China Millennium Monument

The exhibition at the China Millennium Monument was entitled Emerging Technology, Emerging Talents, and was compiled by Xu Weiguo (Tsinghua University). He in turn invited eight foreign architects to select projects that focus on the application of new technology in architecture. The exhibition participants didn’t have to pay to take part. Posters and videos showed the work of architects (Systemlab, ASPX, ReD, Stealth Unlimited, MAD, P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, Advanced Group, Kokkugia, Lyons, Metro a Metro, Laboratory of Architecture, Productora,...) from eight locations (Europe, China, American west coast, UK, Australia, Asia, American east coast, and South America).

Wu Hua expressed the importance of such computer-generated work for China, where there hasn’t been as much experimentation as elsewhere because of the intense pressure of work in China.

According to Wu Hua, the computer should be deployed as a means of rethinking the design process. He argues that by making use of both objective data – is that available in China? – and computational design, architecture can be reduced to a series of schemes from which the most beautiful can later be chosen. That architecture is no longer dependent on the genius of the architect but, rather, on one’s skill with the computer, offers more opportunities, he believes, to make interesting designs.

Emerging Talents displayed work produced at the major schools of architecture. Yale, ETH, Delft, Berlage Institute, Pratt, Princeton, Rice, UCLA, Tongji, Tsinghua, MIT, AA, Bartlett, Penn, Dessau, Harvard, Kyoto, Cornell and others were there with presentations. It seemed as if every school has a department that invests in this technological conspiracy. The double-action between professional work and student work offered plenty of insight into the state of affairs and the way in which architects apply ‘emerging technologies’ in their work. New spatial, structural, material and experimental ways of dealing with architecture were proposed in anything but a superficial manner.

The question remains, of course, whether one or both of these exhibitions can stimulate discussion within Chinese architecture. If that is the case, then the exhibition at the National Museum will generate debate about ways to exhibit architecture, while the exhibition at the China Millennium Monument will probably spawn discussion about how the schemes presented in the proposed experimental projects can be built as quickly as possible. Both could lead to surprising results in the future.

 

The story is familiar to everyone by now. Last year the volume of construction work in Peking equalled that in whole Europe; a skyscraper is completed every single day in Shanghai; and Chongqing numbers 31.7 inhabitants. Every well-intended study of China begins with a mind-boggling list of statistics like these, intended more to set the context rather than to reflect reality. Diligent Chinese students attend schools of architecture in Europe, and every foreign architecture firm intent on international fame and not too bothered about operating at a loss is active in China today. At the same time, there’s a growing awareness in China that building and architecture are not the same thing. And what better way to reach the masses than by organising a Biennale.

The theme of the 2006 Biennale was City and Architecture: Resources Efficiency and Environmental Efficiency. That’s an important theme in a country contending with a serious environmental problem. The aim of the curators was to stimulate debate at local level. The two exhibitions organised to achieve this were staged at the Chinese National Museum (on Tienanmen Square) and at the Chinese Millennium Monument. The projects presented in the exhibitions, we were promised, were to link our daily life to the space in which we live; they would deal with technology, natural resources and the energy we consume. And they would indicate how we could use them in a responsible manner.

It has to be said: the exhibition at the Chinese National Museum was lamentable. A series of ‘pavilions’ weren’t finished, and what was on show had little to do with the promised relation between technology, natural resources and energy – apart from the fact that every participant displayed the word ‘sustainable’ in big letters above each project. The reason for the generous admittance policy is banal: the cost to participate in the exhibition was 20 dollars per square metre per day, with a minimum of 100 and maximum of 600 square metres in area. So it doesn’t take long to work out that each participant contributed between 20,000 and 120,000 dollars. One bright point was the Danish contribution Co-Evolution (also on show at the Venice Biennale), which turned a one-year exchange project between young architecture firms in Denmark and four Chinese universities into four sustainable metropolitan projects for Shanghai, Peking, Xian and Chongqing.