I was a bit surprised to discover, at some point between my second and third excursions to the neighborhood of Dashilar, that the press kit for Beijing Design Week included a few photos documenting not the myriad pop-up exhibitions or experimental renovation projects on view but rather glimpses of everyday life in the hutong, shorthand for Beijing as a whole. Unimpressed with the exhibitions we visited on a jetlagged first day in Beijing, I had it mind to seek the "real" Dashilar—whatever that might mean—during our second foray, hoping to highlight the non- or un-designed 99.9% of the neighborhood in the interest of making some kind of statement by capturing the beauty of the mundane.1
So I was a bit dismayed to learn that the press office at Beijing Design Week had beaten me to the punch, and I couldn't shake the uncanny feeling that my unorthodox reporting had somehow been preemptively subverted into another instrument of propaganda. Indeed, the 'official' description of Dashilar, per Beijing Design Week, is "a special zone within Beijing's old city," "showcasing the regional characteristics that are the charm of the increasingly international Beijing." Mythologized as a nexus of past, present and future—authentic Beijing condensed into a square kilometer—Dashilar has been cast as an instance of learning from past mistakes, which makes this kind of reporting is squarely aligned with the government (qua developers) agenda. Not that it's really worth further speculation: Beijing Design Week is, by definition, an exercise in soft power (the softest, my friend joked), a vehicle for China to assert itself as a global destination for culture... which, of course, it is and always has been.
While it would be optimistic to extrapolate from Dashilar as anything more than a testing ground at this point, it's certainly worth exploring the impressively thorough documentation at Dashilar.org. Although most of the website is Chinese-language only, navigating to the first menu item on the second of the three 'sheets' will take you to a page with several tiled links (in Chinese), each of which links to a bilingual PDF presentation. I recognized them as poster presentations from the hub in Dashilar, covering everything from the Historic Situation [PDF] to the Strategy Overview [PDF], as well as an overview of the PILOT program [PDF].
Even so, an offhand comment from a designer in Caochangdi should have raised my suspicions. During the course of our conversation, he insinuated that Design Week's presence in Dashilar was, for better or for worse, a bid to reach the tourists who happen to be visiting during the National Holiday, on October 1st. In fact, Beijing Design Week—a nine-day event—kicks off during the last days of September for that very reason, and the event is as much an initiative to bring design to a broader audience as it was a showcase Chinese design alongside international projects.
Bridging the gap between how to present design to the renmin and how to present Chinese design to the rest of the world has proven to be a challenge; beyond the slowly crumbling the language barrier, profound cultural obstacles remain. The disconnect is as much a symptom of a fundamentally different understanding of design as it is a characteristic of Beijing itself. Viewing it on a map, the city almost makes sense: The concentric ring roads are an easy metaphor for drawing a circle around something to define or contain it, and the grid of streets seems reasonably navigable. But the logic breaks down when you're in the thick of it. After all, this is both a city where starchitects can realize the almost-inhabitable 40-story sculptures of their dreams and a place where hutong-dwellers discuss politics while smoking cigarettes not at a bar but as they squat over toilets in a communal restroom (true story). Despite the effort to circumscribe the multifarious festivities and exhibitions as a single event, Beijing Design Week is very much an expression of a metropolis undergoing a massive metamorphosis.2 The official terminology of the program refers to a "Design Hop," but given the physical and psychological distance between the venues, a "leap" or "bound" might be a more appropriate description (historical allusion duly noted).
To extend the parable of A Little Bit of Beijing, which presents the neighborhoods of Sanlitun, Nanluoguxiang and the 798 Arts District in a trio of parallel narratives, so too does Beijing Design Week encompass a number of distinct sites that represent different stories with an overarching theme of time (Design Week) and place (Beijing, of course). Although I'd suggested that artists Li Han and Hu Yan's technique of literally and figuratively flattening the locales is a metaphor for gentrification, the truth is far more complicated; reality is inherently more nuanced than fantasy. If gentrification is the hypothetical convergence of the possibilities for these places—a kind of 'leveling' of historically diverse areas—it's also worth noting that no two (or three, four, etc.) neighborhoods will ever become entirely homogenous.3
Thus, if we consider Dashilar, Caochangdi and 751 D.Park as further-removed experiments in urbanism, we see that each area symbolizes not just a potential future but, crucially, a past and present as well. The story of each place extends in both directions in time; to demolish and redevelop any area of land is an attempt relieve the future of a rich material history by erasing it. In other words, it's a question of the value of time itself, and whether it is possible to put a price on 'natural' evolution—over the course of decades and centuries—in the face of sheer capital, which artificially accelerates this process at the expense of its past.
Of course, the tide is already changing; both Dashilar and Caochangdi have eluded the clutches of developers in the recent past, and stakeholders are realizing that there is more to gain—or perhaps less to lose—by investing time instead of money. Insofar as there is no such thing as a single 'best' option for any given neighborhood or district, their horizons need not converge. Call it 'Manifold Destiny': The point is not to determine which approach is a clear way to move forward but to take a step back and critically examine an array of possibilities in a rapidly-changing city.
Just as the graphic novel serves as a snapshot of the city in the present, ever a work in progress, so too is the annual event a lens through which the mercurial city might be studied and understood. It's easy—natural, even—to be cynical about the powers that be, but far more difficult to articulate the Chinese attitude towards them (or rather 'it,' if we're talking about the state). Speculation about soft power and ulterior agenda aside, authenticity and authority are not always mutually exclusive: The government seems genuinely open to cultivating creativity and is putting its money where its mouth is by reining in overzealous redevelopment projects in the interest of acknowledging the past in the face of the future.
As for the bona fide Chinese design that the rest of the world is looking for? That will take some time.
Thank you for bearing with me for that highly discursive summary of Beijing Design Week 2013—rest assured it will be another year before I do it again. Now for those pictures...
Rooftop pigeonniers are a fairly common sight Remember pogs? Definitely not designed by Kenya Hara
1.) Only one out of seven photos in the Dashilar folder referred to Beijing Design Week, and I later realized that I included that image in the announcement post for the event a few weeks prior. And for what it's worth, I discovered some excellent projects, including Common Objects and the Museum of Bicycle Parts, on a spur-of-the-moment third excursion to the neighborhood. [back]
2.) At one point—on the charter bus, en route to the opposite side of town, as usual—BJDW Creative Director Beatrice Leanza described it, in a word, as "polycentric," which is a nice, succinct way to put it. [back]
3.) To extend to the parallel-line metaphor, their histories have become asymptotic—forced to converge but never to intersect. [back]