Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Olympics Beijing

Size matter, especially when it's huge.

[View from the Forbidden City]

I had the privilege to see in my life very large architecture in many different places in the world, but only in Communist countries can you experience HUGE human-built constructions that make you experience being a lost dot in an ocean of human. And the first feeling of hugeness in China is felt as soon as you land at the international airport. A year after the Olympics I was like an athlete on a finale with the crowd out there to sheer my run. So many people around, so many avenues to take, so many controls to jump through that I don't even remember the number of hours I spent in the transitional warehouse.

[Guard standing in front of the entrance of Forbidden City ]

I had spent enough time with architects to know that there is no random effect in architecture and every design is well thought out to make you feel and therefore behave in a certain way. I have no doubt that the first emotion that I experienced at the Beijing Capital ("Freudian slip") International Airport was the one that Chinese officials wanted to give to everyone coming to the new promised Olympian land: "We are as good as you, but only bigger in size". Imagine arriving in an airport the size of a city. Terminal 3 is the second largest airport terminal in the world after Dubai International Airport, and it is growing. You can probably spend an entire day in it without finding your way out. Luckily I did.

[Group of Red Hatted Tourist]

But hugeness was not only at the landing, it was also during the whole city experience. One bus and one taxi after the arrival (count three hours), I finally dropped my backpack at the hotel, enthusiastic about exploring the endless possibilities of the newly promised territory, I decided that a giant dinner at Made in China and a well-deserved and long-lasting night sleep on a hard bed would be my two allies in my next-day endeavor.

[Summer Palace from Atop]

The next morning armed with a camera attached to one hand and a map in the other, I was determined to take care of the Imperial Palace site in a heart beat. Located in the middle of Beijing, the huge Forbidden City construction is a pilgrimage for all Chinese on a trip to the capital city. Tens of thousands of people a day are visiting the close to 1,000 buildings, covering 720,000 m2 (the equivalent of 200 soccer fields). Every man for himself is the only rule that prevails in China, and the free flow of humans, constantly refueling the surrounding landscape, is a great reminder of self imposing yourself to defend your ever-shrinking personal space.

[Old Man Laughing]

Constantly bumping into one person after another, a short head above the massive ocean of dark heads, the visit of the 1,000 meters long and 750 meters wide of the Imperial Palace only took me the entire morning, just in time to move to a more modern type of architecture, but nonetheless impressive one. Tiananmen Square is only on the other side of the 12-lanes highway, and you can cross it by using one of the two underground huge paths to resurface in a massive empty space, one of the largest public squares in the world, originally designed and built in 1651 but later enlarged in 1958.

[ Playing Card in the Hutong]

China celebrated the 60th anniversary of PRC on Oct 1st, 2009 (video), and wanted by this means to wash away the bloody memories that happened two decades ago during a student protest at the square. Like during the Olympics, size or money was never a concern to display how strong and well-organized the red republic of China is. Four large, full screens at the bottom of the square, remaining from the anniversary parade, were constantly broadcasting eloquent and unequivocal images of the new Chinese dream: strong & modern.

Where is the limit between Public Relation and Propaganda?

[ The Future of China]

I certainly keep in mind the feeling of being lost and uneasy in all of the bigger-than-normal constructions. I felt oppressed during my walks in the square and at the palaces, rescuing myself only by taking pictures and trying to fit the landscape in a small view finder in order to try to comprehend the size. The lasting sentiments after few days of rest is uncomfortable at least and frightening at most, to have contemplated another scale, a factor hundred times in dimensions, a new mental level in my memory bank. Never in my life had I physically experienced the discomfort in front of a human-built construction than those days in Tiananmen Square. I discovered that something new existed between me as a human being and the universe: a social order, a societal organization, an aggregation of human processes that could be self existing without its members and had for sole purpose, to preserve itself against everything.

[ Dressing Up to Visit Beijing]

If strength, power and order were the tastes in my mouth when I was walking in the HUGE square, fragile, weak and chaos were the adjectives that I could qualify the back alleys in Beijing where people's live. This is a huge contrast that can only logically exist in the country of Yin and Yang.

[ Sitting Boy]

Hutongs are all the narrow streets, formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences joined together to form a neighborhood. Hutongs in Beijing are disappearing replaced by giant tower of condominium. Some districts have been recently protected in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history but rebuilt into a brand new with shops and modern empty habitat.

[Chinese Summary :
Red Flag in one hand and Food on a stick in the other]

The intricate webs of side streets snaking among the delimited squarish blocks that divide equally the city of Beijing is the last place where people live (a difficult life), breathe (a polluted air) and survive (the challenges of the existence). As soon as the sun is setting behind the smoky horizon, streets change themselves into a highway of stories going in so many directions. So many images: a hairdresser giving out a cigarette butt to his client; a butcher sharing its front door with the Maj Jong communal space; a restaurant cook using the middle of the alley to prepare the vegetables of the night; and kids doing their homework on a broken chair sitting on the floor watched over by a raw of grandmas.

[ Grandma in a Wet Market at Night]

The mix of the Yang's government with the Ying's people, make a great combination to master the next big Chinese challenge: growth with social stability. The traditional Chinese life has long deserted the capital city of Beijing for sure, and the last Olympics were the beginning of the next chapter. China has come out to the world with its strength, power and order but also with fragile, weak and chaotic human side.

Don't get fooled, China is a HUGE giant standing proudly on fragile feet.