For many Beijingers, the best moment during this summer's Olympics was not the grand opening ceremony or a heroic athletic feat—it was the ability to see the sky. As China prepared for the Olympics, all kinds of measures were put in place: shutting down industrial factories curbed air pollution, and traffic restrictions cut by 50 percent the number of cars on the streets. So, during the games, the appearance of blue skies and unjammed roadways reminded many, for the first time in a long while, how Beijing could seem pleasant and feel intimate.
After five years of Olympics-related construction, and nearly two decades of increasing investment in China, what is the future of China's megasized building culture? August's Olympics frenzy immediately segued into the financial crises of September, and while the United States and Europe deal with the biggest economic disaster in a century, the view from within China is ... surprisingly, business as usual. If anything, a through-the-roof economy is giving way to an economy that's just vastly expanding.
That's not to say that the country won't experience a delay in some of its major projects; no country is immune in the current downturn, and China is in fact slowing down. In October, the government reported that during the period of July through September, China's economy grew only 9 percent—a boon for most nations, but not for fast-growing China, where 10 percent growth or more is the norm.
There also came signs that a sense of truthfulness has begun to pervade even the Chinese central government, which attributed the slowing economy of the late summer and fall, in part, to the restrictions imposed on foreign visitors during the Olympics. (The economy was also hampered by the closure of factories for the Olympics and a major natural disaster in Sichuan.) This was a direct admission that the measures designed to protect China's Olympic image—measures like preventing foreigners from obtaining visas—had actually hurt the country economically. To a country that often holds the Communist party line above the truth, bravo.
In July, China's central bank issued 6 million 10-yuan notes (worth about $1.46 each) commemorating the Beijing Olympics. They quickly became a collector's item, commanding $350 or more on eBay.
Credit: AP Images
In the coming months, financially lean conditions will trim the fat off the incredibly bloated developments in China, and in the long term create a healthier system. That won't come without some pain and some discipline. For example, the luxury housing and retail markets in Beijing are heavily saturated?the speculators and foreign investors kept building and building, emboldened by the belief that the demand will be there because their products are. Encouraged by the government to spend and invest, everyone overlooked the critical detail: The Olympics lasts for only two weeks. Reports of empty malls and unsold apartment units are widespread. However, the building boom in China was never just about reaping the returns. That was a big part of it, but it was mainly an exercise in national pride, epitomized by none other than the Olympics.
In this process, the middle of the market—China's vastly growing middle class—was neglected. To give you an example, while luxury retailers such as LVMH and Lane Crawford experience so-so sales in Beijing, retailers like H&M and Zara are making a killing. It's not so much China that's learning its lesson, but the investors with deep pockets who are experiencing a market correction. While going for gold, they neglected to realize there was also much honor in aiming for silver and bronze.
What will China's post-Olympic era look like? Well, World, rest assured that the building and economic boom will continue. As the Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) recently opened to be that city's tallest skyscraper, the news was overshadowed by another announcement: Gensler had won the contract to build the Shanghai Center, an even taller building that would stand alongside two other gleaming towers, the SWFC, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, and the Jin Mao Tower, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In economic centers such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong, the physical landscape will continue to intensify. In November, the Chinese government announced that it would spend about $586 billion over the next two years on major infrastructure projects and to rebuild towns devastated by the earthquake earlier this year. This money could easily come from China's cash $1.6 trillion reserves, including $541 billion in U.S. debt that it owns. However, on closer inspection, this money may have already been earmarked for infrastructure and then repackaged as a stimulus.
In China's next wave of expansion, look for building projects to center on philosophies of building efficiently, improving public space, and taking greater stewardship of the built landscape. No more fat, bloated building budgets: Smart entrepreneurs will insist on getting the most for their renminbi. Look for more public space, a demand for quality over quantity, and projects with a brighter impact on the urban, pedestrian level. No longer will be grand stadiums be built without regard for what they become (the Olympics "Water Cube" will reportedly be turned into a mall), but projects will follow the lead of Minsheng Port in Shanghai, spearheaded by Miami developer Craig Robins to include green design and public art programs. Gradually, public demand will dictate such strategies in the program of private developments, and Chinese developers will get the credit for being savvier.
Indeed, I think an emerging collective consciousness was the best result of the bravado-filled Olympics of a Communist government. People here finally saw that the sky is bluer on the other side. And at 1.2 billion, what the people want, the people will get. You can't keep it from them any longer. After this market adjustment, the demands and stakes will be even higher in a more mature China. And architects will find themselves heeding that call, whether their clients ask for it, or not.
Andrew Yang is an American design journalist based in Shanghai and a consultant to 100% Design Shanghai, the spinoff of the annual London interiors show.