Weird Bedfellows

Weird Bedfellows

In their defense of “tradition” against the liberating potential of architecture, Prince Charles and Xi Jinping find unlikely common ground.

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This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.

Late last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping rose to his bully pulpit to denounce the surfeit of “weird architecture” that has become so visible on the Chinese skyline, calling instead for an art that would “disseminate contemporary Chinese values, embody traditional Chinese culture and reflect [the] Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuit.” While there’s something heartening about a national leader who actually cares about architecture, a wave of disquiet rapidly spread among both the Chinese and foreign designers (including yours truly) whose work might be implicated in its failure to embody the latest, unspecified version of the eternal verities. Whenever I hear that word “tradition,” my trigger finger gets itchy; “weird” is one of the signatures of experiment and the new. But “weird” also signifies the surreal juxtapositions that are second nature in our televisual universe: not just the daffy thickets of solipsistic starchitecture that mar so much prime real estate, but also the commercials for hemorrhoid creams following an ISIS beheading on CNN.

Xi, however, obviously had this rash of “modern” buildings in mind—including the CCTV tower in Beijing (universally referred to as “the big underpants”), several much-publicized vertical doughnut-shaped structures built around the country, and doubtless some of Zaha Hadid’s swoopier product. But is any of this weirder (or less Chinese) than the sublimely bizarre reproductions of Ye Olde English Villages and Die Kleindörfer in Deutschland that checker the suburbs of Shanghai, or the cherub-and-swag-encrusted apartment buildings that line every avenue? Xi remains mute on this particular kitsch. Besides, one must be wary of a China preoccupied with a “Chinese values” crisis—especially after the Cultural Revolution, when errors of preference and expression had consequences well beyond the aesthetic.

Speaking of the anxious defense of tradition, not long after Xi’s pronunciamento, Prince Charles checked in with a virtually identical position: a ten-point manifesto on the future of the city that also called for the restoration of timeless harmonies to architecture and a return to royal family values in the form of… Olde English Villages for all! What can be the explanation for this weird case of parallel dis-invention? Is some geopolitical magma on the move between Beijing and Balmoral, coordinated from the Bilderberg by the Illuminati? I’m reminded of the discussions in my ’60s groupuscule about so-called “convergence theory”: the idea that industrialization and the permeabilities of the global village were causing two great systems—capitalism and communism—to meld into one, putting an end to the class warfare we were so valiantly waging in the back rooms of the West End Bar.

Convergence was surely Fukuyama avant la lettre, but whoever thought that when the end of architectural history came, it would arrive dressed as historicism? (I’m put in mind of the story about Nikita Khrushchev and Zhou Enlai meeting during the escalation of the Sino-Soviet split. Khrushchev proposed that the problem might be attributed to the fact that he was the son of a worker and Zhou the child of Mandarins, leaving them with little in common. Zhou allegedly replied that there was something they shared: they were both traitors to their class.) And to be sure, there’s a bit of an imbalance in authority between Charles and Xi: the Chinese president has the People’s Liberation Army behind him, not just the red-coated ghosts of the Hanoverian dynasty. Even so, the precision of the concurrence remains weird.

* * *

How to unpack this? Both men are rising to defend against threats to something that feels unsettled and risky—an assault on their respective sources of authority and self-regard. Xi’s crusade is widely described as a return to a quasi-Maoist orthodoxy. But what exactly does this mean for cities and the environment? Mao was deeply suspicious of the city: his rule saw urban depopulation and the suppression of city culture, and it promoted the most egregiously rigid forms of Soviet-style planning, including housing that was regimented and beyond austere. Mao also presided over the toxification of the environment and the wanton destruction of traditional forms of architecture, while celebrating the execrable art that was the special purview of Jiang Qing. (My affinity group went to see Red Detachment of Women and was deeply, deeply moved.)

