Aaron Betsky

Leave it to the Chinese to do everything bigger. After Beijing gave us the Bird’s Nest stadium and various other architectural spectacles during the 2008 Summer Olympics, the city now plans to house the 2022 Winter Olympics headquarters in the renovated Shougang Steel Mill. It is, as far as I can tell, the biggest single reuse project in the world: What Chairman Mao turned into the world’s largest producer of steel—2,224 acres of factories, forges, rolling mills, and cooling towers—will become the administrative core and national training facility for the Olympics, as well as the site for the ski jump, the hockey arena, and venues for several other sports. Already largely completed, Shougang is an astonishing display of how industrial remains can be reclaimed as places of culture, consumption, and post-industrial work.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

The Shougang renovation is certainly not the first example of the monumental transformation of our industrial heritage into a Postmodern collage of different forms and uses. In Europe, it seems as if the whole of the Ruhr Valley, once the core of that continent’s productive might, has become an unending array of beer halls, museums, incubator offices, universities, and organic gardens winding their way through reused mine shafts and coking towers between rewilded mines. In the United States, Richard Haag long ago turned a gas works in Seattle into a civic playground, while a large Bethlehem Steel site in Pennsylvania is now a university, museum, and offices. What distinguishes the Shougang project is its scale and the fact that it is all being done at once.

The architect of record for the project is CCTN, a firm founded in 2003 out of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, with Bo Hongtao as its lead designer. Until now CCTN seems to have focused mainly on civic and art museums throughout China. They have never before produced anything of this scale and, though the quality of detailing and construction is high, that of the design varies.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

The best parts of the project are both around and inside the existing buildings. Much of the site is being given over to new parks that wind between the old industrial buildings and include a large amount of water and grass. The designers have ensured that you can move not only to the edge of the water but even into it: You can step into slots that let you look out over former reservoirs used for cooling water, or you can walk down to reach the entrance to new underground exhibition spaces. CCTN has also repurposed many of the site’s elevated walkways and has built new paths that snake all the way up and around some of the old towers. Up there, you can look into the bulbous and distended buildings that once heated and cooled metal and steam, and out over the whole complex.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

Inside, the best renovations turn industrial remnants into stage sets for working, drinking, or eating. The most radical examples of this are in the site’s Holiday Inn. While the main stack of rooms is a fairly conventional box around an atrium, the area where the bar and restaurant are located weaves places for entertainment and nourishment through steel tanks, partially sawn-off concrete walls, and a spaghetti bowl of pipes. The effect is to immerse you into a sci-fi world where you can also eat scrambled eggs.

Similarly, a museum dedicated to the site’s own history sweeps circular spaces through sawn-off structure and gives you a vertiginous view up through the remains of one of the factories. Offices built into old silos offer generous views of the inside of the concrete tubes, while circular windows cut into their expanse allow views out. It is the juxtaposition of the new structures, all rectangles, recognizable floor plates, normal hardware, and clean surfaces, and these fragments of curving concrete, jutting and snaking pipes, and bulging steel containers, that turns what remains of the past into objects of aesthetic pleasure. Like a museum, which frames relics from the past so that we can understand them as precious, the new frames what is left of the old, fetishizing it and giving it a retroactive value.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

What works less well is the design of the new buildings. Although none of the office and museum structures are particularly offensive or banal, their heavy grids, strong planes, and, in the case of the public buildings, meaningless folds cut into that act of framing, all call attention to new additions that cannot measure up to the heroic ambitions and functional grandeur of the original Shougang Works. My pet peeve is the yellow handrails with which the architects have festooned many of the older buildings, creating the equivalent of an overlay of highlighter pen ink on the old text of the existing structures.

The new sports buildings are even worse. Their expressions of structure, from the ski jump that towers over everything with its heavy-handed humps, to the hockey stadium with its look-ma-no-hands exterior arches from which the roof is suspended, speak of a completely different sensibility that tries and fails to match the site’s original bravura.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

I was promised that a still unfinished project will trump everything else: one of the vast cooling towers, which are visible for miles, will be converted into a central atrium space for a large hotel. I just hope the architects do not fill it up with too much contemporary assertions of design.

Wandering through Shougang makes you feel as if you are in one of early projects drawn by the late visionary Lebbeus Woods, such as Centricity (1987). With that sense comes the realization that the industrial past is now providing our most convincing monuments. Instead of tombs of great leaders or celebrations of culture, it is the old factories, dams, and army bases that represent our bygone ambitions and catch them in forms that both fill us with nostalgia and, at their best, inspire us to transcend the ordinary life that unfolds in humanly scaled offices, apartment buildings, and restaurants. Like all monuments, Shougang no longer has any trace of inherent violence embedded in its structures, whether it's the forced economy that built them or the tremendous pollution they caused—and that is the point.

While the sites of the 2008 Olympics have largely gone to waste (the Bird’s Nest is now a rarely used event venue), the Shougang site will, exactly because of its spread and diversity, be put to better use. The new purpose-built structures might not get much future use, but the acres of offices, hotels, apartments, and cultural facilities will weave the site into Beijing’s fabric. Only the jagged edges and the fragments of grandeur will remind us, as the standardizing force of a global economy slowly buries Beijing and every other city under unending blandness, that this city and country were, for good and bad, once very different.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.