Lasting legacy

Updated: 2011-12-30 08:51

By Andrew Moody (China Daily)

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 Lasting legacy

Clockwise from top: Ole Scheeren, the German architect who designed the CCTV tower; Zaha Hadid, designer of the Guangzhou Opera House; Hu Wenrui, professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and one of China's leading space physicists. [Left: Zhang Tao / China Daily; Above: Nick J B Moore / for China Daily]

"I think the Olympics was a relatively harmless expression of rising power compared to military hardware, which was the main expression of the rise of America after World War II."

For China, with its long history and great imperial past, the late 20th and early 21st century is not the first time it has built great showpieces.

The Forbidden City right in the heart of Beijing and built in the early 15th century remains a stunning reminder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) supremacy.

The Great Wall, which dates back to the 5th century BC, is not just a fortification but also a major statement.

"It may have a practical side to keep the nomads out but you don't need a wall quite that big to do a fairly basic job like that," says Morris at Stanford University.

He adds Chinese history is teeming with such examples of stunning architectural achievements.

"If you go back to Chongqing in 500 BC, it was one city that had enormous towers and great palaces. People have gone crazy about the terracotta warriors from the Qin Dynasty but they were actually a very small part of a whole tomb complex and not even the most impressive part," he says.

One of the technology areas where China is attracting a lot of attention is its space program and whether over the next century it will take over from the United States as a leader in this area.

Space exploration seems to have lost some of its excitement after man walked on the moon in July 1969, more than 40 years ago.

China now intends to have a manned space station orbiting the earth by the end of the decade.

Hu Wenrui, professor and academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing and one of China's leading space physicists, believes it is inevitable that China wants its presence felt in space.

"Every major country wants to develop a space program. It represents a culmination of its achievements in science and technology as well as economic fields," he says.

"The space station will demonstrate to people around the world the ingenuity and perseverance of the Chinese people. It will also be a solid platform to move forward to other areas of space exploration."

He does not see China's space development program as a race between two super powers as which defined the efforts of the Americans and the Soviet Union in these areas in the 1950s and 1960s.

"I think developing a space station is a peaceful use. The Americans still see space exploration as part of their military force," he says.

Derek Han, a Chinese American who is a leading international concert pianist, believes some of China's major projects are major statements of China's arrival on the world stage.

He cites the National Center for the Performing Arts, the Beijing concert hall, known as the "Eggshell" and designed by the French architect Paul Andreu, which opened shortly before the Olympics.

"From an artists' point of view, it is absolutely mind-blowing, the facilities, the structure, the acoustics are of a different order," he says.

"When you see how the arts and culture struggle across the board in other countries, it is just amazing to see. The exception, I suppose, would be Germany where the Bundestag have just voted 50 million euros to the arts, despite the economic crisis."

Han, who is also chairman of North Square Blue Oak, a research and investment company with offices in Beijing and London, believes China has demonstrated it has the capability to stage major events such as the Olympics which other countries are in awe of.

"You look at the nervousness with which London is preparing for the Olympics with the creaking public transport system that it has," he says.

"Look at the difficulty India had in putting on the Commonwealth games. I think that was a very telling example of the Indian economy. It is growing very rapidly but these things are not just about throwing money resources at them. It is also about organizational skills and in India's case, it was really quite embarrassing."

Arguably, China, given its size, has not used big projects as much as other smaller countries to make a statement about itself.

Jacques, the British author, says it has almost been a deliberate strategy of countries such as Malaysia over the past 20 years.

"It has used prestige projects to attract the attention of the world. The Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur are among the most beautiful modern buildings in the world. Mahathir Mohamad (former Malaysian prime minister) had this vision that he somehow wanted to put Malaysia on the map."

Many feel it would be wrong to characterize China as being all about big flashy buildings.

Ole Scheeren, the German architect who designed the futuristic CCTV tower -consisting of two towers meeting in an arch - in Beijing's central business district, says Chinese planners really want to tackle new ideas head on and have discussions about what Chinese modernity really means.

"I think there is still an open question and the answer is by no means final at this stage. I think an element of it is dedicated to progress and a future which surpasses the limits and boundaries of an entirely risk averse Western culture," he says.

Scheeren, who now runs his own architecture practice in the city, says the authorities have avoided putting up skyscrapers everywhere.

"I think it is important a city consists not only of a few so-called landmark buildings but also a generic mass and substance. I think it is incredibly important to the health of the city that you don't have to pay attention to everything," he says.

Zaha Hadid, the British Iraqi architect, who designed the Guangzhou Opera House, which took five years to build, agrees the Chinese authorities really want to engage with new ideas.

"They are very updated in their approach. They don't want you do something you have done 10 or 15 years ago. They want something fresh and new, something that connects to the situation in the country now."

Jacques believes China still retains the energy to make statements through major projects unlike Western countries.

"Europe is not trying to make a statement. It has become very introverted. It has moved into a navel-contemplating stage and is very smug and complacent about itself. China is still in the teenage phase," he says.

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