Chinese leadership has a propensity for metaphor, and one of Xi’s latest warned against those “eating the Communist Party’s food and then smashing the Communist Party’s cooking pots.” This biting of the hand that feeds has surely been one of the strategies of Ai Weiwei, a particular thorn in Xi’s side and that most adept negotiator of the political, the artistic, the commercial and the fairly weird—irony’s terrain. Early last year, Ai displayed a series of Han-era clay pots that he had “defaced” with bright paint at a Miami gallery, part of a show that also featured photographic images of Ai in the act of dropping—and smashing—one of the 2,000-year-old jugs. A complication arose when a local artist, disturbed by the over-representation of foreign stars in local museums, smashed one of Ai’s million-dollar urns. The artist claimed he was unaware of the “value” of the pots, assuming they’d been bought at a place like Home Depot. When the rejoinder to the ironist is simply to call his bluff, the critique of the critique trumps.

What’s not clear about Xi, however, is exactly which of the “Communist Party’s cooking pots” he seeks to defend. With so much of China’s urban and architectural legacy trashed since 1949, the actual argument may not go beyond an advocacy of simulacra—a fig leaf for a truly monumental fuck-up, letting a thousand plastic flowers blossom. One particularly dreary possibility is a return to the ubiquitous “Big Roof” style, which represented the new, monumental national image in the early years of the revolution, a “modern architecture with Chinese characteristics.” Indeed, this taste for tiled hats on official buildings remains widespread, one of the all-too-trivial reductions of the idea of the local against which many of the progenitors of those weird buildings will bridle. And right they are: it’s one thing to find the uncritical imports anathema and to encourage homegrown forms of the creative, but quite another to offer this sort of synthetic kitsch as a remedy.

In the case of both Charles and Xi, it’s difficult to discern the degree to which these struggles over symbolic form are meant to displace the relatively progressive ideas that each man periodically espouses. Most of Charles’s manifesto concerns motherhood issues (indeed, it’s virtually the same list he published twenty-six years ago in A Vision of Britain): no one denies the urgency of using our resources sustainably on a planet caroming down the road to environmental perdition. Xi, for his part, just signed on to a “breakthrough” emissions treaty with the United States and is clearly concerned with the foul state of his own nest. In my experience working on planning projects in China, everyone is talking the green talk (even if far fewer are walking the walk). The idea of a sustainable architecture with Chinese characteristics is a fine formulation, assuming those characteristics are authentically local (based on climate, topography, materiality, artistic invention and lively forms of social relations), not simply billboards for Han—or Communist Party—hegemony.

* * *

The same is true for Charles: his advocacy for the land and air, his sweet conversations with shrubbery, and his activities on behalf of preserving craft traditions all speak, shall we say, of noble impulses, however undercut they may be by the welter of images that his hapless flacks have been circulating of HRH in £2,000 bespoke Savile Row weeds, strolling concernedly through the rainforest, chatting with chickens or planting a scrawny tree in Jamaica, with Camilla standing by in dazzling white, protected from the absence of ozone by a tiny parasol—a wannabe cult of personality that lacks an actual personality as its object.

Nor is any real harm being done by Charles’s advocacy for the charms of village architecture and organization, despite his failure to see this project not as the kind of self-initiated and informal growth begat by the original progenitors of these places, but instead as noblesse oblige. Charles convenes the focus groups, then hands the thing to Léon Krier to design.

But he truly wanders into the woods when he insists on more sacral truths. “Our age,” Charles writes in A Vision of Britain, “is the first to have despised the principles of mathematical harmony and proportion and to have embarked on a course which glorifies the triumph of science and man’s domination over nature. All this coincides with what can only be described as the denial of God’s place in the scheme of things and the substitution of man’s infallibility.”

Here Charles meets Xi and his apparent anxiety over the abandonment of “scientific” socialism for baser appetites. Whether Xi’s own compendium of artistic harmonies invokes feng shui (no Chinese developer puts up a McMansion without a consultation), the Little Red Book or some fresh construct of cultural nationalism (KFC with Chinese characteristics), both of these would-be taste-makers succumb to the same instrumental fallacy: the confusion of cause and effect. Their hope is that things will simply be as they appear.

The two also share, it would seem, an anxiety endemic to the unelected about insubordination, in which uniformity becomes the sign of acquiescence. But architecture, notwithstanding its duty to serve, must always retain the liberatory possibility of going weird. Both Xi and Charles want to shut down disagreement. What are they afraid of?

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