As my flight landed in Beijing, I noticed the thick gray sludge masquerading as air. It was worse than ever. Soon I would be breathing it. Earlier in the year, tens of thousands of residents had abandoned Beijing when the levels of PM 2.5, the fine air particulates that pose the greatest risk to people, rose above 500 micrograms per cubic meter, the top of the pollution chart. The Chinese have been saying a lot of the right things lately in terms of cleaning up their environment, but the reality on the ground (and right above it) remains grim at times. 

I had come to Beijing for an event I helped organize (with Malaysian architect Ken Yeang) for Asia Design Forum, a nonprofit think tank. The fifth in a series of so-called Design Roulettes held in different locations around the region, it would bring together seven “players” and two respondents to discuss the topic, “Design and Time.” Perhaps we should have asked everyone to talk about “Design and Micro Particulates.” Well, the subject would certainly be in the air. We had assembled an interesting group of speakers from a range of disciplines, including some architects (Ma Yansong from MAD Architects, Mark Dytham from Klein-Dytham in Tokyo, Yung Ho Chang from Atelier FCJZ, and Xu Tiantian from DnA_Design and Architecture), a museum curator (Aric Chen from M+ in Hong Kong), a city planner (Liu Thai-Ker from Singapore), a fashion designer (Yeohlee Teng from New York), an interior designer (Bryan Tarrant from Hong Kong), and a poet (Bernice Chauly from Kuala Lumpur). 

“Design and Time” seemed like a good subject for an event in Beijing, since it would allow the participants to talk about the speed of development in China, the role of memory in architecture, and the remarkable combination of old and new in places like the Chinese capital. On July 4, the evening before the Design Roulette, we held a dinner for the speakers and sponsors at Black Sesame Kitchen, a cooking school owned by American writer Jen Lin-Liu, who had reported from China for Architectural Record several years ago and now writes mostly about food and travel. Set in an old hutong, the school and its private kitchen offered a wonderful introduction to the complex layering of the contemporary and the traditional found in those parts of Beijing that haven’t been wiped clean for new highrise development. Remarkably, the smog had cleared up and we could actually see the mountains rising many miles in the distance.

The next day we gathered at a different hutong where Columbia University has converted an old gabled building into Studio-X Beijing, one of six satellites of its architecture program set up around the globe. (Other locations are in Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Amman, and São Paulo.) Li Hu, the director of Studio-X Beijing and a principal of the firm OPEN Architecture, welcomed the Design Roulette participants and the 250 people who came for the event. 

The Design Roulette format calls for each player to make a five-minute presentation, be interviewed by another player for five minutes, then introduce and interview the next player. After the presentations and interviews, two respondents ask questions of all the speakers.

blog post photo

Jimmy Tong of Luxx Newhouse and I at the entrance to Studio-X Beijing.

Dytham started off the presentations by talking about the Shinto shrine at Ise, which the Japanese rebuild every 20 years, exactly the same each time. By doing so, they challenge our notions of authenticity and permanence and imply that preserving the skills to construct an ancient shrine is more important than the building itself. Dytham also noted that for much of its history, Tokyo has been rebuilt every 20 years too—because earthquakes, fires, wars, and real-estate development have razed much of the city on a regular basis. Such a pattern of destruction and growth has freed the Japanese to be more innovative in their architecture, argued Dytham. 

The next speaker, Ma, showed an image of a sculpture made of a block of ice, which melts in the sun. “Everything eventually disappears,” he noted; some more quickly than others. He also showed a rendering of a project that his firm, MAD, is doing in Rome. Given an existing building, Ma is proposing to strip it of its skin and insert new apartments within the old structural frame. “We don’t preserve a city by treating it as a museum,” he stated. “We need to respect tradition, but also keep places contemporary.” 

Yeohlee talked about time as a precious resource and how she designs clothes to save people time. By creating outfits that can be worn at the office, then out at dinner or on an airplane, she frees her customers from having to change several times during day. Often based on a traditional sarong, her designs capture a timeless quality that is both old and new. 

Architect and planner Liu, who had headed Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority from 1989 to 1992, told the audience that design plus time equals urbanscape. In other words, cities evolve over time and can be understood only when we look at them over the course of many years. He also argued for the importance of “background” buildings, whose quiet design provides the setting within which a few expressive structures can shine. 

Instead of showing several different projects, the Malaysian writer and festival curator Chauly focused on one: Onkalo, a nuclear-waste repository under construction in Finland. Designed to last 100,000 years, the facility—the only one of its kind in the world—pushes the limit on what human beings can build. “Instead of a place of honor, it is a place to hide something terrible for a very long time,” she said. “It shows the arrogance of man.”

Tarrant, who specializes in hospitality design and has worked in Europe, the United States, and Asia, asked, “Do we as designers have a responsibility to preserve the past?” In answering his own question, he showed a series of projects—including Covent Garden in London and Xintiandi in Shanghai—that renovated old buildings for new purposes.

Quoting Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chen looked at “four forms of decadence: formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism, and extravagance.” He showed examples of such tendencies in the realms of architecture and urban planning with images of swaggering buildings and out-of-control development. While his appropriation of Communist terminology may have been done tongue-in-cheek, Chen made the point that much of what has been built in China in recent years shows how design can be hijacked by hubris.

How the country moves forward in an era of slower economic growth and rising expectations remains to be seen. But for at least a few days in early July, the skies stayed clear in Beijing and a conversation took place on architecture’s role in shaping the present and future of Asia’s built environment.

blog post photo

A hutong not far from Studio-X has been spared (so far) from the wrecking ball.