How heartening it must have been to Hu Jintao when, on the opening day of the Beijing Olympics, Vladimir Putin succeeded
at the difficult task of looking like a more primitive leader than George Bush. The gargantuan scale of the ceremonies and
Putin’s cameo performance as the Russian invader of Georgia marked the successful completion of a global media reorientation,
focusing not on trajectories between east and west but between east and east on a corridor linking Beijing and the Central Asian
choke points of the world’s oil and gas pipelines.
In this territory of Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, the familiar violence surrounding energy flows echoes the urges of ancient Mongol conquest while the newer networks of digital capital recall the early fluid highways of the Silk Route. These are among the territories that reactionaries like Samuel Huntington have identified as civilisations against which the West must now establish new/old Cold War-style defences. Indeed, during the Olympic occasion, George Bush Junior, George Bush Senior and even Henry Kissinger were all taken out of mothballs to open embassies or watch the US-China basketball game. Alumni cheerleaders for a nonexistent Pax Americana, they no doubt entertained at least some Cold War memories as war intensified between Russia and Georgia. Yet global forces usually also remind us of the fallacies of symmetrical binary thinking. They generate unpredictable continuities and discontinuities between past civilisations, leaving duplicitous contradictions and violent anachronisms intact as they cheat, disguise and spin. Typically folding messages into subtextual aesthetic regimes, Dubai, for instance, has long since accomplished its realignment of media, dropping gigantic hints like the Ibn Battuta Mall to remind the world that exploratory trajectories of the Far East may start in Mecca rather than in Marco Polo’s Europe. Recently this “Paleo-Genghis” corridor has had to mimic Dubai’s hyperbolic and beguiling displays in an attempt to steal focus. The insistent gentility of the opening ceremonies, with no trace of Mongol conquest but rather a nimble antigravity dance around the globe, signalled command over a new focus.
At the nexus of each of the pipelines and other infrastructures of this new/old territory, one finds architecture and urbanism as primary indicators of global political shifts – infrastructures that routinely move faster than international law in establishing a medium of polity or exchange. Populating this shifted axis and moving between St. Petersburg, Astana, Inner Mongolia and Beijing, architects are materialising a strain of petrodollars slightly different from those in Dubai and often not nearly so well camouflaged or so well laundered of sticky political situations as they are in a country like the UAE. With plenty of double entendres, here where the late-fossil fuels fund the late-hyperbolic architecture, one finds plans for instant new cities, the biggest building in the world or the tallest building in Europe. As these become the last power centres based on coal, oil and natural gas, their architectural monuments and their architectural stars deliver appropriately dated utopian aspirations and design egos, sometimes tinged with a new-found and perhaps ill-fitting or awkward political consciousness.
One of the meeting grounds of this cadre of architects has been Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan (replacing Almaty). In 1997, Kisho Kurokawa, the late Metabolist architect, designed an axial master plan anchored by Norman Foster’s pyramidal Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Enveloped in childlike evocations of well-being, the religiously neutral icon also offered a place of retreat and summit for world leaders. Foster’s pyramid is soon to be joined by Khan Shatyry (roughly translated as the resting place of the Khan), a 500-foot tall ETFE tent creating an interior microclimate for recreation, shopping, restaurants and green space. Along the same axis, Foster and Partners has planned Central Markets, a matrix of towers of various heights. While it is sometimes easier for the design disciplines to describe building projects, Astana’s urban genetics mark the apotheosis of a more significant trend in contemporary global urbanism – the growth of the free zone as a world city paradigm. In Astana, the free zone even merges with the national capital. As if recognising that the separation between the supposed centre of law and the centre of legal exception was slightly disingenuous, President Nazarbayev unabashedly created a 96-square-mile area where the nation could advertise its exemptions as market enticements cloaked in national pride and regional imagery. In line with other world powers, Kazakhstan will continue to grow its conurbations in business-park units called “cities”. Alatau IT City, one example outside of Almaty, follows the familiar template and features towers with monumental but indeterminate hybrid references to south and central Asian temple silhouettes.
