Ethics’ place in China’s building boom

Times Architecture Critic

Third in a series on the changing face of China’s capital.

BEIJING -- On the first morning of my recent stay in Beijing, I picked up the China Daily, the government-run English-language newspaper, to see the following phrase near the top of the front page: “Good Times Get Better.” It was a teaser for a story inside the paper about the expanding number of luxury boutiques in the Chinese capital. But it captured perfectly the chipper tone that pervades much of the state press in China, which remains reluctant, despite some hints of openness in recent years, to broach any topic that might make its government patrons even slightly uncomfortable.

Certainly there has been precious little coverage in the Beijing media of a subject that has captured the attention of architects and critics throughout the West in recent months -- whether firms should refuse on principle to work in China, particularly on high-profile government buildings. With an increasing share of the world’s most innovative architecture being sponsored by autocratic regimes, an age-old question has gained new traction on the eve of the Beijing Olympics: To what degree are architects responsible for the political records or ethical shortcomings of their clients?


In Beijing, such moral dilemmas fall into three categories. There is widespread concern about the human-rights record of the Chinese ruling party, both at home, in Xinjiang province and Tibet, and abroad, given China’s support for Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir. In a report issued last week, Amnesty International painted a bleak picture of Chinese progress on the human rights front.

There are also worries that Western architects working on large-scale buildings in Beijing help accelerate the widespread destruction of the city’s ancient fabric. Since winning the right to host the 2008 Olympics seven years ago, the government has forcibly displaced, according to one study, more than 1 million Beijing residents to make way for new construction.

The third blemish on the Chinese record is environmental. The headlong pursuit of growth that has remade its cities in the last two decades has come with a steep ecological price. China is set to pass the United States this year as the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases. And for the most part, the leading architectural symbols of the new China are anything but green: Both the CCTV headquarters, by Dutch architects Ole Scheeren and Rem Koolhaas, and the National Stadium, by the Swiss duo Herzog & de Meuron, rely on massive amounts of steel -- hardly a sustainable building material -- for their dramatic silhouettes.

The ethics issue moved into the spotlight in February, when Daniel Libeskind told an audience in Belfast that architects should consider boycotting China and, generally speaking, “take a more ethical stance.” He added that he “won’t work for totalitarian regimes.” There were two problems with his call to moral resistance: First that his firm, inconveniently enough, is already at work in China, on a new-media center for the University of Hong Kong, and also that Libeskind himself is an unusually opportunistic architect. He has clung to his job as master planner at ground zero in New York despite a series of back-room decisions by his quasi-government clients, consistently thwarting the public good, that would have led many other architects to resign on principle.

When I raised the question of ethics with Chinese architects, nearly all of them countered by pointing out that we in the West behaved precisely the way the Chinese are now when we were busy modernizing in the 19th and early 20th centuries. More than a few asked if I thought the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans was any more defensible than China’s Tibet policy. Others argued -- quite reasonably-- that there is something absurd about Western architects appointing themselves ethical guardians for the entire world.

Koolhaas has said all along he hopes the CCTV building will change the culture of the Chinese media and that the broadcaster might ultimately become a key force driving progress and openness. He also told the critic Deyan Sudjic that when it comes to building in China “a position of resistance seems somehow ornamental” -- that it is egotistical to think that the government cares what you, as an architect, think about its human-rights or environmental record and might change its policies accordingly. And recently Herzog & de Meuron’s Jacques Herzog told Der Spiegel, the German weekly, that “only an idiot” would have turned down on moral grounds the chance to design the 2008 Olympic Stadium.


“We see the stadium as a type of Trojan horse,” he said, adding that his firm’s design creates “all kinds of niches” and “meeting places” along the building’s perimeter hidden away from government surveillance.

Ai Weiwei, an artist who worked closely with Herzog & de Meuron on the stadium design and is a frequent critic of the Communist Party, is far more negative about the reality of working in China. “This society looks more and more free, but at the core is strong censorship, strong restrictions on civil rights,” he told me when I visited his studio on the outskirts of Beijing. “There is simply no room here for open discussion on any public issue or intellectual topic. In that context, what does architectural freedom even mean?”

It is unfortunate that the discussion has so far broken into two rigid camps, with one side equating the Chinese government with Nazi Germany circa 1936 and the other rejecting any moral stance as the refuge of an “idiot.” The truth is that there is room for some principled nuance on these questions.

To begin with, not all commissions are created equal. It’s possible to endorse the idea of building in China in general and still have concerns about the meaning and symbolism of particular buildings, such as CCTV. As the author Ian Buruma has pointed out, “Unless one takes the view that all business with China is evil, there is nothing reprehensible about building an opera house in Beijing, or indeed a hotel, a university, or a corporate headquarters. But state television is something else: CCTV is . . . the organ which tells a billion people what to think.” He adds, “It’s hard to imagine a cool European architect in the 1970s building a television station for Pinochet.”

I’ve also been surprised at how little thought most Western architects working in Beijing have given to these issues -- particularly to the question of their complicity in the destruction of the city’s architectural heritage. One afternoon I met Carsten Voecker, an architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, at the firm’s 24-story Beijing Poly Plaza, a new tower occupying a large and prominent site east of the city center.

Voecker has thoughtful things to say about changes to urban scale in Beijing, and knows this particular building as well as anyone. As our tour was winding to a close, we walked across the street to look at the tower from a distance. We were standing near a small, newly restored group of historic buildings. I asked Voecker what the Poly Plaza had replaced. Had courtyard houses once stood on its site?


“I have no idea,” he replied.

Finally, I think many Western architects working in China are vulnerable on the environmental question. It is true that American and European cities went through their own lengthy smokestack-and-sweatshop phases. But the scale of China’s growth is simply unprecedented. And we are fully aware now of the damage that the construction of buildings and infrastructure does to the planet. That knowledge puts an extra burden on architects and the design choices they make.

When it comes to global warming, air and water quality, deforestation and a host of other environmental ills, after all, it is hardly a case of good times getting better. It’s more a matter of bad times getting worse.

christopher.hawthorne Wednesday: China’s emerging young architects.