A Lovecraftian Monster


9 April 2020

It’s hard to imagine a city on which the late Zaha Hadid left a deeper imprint than Beijing.

During the building binge of the late aughts and early teens, Hadid’s firm designed two monumental projects: Wangjing Soho and Galaxy Soho, both commissioned by real estate developers Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi of Soho group. Today, these buildings are unmistakable features of the Beijing cityscape. Their gargantuan camel humps and swooping cowlicks jump out at you, sometimes quite jarringly, as you navigate the city – usually from within a vehicle chugging down some eight-lane arterial road. Beijing has long since ceased to be a city navigable by foot.

Hadid’s designs were perfect for the new Beijing: shiny, triumphant and completely indifferent to the city’s existing social fabric. The new Beijing, birthed in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics, was obsessed with face. The idea that buildings ought to be functional and in harmony with their environment came a distant second to the demand that they be big and impressive. It was, in short, a showcase rather than a place where people lived.

Needless to say, neither Galaxy nor Wangjing are loved by locals. This year, an independent Chinese media company published a post describing the energy of Wangjing Soho as “noxious” and “heart- piercing”; through many explicit diagrams, it compared the trio of hump-shaped buildings to pig’s kidneys. The blogger also criticised the building’s poor feng shui and suggested that this might be why all of the businesses that have taken offices there have failed. A Chinese court subsequently fined the media company 30,000RMB (£3,320) for this post, citing “superstitious” behaviour. This wasn’t actually out of concern for dispelling superstition, of course (the government continues to promote traditional Chinese medicine relentlessly): Wangjing is a crucial landmark of the new Beijing and anyone who dares to poke holes in its glistening facade must be punished.

You’d think these issues would be less salient when it comes to Hadid’s third and final Beijing building: Beijing Daxing International Airport, which the architect designed before she died in 2016, and which was completed and opened for business last month. Airports are, almost by definition, not supposed to be human-scale. If any type of building has licence to be indifferent to its environment, it should be the airport. Yet not even this most placeless of spaces is built in a vacuum. In November of 2017, two years before Daxing airport landed, tens of thousands of migrant workers – a group considered “low end” by the Chinese state – were forcibly evicted from the shantytown “urban villages” in far south Beijing. The proximate cause for this action was a tragic house fire that took at least 19 lives, possibly more. But most long-standing residents suspected that fire safety was being used as an excuse to clear out an area that the city government hoped would soon be filled with more “high quality” people in light of the new airport. In all, at least 11 villages have been demolished and upwards of 20,000 people have been relocated, sometimes with compensation and sometimes without.

IMAGE Hufton + Crow

It’s not even clear if Hadid’s project, which has cost 120bn RMB (£13.3bn), as well as the livelihoods of so many people, was necessary in the first place. Norman Foster’s Beijing Capital International Airport opened a little more than 10 years ago in northeast Beijing, and in 2017 was the second-busiest airport in the world, handling more than 100 million passengers a year. But as a recent New York Times article points out, Beijing Capital is severely constricted because of China’s defence policy. The Chinese military currently controls more than 70 per cent of the nation’s airspace, while the figure in the US is only 20 per cent. “The congestion takes place in the sky because the military only allows for a certain number of tunnels,” Guo Yufeng, chief executive of aviation advisory firm Q&A Consulting told The New York Times. “If that doesn’t change, the ground infrastructure needs to be expanded.” Although Beijing Capital is the second busiest airport in the world, it only rates fifth in terms of take-offs and landings because flights are frequently cancelled. It’s perfectly possible it could have accommodated the needs of the Beijing metro area if the military had allowed more pathways for commercial flights.

This possibility was not explored, partly because of the obstinacy of the Chinese military and partly because of the Chinese government’s morbid addiction to big infrastructure investment. In the face of slowing growth, the first and sometimes only solution for China’s planners is more infrastructure spending. That is why the country is filled with unnecessary airports, dams and high-speed rail lines, such as a $6m refurbishment of an airport on the small island of Dachangshan, just off the coast of northeast China, which welcomes no more than 10 passengers a day. Or an expensive high-speed rail line connecting the cities of Lanzhou and Urumqi in the sparsely populated Gobi desert across harsh terrain. Authorities hope the new airport, which is 46km from central Beijing, will stimulate economic development of the Beijing-Tianjin- Hebei (Jing-Jin-Ji) “megalopolis”, a long-time dream of growth-obsessed officials in this part of China.

It should be clear at this point that I was not predisposed to like Beijing Daxing International Airport when I flew in from Chengdu one Monday morning this autumn, not long after it had opened. My plane landed at the very tip of one of the five flight piers that radiate out from its central atrium. It took me maybe five minutes, not counting time taken to snap pictures, to walk from that pier to the central atrium and then through to Arrivals. This radial design saves travellers from the pain of inter-terminal shuttles and monorails. It is indeed efficient and Hadid’s firm says the longest trip for customers from security to their plane will be eight minutes.

