Magazine article Artforum International

Bidden City; Sean Keller on the Beijing Olympics

Magazine article Artforum International

Bidden City; Sean Keller on the Beijing Olympics

Article excerpt

THE OLYMPIC GAMES as we know them were born out of a late-nineteenth-century marriage of classical mythology and political science fiction. They decree that every four years all the nations of the world will set aside their political struggles and come together to compete in proxy battles of sport; everyone will watch. Yet such a premise naively denies both the relentlessness of politics and the equally irrepressible need for political power to be represented, to be made into images. Having stubbornly refused to follow their script, the modern Olympics stand in collective memory as a series of political--not athletic--events: Berlin '36 (Nazis), Mexico '68 (murdered protesters and censured Black Power salutes), Munich '72 (Middle Eastern terrorism), Montreal '76 (boycott against apartheid), Moscow '80 (boycott against the Soviet invention of Afghanistan), Los Angeles '84 (boycott against the previous boycott), and now, controversial already, Beijing '08.


As the latest addition to this lineage, Beijing '08 presents a new variety of Olympic propaganda, one that reflects the ambiguities of the post-cold war world. Like its present mixture of socialism and capitalism, the Chinese government's motivations for hosting the games are apparently contradictory. Beijing competed for the Olympics in order to stage a coming-out party as a global superpower, but it simultaneously needs to demonstrate that this power is benign (in both geopolitical and environmental terms). The games have thus become a very public test for the complex compromises that define contemporary China as it faces serious internal and external pressures.

The context for this global examination will be a massively reshaped Beijing. Since the decline of World Expositions, the Olympics have provided a unique opportunity for political representation on an international scale; and for host cities such as Beijing, they are primarily an architectural and urban-planning event--the physical environment serving as the medium for the host's message. At the level of domestic politics, the games provide an excuse for otherwise unrealizable civic acts, as the neutral forms of the fields, tracks, and pools become embedded in a field of ideologically charged urban design.

Given Beijing's desire to send a global welcome message via its orchestration of sport, spectacle, and architecture, and given its own history of occupation by Japan, one of the Axis powers in World War II, it seems scarcely believable that the name behind its new urban plan is Albert Speer--son of Albert Speer (himself the son of an Albert Speer). Immediately, one must say that the current Speer has had a long and respectable career as an architect and urban planner, and that he appears guilty of nothing more than choosing the same profession as his infamous father. Yet more than the name has provoked comparisons to Berlin circa 1936. Like the grandiose scheme envisioned by his father for Hitler's Berlin. Speer's plan for Beijing is organized around a monumental north-south axis anchored by a large new train station. The correlation is certainly tempting. But again, one must resist and acknowledge that, historically, the monumental axis is so widespread as an urban device, and has been hitched to such a range of political wagons, that it would be a mistake to assign any inherent political "meaning" to the grand axis in abstracto.

Speer himself rejects the comparison to Berlin and emphasizes the deep Chinese roots of his plan. Drawing on centuries of tradition, it reasserts and extends the axis of the Forbidden City, which, after the end of imperial rule in 1911, was progressively weakened in favor of the east-west axis of Chang'an Avenue--itself a highly symbolic new "axis of the people" elaborated by both Republican and Communist governments. But even within this specific context, an assessment of the master plan remains elusive. What value to give to the decision by the current leaders of the Communist Party to reject their own urban planning legacy and return to the imperial axis? …

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