SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT IS HAPPENING IN BEIJING. It has to do with proclaiming a new style of world architecture at the dawn of the twenty-first century. I call it “The New Virtualism,” and because there are now enough of these buildings in existence, for the first time I can describe the “looks” of this new style.
It is not that New Virtualist architecture is found only in Beijing. As a matter of fact, unlike past architectural styles, which were always regional movements before spreading their influence further afield, New Virtualism is the first architectural style in the history of the world that is immediately global in emergence.
So why is New Virtualism significant, and significant now, in Beijing? Because the 2008 Olympic Games held here can be the event that historically marks the formal advent of New Virtualism. Much has already been written about these Olympic Games, and no doubt more will be; here I only address these Games as the harbinger of a new global architectural style.
There are rare moments in the history of architecture when the winds of technology, economics, politics, and that most elusive of all social phenomena, the communal spirit of an age, all align to birth a new architectural style. When this happens, the ideas embedded in the architectural forms endure to subsequent cultures. Sometimes an influential person brings this about; for example, the Abbot Sugar of St. Denis was instrumental in introducing the Gothic style of the French cathedrals in the twelfth century. To this day vertical church spires still express our yearnings for a transcendental realm. Sometimes political forces are the catalyst. During the Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century, the re-design of Rome by Pope Sixtus V wooed people back to the Church via the grandeur of Baroque architecture. Since then, city planning for the promotion of political power can be seen in Wren’s plan for London (1666), Haussmann’s plan for Paris (1860s), not to mention L’Enfant’s plan for Washington D.C. (1791). And sometimes a new architectural style is spurred by an international cultural event, like a world’s fair—or an Olympic Games. One thinks of the Crystal Palace at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851: the almost 2,000 feet long and 400 feet high glass and iron structure gave society in those days a new vision of the power of The Machine. Go to any suburban shopping mall today and you will sense some of the architectural genes of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace.
The Olympic Games in Beijing is more than just one of these catalysts. Of course it is an international cultural event. But it is certainly also part of a political vision for a new Beijing. Consider the message of its location: the Olympic Green extends the northern reach of the north-south axis of the old imperial city. On this axis sits the Forbidden City, where the Ming and Ching emperors ruled the Country at the Center of the World (Zhong Guo) from 1368 to 1911. On this same axis is Tiananmen Square, built by the current regime in the 1950s to rival Moscow’s Red Square. On this same axis is the old Front Gate further to the south, towards the old Ching Dynasty city gate—all of this a part of the ancient axial apparatus that forced visiting dignitaries to traverse several miles, through seven gates, for an audience with the emperor in the Hall of Supreme Harmony, also on this axis.
Put more simply, it is beyond doubt that this Olympics is a statement of the re-ascendance of China as a world political and economic power.
Besides the New Virtualist structures of the Olympic site to the north, clustered about this enormous axis now are the new National Theater, just west of Tiananmen Square, and the CCTV tower to the east. These structures as well as others all contribute to Beijing’s Olympic moment, and they are representatives of The New Virtualism.
To comprehend the looks of buildings in the New Virtualist style, one must first appreciate that architects are increasingly inspired by the power of cyber networks. In other words, the look of New Virtualist buildings do not reflect physical realities, but virtual ones. Classical architecture, like the Parthenon in Athens, was inspired by the proportions of the human body. Paxton’s Crystal Palace was inspired by the idea of the machine as an extension of the human body’s powers. But the architecture of The New Virtualism is not inspired by anything physical. One can say it expresses the powers of the human mind, but even that is not an exact fit. There is something alien about the New Virtualism, at least to my twentieth century eyes, at least in the ways I outline below.
Consider these two images: 3 illustrates the level of cell phone use around Rome’s Termini train station on a typical day, a reality that can now be visually mapped by means of computer technology; 4 is the National Stadium, the track and field venue affectionately dubbed the Bird’s Nest, on the Olympic Green in Beijing.
Similarities between the two forms should be apparent: both sport curvilinear and continuous strands of something. The cell phone web is wispy and ephemeral, hovering like an alien entity over Termini station. The Bird’s Nest is also wispy and mysterious. It is as similar to its Beijing surroundings as the phone web is similar to its Rome surroundings—which is not at all. That is because neither is spawned from its physical environment, but rather from ephemeral matter out of “the Cyber Sea.”
