Wednesday, April 28, 2004
From Time Asia's May 3 cover story, on the avant-garde architecture boom in China:
Zhang gave the ponytailed 70-year-old New Yorker few instructions. The building would need to accommodate several restaurants, two bathhouses, an art gallery, offices and a massage salon. Zhang said the design should evoke the sea and that it should be "the most radical building in Beijing." [emphasis added] A couple of days after their first meeting, [architect Raimund] Abraham produced a sketch—a meditation on the ocean's violent power in the form of a 12-story block gouged like a cliff at the edge of a raging sea. Zhang was dumbfounded. But after Abraham explained the idea behind the forbidding façade, the client grinned. Construction is set to begin in central Beijing later this year. "There's no way I could get a design like this built in America," Abraham says. "But in China, one starts to feel that anything is possible." [emphasis added]
It is useful to reflect on why this should be so, architecturally speaking at least. Erecting public monuments is always easier if the builder did not have to consider public opinions or have to account for the expenses to tax payers. This is true of China under Mao and under "socialist market economy", and is true all over the world throughout history from the Pharaohs on down; the only thing that changes is the architectural style.

Paradoxically, working for a despotic patron often means a greater measure of creative freedom for the architect and artist, especially if the patron has sufficient leisure to become cultivated. To invoke familiar examples, neither Pope Julius II nor Lorenzo di Medici are remembered as much for being statesmen as for being cultivated patrons. If Frank Gehry had worked for Napoleon III rather than the city of Los Angeles, he wouldn't have to modify the finish of his stainless steel clad Walt Disney Concert Hall because the neighbours complained about reflected heat.

The issue is that artistic and intellectual culture, fundamentally, are elitist practices. If in general, the modern age appears less intellectual, less artistic, less literary, if Socrates, da Vinci, Mozart, &c., no longer walk in the street, it isn't because civilisation has gone electronic. Societies have become far more democratic and democratically commercial. It is far harder now, for an opinionated elite to decide for the public what it ought to appreciate; and it is no surprise the public, mediocre by definition, often decides to like mediocre stuff. And the telescoping of history exaggerates this effect; everyone knows Mozart, no-one knows the most popular Viennese drinking song for the summer of 1781.

The question is: what should society do about this apparent cultural decline? Nothing, I say. High culture can survive either by fiat and patronage, or though it is hard to like this idea, survive on the periphery of a broad spectrum and wait for history to do the pruning. The problem with patronage is that it can suppress as well as support, and only in a free, democratic society is the broadest spectrum of cultural expressions be possible. It may be a heady time for avant-garde architecture in China now, but be reminded that neither the Soviet Union nor China post-1945, with their lavish state patronages, are exactly notable for enduring cultural achievements, architectural or otherwise.