Foster and Partners has perhaps produced the most contagious icon of pipeline regions: the tall building as tent or microclimate that references nomadic movements in the steppe region but also revives arcological dreams found in science fiction or redemptive design prescriptions. While fuelled by and paid for by petrodollars, the buildings rehearse green technologies, provide internal gardens, protected against harsh winters, and, as an added bonus, ladle on vitalist imagery of early 20th-century utopian architecture. For instance, Crystal Island, planned for Moscow as the largest building in the world, adopts a very similar arrangement to the Khan Shatyry, except that it contains nearly 2 million square metres in total enclosed space and, at 450 metres, it is approximately three times higher. Foster and Partners’ Russia Tower, also in Moscow, is another gigantic interior, and at 600 metres, it is billed as the “tallest naturally ventilated tower in the world”. Similarly, the Khanty Mansiysk tower in Siberia (280 metres) will provide a microcosmic tower environment. The big tent projects, most to be completed in the next few years, are rendered similarly with glinting rays of sunshine and scientistic arrows indicating special techniques for ventilation.
Perhaps, for Foster and Partners, the environmental ambiguity of the towers inoculates them against ethical questions, especially given the ineffectual nature of purity or fixed principles in global politics. Yet many of the region’s questionable projects seem to inspire episodes of soul searching that perhaps also align with or provide accoutrement to professional score-settling or bruised egos. It is useful to recall that Foster and Kurokawa along with Rafael Vinoly exercised some sort of principled stance when they walked out of the competition jury for the Gazprom Tower (now renamed Okhta Centre) in St. Petersburg in 2006. Kurokawa stated that he objected to the competition’s disregard for the city’s height limit of 48 metres. Perhaps, for the retreating jurors, abandoning the projects in contention by Massimiliano Fuksas, Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind did not create too much personal angst either. As the little fable continued, Koolhaas in turn demonstrated a principled outrage, calling for architects to band together to revise competition procedures. For the remaining jury and the on-line popular vote, the winning project was that of RMJM, a Scottish firm and a partner with the US Hillier Group, who proposed building the tallest tower in Europe. Not only the UNESCO World Heritage Fund, but also activist groups in St. Petersburg have opposed the building, planned at 396 metres tall (and also intended to be naturally ventilated). RMJM has attempted to demonstrate that the building, positioned just across the Neva River from the Smolny Cathedral, is not really visible from most parts of the historic city. When Putin (St. Petersburg is his home city) was asked about the controversy, he wished to remain neutral saying, “I have enough problems of my own.”
”At the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, sitting in the “bird’s nest” stadium designed by Herzog & de Meuron, Putin did have enough problems of his own. RMJM, Koolhaas and Libeskind also played roles in Beijing. Koolhaas appeared in many Olympic blimp shots. Libeskind, lifting the mantel of righteous outrage from his colleagues, underwent a conversion of sorts by saying that he thought architects should refuse to work for a totalitarian regime like China. Herzog & de Meuron’s collaboration with Chinese artist Ai WeiWei resulted in another withdrawal. Ai WeiWei withdrew his interest in the Olympics and has critiqued the self-congratulatory and self-protective techniques of the Chinese government.
Another collaboration between Herzog & de Meuron and Ai WeiWei in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, brings the Paleo-Genghis fable full circle. In this large swath of China between Beijing and the country of Mongolia, overgrazed grasslands have turned to deserts and now produce some of the coal dust and cashmere that is in the air in Beijing. The Ordos mega-project offers familiar gigantism and zonal businesspark development. The familiar cast of star architects is providing public buildings for the massive axial administrative area with its huge sculptures depicting the life of Genghis Khan. Herzog & de Meuron’s role in the collaboration was to assemble 100 young architects to work on villas for an art neighbourhood for which Ai WeiWei has designed the master plan, museum and studio buildings. It remains to be seen if this project will offer the same dated utopias that appear in Astana or Crystal Island or the same restrictive traps of activism for a profession still considering only the endgames of collusion, engagement or refusal.