The Cyber Sea is a term my son coined to describe the virtual world of cyber reality: wireless technology, cell phone “texting,” GPS, internet sites floating invisibly about us until they materialize on our computer screens, just to disappear at the click of a mouse. In the Cyber Sea swim increasing numbers of virtual identities, building sim-lives with sim-families, living in sim-homes in sim-cities, traveling virtually to faraway venues, venturing into vast networks of alien gaming-worlds, and so on.
Now note how the architects of the CCTV project describe their design: “This iconic new addition to the Beijing skyline combines the entire process of TV making—administration, production, broadcasting—into a single loop of interconnected activity.” A single loop of what? Interconnected to what? Iconic of what? It is a cyber loop interconnected in the Cyber Sea—that’s what the CCTV is iconic of. And yet here it sits in our world, an object that looks unlike anything else on the Beijing skyline, in fact, unlike anything else in the history of Chinese culture. The CCTV tower is one “look” of The New Virtualism.
Here is a key: This Cyber Sea is not only all around us, more and more it is the nature in us. And true art and design always ushers forth out of the nature in the artist/designer. Great architecture has always been and ever will be transformations of “nature”—differently understood depending upon the age—into physical form by architects attuned to the spirit of their times.
(And this, by the way, is the only true goal of design education: When nature in the form of art emanates from a student, he or she stops being a copier and starts being a creator).
Next to the Bird’s Nest is the Aquatic Center on the Olympic Green, 5, and shown at night in 6 and 7. Its bubbly walls might as well represent the waters of the Cyber Sea rather than any actual wateriness. Like the CCTV and the Bird’s Nest, it sits as an alien whole in the physical confines of this world, at once strange but curiously attractive. Artist depictions (read: computer depictions) of this building bring out the mysterious appeal of New Virtualist forms: People, as if mesmerized, walk towards its glow not unlike in scenes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I NOW PROPOSE four general stylistic traits of The New Virtualism. These traits characterize the designs that are “coming out” of architects in tune with the spirit of our times.
st, the architecture of The New Virtualism is a-somatic. That is, the forms do not derive from the human body, neither in proportion (classical) nor in extension (machine). New Virtualist buildings thrive on being disconnected from common human experience. Never mind Greek columns proportioned to human proportions or anything so erudite; just try to find the front door to a New Virtualist building. I found no clear entry to the Bird’s Nest, to the National Theater, or to the CCTV; and the entrance to the Aquatic Center is squashed very low, as if it is an act of condescension on its part to actually let people in. (For those of us in Washington, we don’t have to go to Beijing to experience such affronts. Just go to the Seattle Public Library, also designed by the architect of the CCTV project, and take in the miniscule scale of the front door—after you find it, that is.) Because they are a-somatic, New Virtualist buildings connote a sense of inconvenience for human use. But that is not why we like them. We like them because…
Second, New Virtualist buildings arouse feelings of the sublime. The sublime is experienced when we are confronted by enormous or strange displays of power or force, and yet feel safe in their presence. Anyone who has stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon should recall an experience of the sublime. New Virtualist buildings stir feelings of the sublime either in their massive scale or, more typically, in their strange forms. Again, these buildings come from the alien world of the Cyber Sea. But by now we are all familiar with that Sea’s strange powers: like crunching billions of numbers in a split second, like bombing Iraq by moving a joystick in Virginia. That’s inhuman; that’s unreasonably powerful; that’s downright scary. And yet the Cyber Sea is a sea of our own making. As a matter of fact, because the waters of that sea now flow so much in us, we experience pleasure when confronted by these New Virtualist visitors who come from there. Even as they mystify us with their powerful strangeness, they look comfortingly familiar in a strange sort of way.
We Washingtonians are again blessed with an example. Consider: Forty years ago, had someone tried to get a building permit for the Experience Music Project in Seattle, that person would have been laughed out of the room, or at least kindly directed to a psychiatrist’s office. Today, every city in the world wants a Frank Gehry building as an emblem of its world presence. Who ever heard of Bilbao, Spain, until Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum graced its skyline? And in Seattle, the EMP stands as a nearby example of New Virtualism’s strange sublimity.
