Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Public Architecture in China Today

In this month's Word of the Month, I pointed out the similarities of public buildings built in China in the 1950s and 60s with those built in Nazi-Germany and the former Soviet Union. But I cannot leave it at that—things have changed, and they have changed dramatically in China. Readers may know the skyline of Pudong, the new financial district of Shanghai, which has become a veritable architectural vanity fair, where each new tower added to the skyline tries to surpass its neighbors not only in height, but also, and especially, through its daring design.

Most of them are unabashedly modern, and this is also true for public buildings. We got a glimpse of this new architecture in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics, where the "bird's nest", the main athletic venue, became an icon of the games. The Beijing Opera, or more accurately, the National Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2007, is equally modern in its design (top left). On my recent trip, I was particularly taken by the Grand Theater in Chongqing, completed in 2009, which occupies a prominent location on a headland overlooking the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers and appears to be Chongqing's answer to the Sydney Opera House: A building with a unique shape, sitting on an exposed platform jutting into a body of water and destined to become an icon of the city (center and bottom left during the day and night, respectively).

It is true that foreign firms are still dominant in the design of these buildings (for example, the French architect Paul Andreu designed the Beijing Center and the German firm van Gerkan, Marg und Partner the Chongqing Theater). But this may change as Chinese architects rise to greater prominence (like Wang Shu, winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2012). In any case, Chinese authorities appear to be eager to demonstrate to the world that they are as modern in outlook as their Western counterparts.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Word of the Month: Die Herrschaftsarchitektur

On a recent trip to China, I visited Tiananmen Square in Beijing and was struck by the similarities between the buildings flanking it on the east and west and those built in Nazi-Germany or the Soviet Union to house state functions. The similarities between the latter two were already skewered by Osbert Lancaster in his collection of architectural cartoons Pillar to Post (1938; top two drawings on the left). The Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square (bottom left) would have provided him with a third example.

All of these are instances of Herrschaftsarchitektur. Herrschaft is a general term that can refer to any situation in which someone is Herr (in the sense of "master" or "lord") over someone or something else, like the rule of a certain party or the reign of a certain leader. And Architektur is, of course, a cognate of English "architecture".

Herrschaftsarchitektur, then, refers to the buildings a ruling class or party erects to accommodate its operations and, at the same time, express its power and dominance. The latter characteristic is essential: To become Herrschaftsarchitektur, it's not enough that a building be used by a ruling power. It must be intended to symbolize its might and will to rule, often in combination with an attempt to intimidate its subjects.

Follow-up: Public Architecture in China Today.