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View from Star City: CCTV through the smog

Home Sweet Home?


On Friday we moved into our new digs at the quasi-luxurious Star City Apartments. It has all the amenities that you want if you are looking for a retirement home or a condominium in Hoboken: A 24-hour doorman, ground-floor convenience store, swimming pool, gym, roof terrace, golf club, driving range, five-story mall, and yes, a Pizza Hut. Residents are left only for want of a Starbucks.

There are two predominant Western narratives on China: The first, a nation where anything is possible, is a largely wide-eyed paean to the pace of development, lack of constraints, and the scale of ambition that permeate the country. The second, place where shit never works, encompasses anecdotes of broken latches, checkered internet connectivity, and near death street crossings. Star City unquestionably falls into the latter category. There is an endearing absurdity to living above a glamour temple whose dedicated to selling Westerners (and bourgie Chinese) half-price goods that they don’t need. It’s very, even hyper, American, not unlike the thrill of dating a cabaret singer, or watching a man wrestle an alligator. There is no rationale, but its fun.

Still, the whole thing is remarkably shabby. The cabinets are coming apart, and screws are falling out of my bed frame. The key card has a imperfect track record, and suspicious dark stains emanate from the air conditioning vents. It’s what we were led to understand of Chinese construction prior to our arrival. To wit: Our bathroom has a secondary drain outside the shower,  dedicated to water that passes through unsealed shower enclosure door. The funny thing about this is that it wasn’t an afterthought, it was premediated. It’s a sort of architectural fait accompli—an acknowledgement that addressing the underlying problem through qualitative measuresinstalling hardware that doesn’t leakis less pragmatic than accepting inevitable failure and dealing with it.

Our cohort of gentlemen have taken it all in stride. We sleep six in our barely furnished, three-bedroom dude palace. We inhereted the apartment from the group of Norwegians, who recently left town. They bequeathed the title of “Meat Squad” onto our apartment, an honor given to them by previous guests. They also left us the spoon that served as their sacred, inviolate object. Naturally, it’s a knife.

Every morning, or at least on clear ones, I wake up to a view of the CCTV tower. This seems somehow appropriate in the context of my trip. Rem Koolhaas (CCTV's architect) has been a canny advocate for the notion of “cheapness” in architecture. Cheapness, he argues, is not only a condition inherent to building within a fast-moving global economy, but it is a conidtion that architects may be able to embrace to respond to ever-changing shifts in cultural priorities. In plain English: If a client is going to tear down, alter, or rebuild a significant portion of a building six months after it is completed, why should they bother spending money on “architecture with a Capital A?” Koolhaas’ argument understands architecture as a commodity, rather than something timeless (in the sense of the Parthenon). He also understands that the profession is too slow to keep apace with contemporary culture due to architecture’s extended period of conception (concept, design development, value engineering, budget approval, permitting, construction, etc. etc. etc.) Cheapness, then, becomes a strategy--already existant within the profession--to embrace 

Testing this theory, he built a series of Prada stores as banal boxes adorned with new (high-end) wallpaper. The wallpaper could be changed each season, the displays re-arranged, and each contained a flexible catwalk. Similarly, his IIT campus Center in Chicago exploited a palette of conventional building materials including oscillated strand board (OSB), drywall, off-the-shelf paints, in abnormal applications. The effect is something of a collage of familiar, but raw material forms-- a a fever dream trip Home Depot elevated with punchy typography, pixellated glass frits and colored acyrlic shadows.

Star City may be more aligned with the source material for Koolhaas’ theory than the end product, and certainly moreso the CCTV. The IIT Center is detailed with suspicious meticulous level of coordination that suggests the expression of standard building materials was more kitsch than ephemera. The CCTV is a fortress and an an interstellar army. Star City is common schlock—a glitz factory with flickering lightbulbs and a leaky faucet. It is (actually) cheap.

Other (Stray) Thoughts: Chicago, Beijing
Thinking about the IIT Campus Center; A few thoughts on the similarities between Chicago and Beijing. If the parallel does not track perfectly, it may nonetheless note a few consistencies of cities that at various points in history have vied for a global presence with transparent ambition.

1. The importance of a signature, global event. The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago marked the city’s attempt to shirk the label of Midwestern cow-town. Beijing’s 2008 Olympics were a similar attempt to display the city’s modernized and open culture. Both involved the importation of signature architecture from foreign countries (in the case of Chicago, the Beaux Arts tradition from Paris), massive investment in urban infrastructure, the strategic displacement of the impoverished masses, and a verbose public relations campaign. In each case, poor quality buildings resulted from nearly impossible construction schedules (the White City was made of plaster and either burned or deconstructed afterward) and the environmental toll resulting from the local economy was a major concern (the slaughterhouses made the Chicago River smell like Nan Gao).

2. Rural-to-urban migration. China’s cities are experiencing unprecedented rural-to-urban migration much as the United States did during industrialization.  The new residents bring a set of habits and values that clash with the cosmopolitan image of a global city. I can’t walk 100 meters without narrowly passing through the trajectory of salvia, spat into the street without concern. It is an environmental hazard only slightly less frequent than the fecal matter left behind by stray dogs. Cars park and drive wherever they wish, seemingly ignorant to traffic lights. But the comparison reaches its pinnacle when I pass a man on the street, beer in hand and grin on face, with his shirt pulled up over his gloriously round potbelly.

There are only two places in the world where an exposed stomach is acceptable—and I love it.

Star City Apartments
Beijing, CN