too tight for the use of ramps. Somehow the architects were able to proportion the size of the drum in relation to the atrium in such a way to create a spectacle, yet not capable of managing the space within the drum, to the point that all three architects who went into the “bronze sculpture” that day decided that they just want to “get the ____ out of it” and did not even bother to take any picture. It is just badly done inside…

One simply wonders what led to the “architects’ decision” to make such a thing and to make it that way… Perhaps someone can help me to read into this, assuming architecture always conveys to the trained eye many things about its realization….

To be continued….





Cheng Feng Lau

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