My apologies for going since Monday without writing. I'm actually in Beijing on a press junket for the opening of a big new contemporary art museum here, the Ullens Center. This is my first time in China and it's been quite an eye opener.
I'm trying to think as I write this what might be most relevant to Portlanders. The first thing that comes to mind is historic preservation. This morning I visited the Forbidden City, and naturally was staggered by the scale, form, detail and all in all magnificence of the architecture - all 9,999 and a half rooms (that's the actual amount, not an exaggeration). But the Forbidden City is one of the only occasions in the better part of three days here when I've seen any historic, traditional Chinese buildings. Most all of them have long since been replaced with concrete buildings that seem to have come from the 1960s-70s, but are in decay that seems to have gone on even longer.
Luckily, though, I have been able to see some very, very compelling new architecture here. Yesterday we went to the new Olympic Stadium designed by the great Herzog & de Meuron. It's more commonly known as the 'Bird's Nest', for that's precisely what it looks like. There is seemingly no a single right angle in this entire structure, which really does seem to resemble the gentle intricacy of a real nest, even as it avoids appearing corny like a postmodern building. Much as I love Autzen Stadium, this is easily the most impressive stadium I've ever seen. We also today drove past the new Rem Koolhaas designed headquarters for CCTV, Chinese television. It looks like two separate skyscrapers that are leaning toward each other and finally meet at the top. The building isn't finished yet - it's got the two separate buildings mroe or less done, but the dramatic horizontal portion between them at the top is still under construction. But in a way that made it all the more impressive for seeming like two organic things growing towards each other, like a plant leaning towards sunlight.
One of the exceptions with espect to presevation is the Ullens Center and the surrounding 798 art district. Here the East Germans came to China in the 1940s and built a host of weapons-making facilities, all of which has been transformed into not only the Ullens museum, but a cluster of art galleries.(798 was one of the many numbered buildings in this previously classified and restricted area.) Contemporary Chinese art has skyrocketed in attention and popularity today after being virtually nonexistent before the mid-1980s. And all this art is happening in places they used to make bombs and guns.
At the same time, with traffic here so out of control it literally chokes the inhabitants (I've seen numerous local people wearing masks, and my colleagues are complaining of sore throats), it seems that Beijing really suffers from the way the city seems to segregate different functions like business, art, and government. Naturally that happens to a degree in every city, but seemingly more so here. For us Portlanders, the mantra has increasingly become that in terms of urban planning you have to get people able to live, work and play in the same areas with a mix of uses.
I think I'm the only journalist on this trip who isn't from a major world city. Everyone else comes from New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Vienna, Berlin, Tokyo and so on. Portland is never going to be one of those places, but I think most of you out there reading this will probably join me in being more than OK with that. I hate to resort to a rancid cliche, but as much fun as I've had seeing China for the first time, Portland is really gonna smell like roses.