Architecture has ever been in the business of wowing us with the power of ideals. I can still hear the words of an art history professor of mine as he bellowed out to hundreds of undergraduates in his audience: “Not what man is, but what man ought to be!” That was the reason for the sublimity of Renaissance buildings. New Virtualist buildings also overpower us with a vision of what human beings can be—or at least of the powers human beings can have—and that is an appealing prospect even in the presence of their alien-ness.
Third, New Virtualist buildings are multiplexic. This word is a hybrid of the words multiplicity, complexity, and dexterity. Objects of the New Virtualism are never single-function entities. Take for example my cell phone (like any legitimate style, New Virtualism is not limited to the design of buildings): My cell phone is also a camera, a watch, a calendar, an address book; it can send written “text” messages, it can store thousands of songs; and all of this is before it links me to the internet for the latest news. Form does not follow function in New Virtualist objects. They can look disconcertingly simple like my cell phone. Similarly, the National Theater is “just” a metallic dome 1, but inside are multiple theaters. Or New Virtualist buildings can be strikingly complex, like the CCTV towers 2. (Is it one tower or two?) In sum, New Virtualist buildings are ambiguously complex. Rarely are walls distinguishable from roofs. Rarely are doors and exits clear. Rarely are windows simply windows. Rarely are rooms rectangular. New Virtualist forms are not so much forms; they seem more like organs. Which leads to this:
Fourth, New Virtualist buildings connote sentience. New Virtualism is not only about the creation of buildings, but of beings. Indeed, New Virtualist buildings connote gestation and womb-like-ness. It is no accident that Beijing locals have dubbed the National Stadium the Bird’s Nest, the National Theater the Bird’s Egg; even the CCTV towers are the Bird’s Legs. Sentience is in the air. Why is this? Think of it in this way. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, cultural objects were often made with an eye towards control and conquest (of nature and people). After the Industrial Revolution, cultural objects aimed for comfort and convenience (elevators, air conditioning, etc). But in the Cybernetic Revolution, cultural objects emphasize creation and communication. The computer grants a kind of creative power to a democratically wide range of people, and the ability to disseminate those creations instantly all over the world. The very term “virtual reality” suggests a taken-for-granted ability to replace present reality with creations of our own making. All of this prizes the organicism of life, life that is re-producible.
The seduction of art has always been that it promises the creation of something living. It has been said that the composer Igor Stravinsky, when complimented after the performance of one of his ballets, responded: “Ah, these ballerinas, they just go up and down, up and down … but the whole thing won’t truly be beautiful until one of them goes up and never comes back down…” That was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, cyber power has given art-objects—at least architecture-objects—ever more the illusion of being alive. New Virtualist buildings seem to be able to go up and just fly away, as it were, or do something else that was un-programmed, motivated by their own sentient powers.
IN THE 1970s the influential philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn placed the term “paradigm shift” into the common vocabulary. He used it to explain progress in scientific knowledge. For example, when Copernicus and Galileo recognized that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around, that was a paradigm shift. Students of history know that paradigm shifts do not happen easily. Dominant paradigms, says Kuhn, are preceded by difficult transitional periods filled with competing ideas. In Galileo’s case the transitional period was downright life-threatening; folks back then didn’t like the idea that we revolved around the sun. But a time comes when the dominant theory takes over, and then everybody thinks in the same scientific fashion (which blinds them, by the way, to the next Galileo; but that is another conversation).
I have remarked elsewhere that architectural styles work in somewhat the same way. Those of us who have college-age children grew up during the architectural stylistic period known as Modernism. When our children were growing up, Modernism eroded into a host of competing styles. Now as our children graduate from college and come into their own—each one of them more comfortable with cybernetic gadgets than we are—architecture just might be coalescing into the dominant style that I call The New Virtualism.
And the 2008 Beijing Olympics may well go down in history as the international cultural event that marks its formal emergence as the first ever global architectural style.
I am grateful to my students in Arch 525 (Architectural Theory) for their help in crystallizing my ideas on The New Virtualism. In alphabetical order, they are: Amanda Black, Kathryn Casey, Timothy Dickerson, Maria
Gacula, Gulden Kalafat, Matthew Kimball, Mike Langston, Sam Manning, Deborah Napier, Isil Oygur, Ryan Pharmer, Derek Smith, Joshua Williams. —D. Wang
David Wang is professor of architecture at Washington State University Spokane.
Joshua Wang coined the term “Cyber Sea.”