Kun Cao

Etta Steinberg Fellow

Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts: Architecture | MArch


Cohort 2007


Graduated 2009

Partner University:

Tsinghua University


Career: Associate Director | Callison Architecture Firm | Beijing, China

Scholar Highlights

Chaotic Harmony Chinese Contemporary Landmark Architecture

The current construction boom in contemporary architecture in Beijing represents one of the chaotic phenomena of today’s China. Citizens remain proud of their 5000-year-old heritage, but they are also overwhelmed by materialistic luxury from the economic boom. This has given rise to a polarized situation.

Some people want to transform their architecture drastically to keep pace with the economy, but others are fighting to connect history to the present in a way where traditions can evolve along with expanding technology.

Theories of modern Chinese architecture have mainly grown out of this debate.

The National Center for Performing Arts is one of the latest landmarks of the city. It is located deep in the heart of Beijing. It is also one of the most controversial buildings in recent years, a product of the ongoing struggle between the voice of the new and that of the old. In fact several hundred famous architects signed a letter calling on authorities to rescind plans to build the structure before it got underway. This case provides a good illustration of the conflict of views in today’s China.

As a key national project, this structure has been planned for 50 years, and its budget of 38.4 billion USD is more than enough for all primary
education infrastructure construction needed in two or three western provinces in China. In addition to the construction budget, the cost of operating and maintaining the building is huge. The power required for air conditioning alone costs 14,000 USD per day. There was a huge debate over this massive budget, and the fatal collapse of a terminal at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris built by the French architect for the project, Paul Andreu, introduced further difficulties. Above all, however, it was the location of the building, which stands on 5000 years of national pride, that caused the problems.

Andreu’s National Center for Performing Arts has been dubbed as the “alien egg” and the “giant turd” by people in China. In fact, they often generate symbolic nicknames for famous landmark buildings: ”bird’s nest” for the National Olympic Stadium, “water cube” for the National Swimming Stadium, and “dragon” for the new Beijing airport. The “egg,” however, is perhaps the most criticized structure because of people’s tendency to resist any changes in the historical sites, especially in Tiananmen Square. “Egg” definitely does not sound as noble as “dragon,” perhaps because it points to just the beginning of life.

As already noted, the most sensitive aspect of the National Center for Performing Arts is its location. Anyone who has ever been to Beijing is likely to have a strong impression of the Center as part of this historical city. After a very long history of imperialist government, Beijing strongly reflects the centralized system at whose center it is situated. And at the very center of Beijing is the Forbidden City, the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Now the location of the Palace Museum, this location served for almost five centuries as the home of the Emperor and his household, as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government. At the south end of the Forbidden City is Tiananmen, a famous monument in Beijing. First built during the Ming Dynasty in 1420 as the front entrance to the Forbidden City, it is often referred to as a national symbol. Tiananmen is located along the northern edge of a massive square which also has great cultural significance, having been the site of several key events in Chinese history. Tiananmen Square is the largest urban square in the world. The site of the National Center for Performing Arts is immediately to the west of Tiananmen Square and Great Hall of the People, and near the Forbidden City. Hence one can imagine that any new building in this site would create considerable controversy.

From the outset, public opinion has largely argued that the Center is not in line with nearby buildings. However, I believe, one can find harmony along a dimension of time. Tiananmen Square was built in the Ming Dynasty, the Grand Hall of People was built 50 years ago, and now the National Center has emerged. They vary so greatly in time and functionality that we shouldn’t simply pursue some imitation of form. As noted by professor Wu Huanjia from Tsinghua University, harmony is more than simplistic repetition in form or style; variety in unity is also another kind of harmony.

This reminds me the Buddhist pagodas which were inspired by a site far from China hundreds of years ago. They have now merged into being a part of this emperor city and have become part of Beijing’s native culture.
For now, it’s hard to reach a clear conclusion of the pros and cons of the building, and it might take time to be resolved in history. However, public debate is one form of the social contest of architecture, and understanding this is helpful and necessary for a positive evolution in urban development.

As the architect Andreu said, “I expect quite a number of people in China will say they don’t like [the Center]. But a creation is bound to be something that disturbs. If it is just a reproduction, it is handicraft. My purpose is to do something original. I can only hope that it disturbs in a positive way . . . But after that, even all that, I have done a modern building, because I think the situation today in China is a modern situation. Your people do not look back, they have a history, they know about their history and are proud of it, but they live and look ahead.”

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