Unfortunately, this floor plan is the only sensible thing about the airport. The structure, which seemed reasonable at first, started getting more and more ludicrous as I walked toward the central atrium, which Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) says was inspired by “principles within traditional Chinese architecture, which organise interconnected spaces around a central courtyard”. I suppose that if you go by this loose definition of “stuff around some open space”, it is Chinese-influenced, much like sticking a house in the middle of an open yard might be said to be influenced by principles from within traditional Western architecture. Of course, even this diluted definition of traditional Chinese architecture doesn’t hold up, since the five tendrils of the airport are not really interconnected: you must go down to the atrium and back up if you wish to access a gate in a different flight pier. You cannot circulate through the structure as you might in a courtyard home enclosed on four sides by buildings that face one another.

Even more offensive is the suggestion that the atrium (which is what it is), a soaring and blindingly white multi-storey phantasmagoria of luxury stores criss-crossed by sky bridges, can be reasonably likened to a Chinese courtyard, or that it was a painstakingly proportioned swathe of negative space that builders took great care to make sure was in harmony with the wings surrounding it. As if fearing the “Chineseness” of this atrium would be lost on travellers, more literal courtyards have been installed inside each of the five prongs. The courtyard inside my prong was closed at the time I visited, but I noticed it was peppered with a number of perfunctory grey “Chinese-y” pavilions and spirit walls. No display, unfortunately, of the skeletons from the Qing Dynasty graveyard that were reportedly discovered during excavation for the airport. Beijing has always liked to keep things ahistorical.

IMAGE Hufton + Crow

The opposite of an intimate and enclosed Chinese courtyard, the central atrium is ostentatious, neck-craningly huge and, as we should expect of a Hadid, relentlessly curvilinear. There is an obligatory undulating roof, supported by an intricate spiderweb-like lattice of curved beams, in between which have been installed glass skylights, themselves criss-crossed by a triangular lattice. It is interesting and then exhausting to look at. On the morning I was there, grainy Beijing sunlight poured through and made the already psychotically polished white floors and staircases even more blinding. Immediately surrounding the atrium are a number of massive flowing vertical shapes that reminded me of the cross-section of a tulip; these are capped with domed skylights, also overlaid with a triangular lattice. These project a high-definition grid pattern onto the white floor at all times of day, making the atrium doubly draining. ZHA is promoting the line that the airport looks like a “starfish” (a starfish with a Chinese courtyard), but from a bird’s-eye view, between the incessant webbing and massive, tulip-dome skylights resembling so many insect eyes, I thought it looked more like a Lovecraftian monster. A starfish-shaped Lovecraftian monster.

The concern for natural light demonstrated by the proliferation of skylights is reasonable in buildings where people live and spend a lot of time, often in cramped areas surrounded by other structures. It makes less sense in the context of an airport, a place people mostly move through rather than linger in, especially in the case of one set in the moonscape of southern Daxing. What are all of these skylights and glass-panelled walls supposed to expose us to? Daxing is not like Hong Kong or San Francisco. There is no spectacular landscape upon which the visitor can immediately look out and feel welcome and relaxed. There is only endless bulldozed flatness. This surfeit of light and glass exposure actually makes the airport more agoraphobic than anything – and agoraphobia, I should know by now, is endemic to Chinese infrastructure projects.

IMAGE Hufton + Crow

Before I could develop snow blindness, I left the shimmering atrium and passed into the comparatively serene Arrivals. With a long open facade and exposed columns of elevators, it basically resembles a bigger Beijing Capital, an airport through which I have flown many times and found to be perfectly fine. This brief moment of peace, however, is soon shattered by the fact of having to get into downtown Beijing. The sixth leg of the starfish is a much-vaunted inter-city transport centre that offers subway and express train connections. Unfortunately, neither of these will take you into the city in less than an hour and a half. The Daxing Airport Express will take you all the way to Caoqiao subway, but that’s outside Beijing’s fourth ring road and requires another hour of subway transfers to get downtown.

My Chinese navigation app suggested that it would actually be faster to take an express bus that would drop me off at a relatively close-in subway, so I ditched the transport centre for the bus station, which turned out to be a few dozen waiting chairs and a ticket kiosk plopped at the far end of Arrivals. Outside, a man chain-smoked as he waited for enough people to fill up his van. I was the last and got to ride shotgun as we chugged down the slow lane on a 20-lane highway with no other cars in sight. Out of the window, farms and orchards turned into light industrial parks. One day – sooner than we can imagine – all of it will be gone. It will be replaced by more high-quality people and high-quality industries, the growth engines of the Jing-Jin Ji megalopolis. At the centre of that megalopolis will be the webbed eye of Beijing Daxing International Airport.