Some years ago in Manhattan while I was riding the subway uptown, a young woman entered the train and began to proselytize to the crowd, which, as usual, paid her no attention. She went on about religion, God, and so forth, and when she was done, I expected a call for donations. Instead, she contributed a bit of worldly wisdom that has stayed with me ever since: “I know we all look good,” she said. “But we’re not all being good.” And she exited the train.
Years later, those words capture the spirit for me of the Beijing Olympics. As a recent transplant to China (I’ve lived in Shanghai for the last year and a half), the build-up to the Olympics is hugely visible not just in Beijing, but all over the country. From the large banners on the highways in Shanghai to the lampposts that declare simply “Beijing 2008” along the streets, the feeling is in the air. For China, the Olympics has been both a galvanizing force and an exercise in pride, partly deserved, partly not.
Recently, however, the exercise has not gone entirely according to plan. In spite of their inevitability, the mass protests in Tibet, Xinjiang (the Muslim part of Western China), and Mongolia still caught the government off their usually rigid guard. Even more unpredictable has been the tumultuous time the government has had trying to control the coverage of these events. And when widespread public sympathy during the Sichuan Earthquake led to a huge demand for news, the state could no longer reasonably control the local and foreign media.
All these occurrences—and its inability to master them leading up to its pride and joy, the Olympics—has made the Chinese government completely paranoid about who it is and is not letting into the country. The result is that the Really Big Show might just be a fizzle. Friends in the hotel, restaurant, and convention business now report things are generally slow in Shanghai. A quick search on the web and a few calls to Beijing hotels reveal there are still plenty of rooms available from August 8 through 24, the dates of the Olympic Games.
Along with everyone else, whenever something goes awry in Shanghai, I just blame it on the Olympics. When I recently organized a design exhibition in Shanghai, my star speaker, a British citizen flying in from Hong Kong, was denied entry because his valid Chinese visa was going to expire one day after he was supposed to return to Hong Kong—and not in a week as the border patrol had wanted. I blamed that on the Olympics. When the manager of my favorite Italian restaurant comes up to me and tells me that things are really slow in his restaurant and that the big-spending foreign crowd is not showing up, I also blame that on the Olympics.
The Olympics have laid bare the illogic behind the government’s approach. It invites the world in, but then restricts entry for fear that a bunch of Teva-wearing hippies might show up and disrupt the games. Of course there will be controversy—China is a totalitarian state, after all—but in courting the public stage, China is also courting widespread scrutiny of its atrocious human rights record. More than just Italian restaurants and visa issues, this vast Olympic effort, I fear, is just one huge act of self-deception, where the government’s attempts at damage control are triggering even more damage. In China, the Olympics is all about what China wants the world to perceive about itself, while keeping its true self hidden away.
Above all, what I blame most on the Olympics is how it implicates architecture in the fabrication of this whole spectacle, and even uses it to mask real urban problems confronting Beijing. Without a doubt, OMA’s CCTV and Herzog and de Meuron’s Olympic Stadium will remain masterpieces in the landscape of the city. But within its Soviet-inspired planning fabric, with its concentric highways lapping outward from the hub of the Forbidden City, huge monolithic-style building threatens to add to the isolation of Beijing’s vast alienating stretches. Anyone who has traveled through rush hour there, where it routinely takes 60 minutes to budge five miles, will have contemplated the poor planning implicated by this level of congestion.
Architects are well aware of the potential for their spectacles to turn out badly. After designing the building for China’s main propaganda machine—its TV station—Koolhaas has been fighting for more public access to the CCTV tower once it is completed some time next year, and Jacques Herzog is hoping his Olympic Stadium will remain at least in part a public space once sporting events are over. The Watercube National Acquatic Center by PTW Architects, in spite of its wall-to-wall swimming pools, is reportedly going to be turned into a mall after the games. As these architecturally compelling works are reduced to impractical relics, leaving the city as isolating as before or even more so, I will definitely blame that on the Olympics.
Will the city of Beijing be capable of looking good and being good at the same time? We’ll see. Right now, Beijing is a massive architectural and urban spectacle, but when you turn on your TV sets on August 8, all the fireworks and joyous celebrations should signal one thing: This is not resolved, and all that you see could be silenced in two weeks.