Designing Beijing

From the Smart Cities, Healthy Cities Exhibition of sustainable Dutch design, Breathing Cloud by Dorette Sturm. Courtesy: Beijing Design Week

In addition to being the political hub of China, Beijng has long been a city on the global art and design map. More recently, its creative energies are drawing more attention. Arts enclaves like Factory 798 are no longer obscure, cheap-rent zones for bohemians, but home to design start-ups and mainstays on the tourist routes. Local artists, such as Ai Weiwei, draw global audiences and collectors. Chinese architects living elsewhere have been flocking back home because Chinese cities offer them opportunities to be bold and adventurous. As the economy goes so, too, do arts and design. With an overall growth rate averaging 10% over the last ten years, China’s creative industries have also been gaining momentum, towed along in the wake of increasing economic strength. In other words, there has been enough macro-economic development to allow the creative sector to expand. Moreover, as wealth gets concentrated in cities like Beijing, more of it can get invested in design-related industries.

Beijing Design Week, recently wrapping up its second year, is the logical expression of this momentum. Under the direction of American curator-critic, Aric Chen, Design Week attempts to nudge Beijing's creative energies into the global spotlight. But this effort is far bigger than a group of like-minded designers and artists getting together to promote their talents.

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Factory 751. Courtesy: Beijing Design Week

Over the past week, Design Week delicately danced its way across the city somewhere in the gray zone between semi-grassroots carnival and slick corporate tradeshow. Primarily, this show is the government’s baby: backed, promoted, and packaged to help showcase Beijing as a capital for China’s creative industries. Overall, though, it was loosely deployed throughout the city in carnival-like fashion, invading venues that range from well-trafficked tourist zones like Dashilar to bohemian centers like Factory 751. Yet it was decentralized enough to maintain a sense that it was more about the work and less about investment. But investment is not something to dismiss lightly. In a broader context, Design Week can be viewed as part of China’s efforts to diversify its economic base over the next decades by gradually moving away from being the world’s factory to being its creative superpower. While China’s role as factory will continue for some time to come, events like these are beginning to tell the story of what’s next. There was a time when design and art in China were synonymous with counterculture and the intellectual fringe—the radical right, if you will. Now, once relatively obscure creative spaces, such as the 798 arts district, are well-established art and design centers—commanding increasingly high rents. Notably, 798 did not appear on Design Week’s map. But neighboring 751 did, as one of the latest industrial zones to re-script itself as a design enclave. In hundreds of factory sites around the city, heavy industries have been moving out and the creative industries have been moving in. For now, this seems to be one of the dominant trends helping to re-script Beijing. Design Week begins to show what is coming out of these new “factories”. While debates rage on about centralized political authority stifling innovation, the creative industries working away in Beijing's old factories and hutongs continue to hum away day and night. As Chen noted in a recent New York Times profile, “It’s one of the few places where you still have that freedom to experiment, because you’re in the early stages of something, but what you’re working on will have a global influence.”

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Switch on Beijing. The city of the past in LED’s. Courtesy: Beijing Design Week

While the former certainly is true, the latter has yet to be proven. It is not yet clear if the mechanisms that allow innovative start-ups to thrive are strong enough to lead to breakthrough designs. There are also issues of R&D, patents, and copyrights to contend with. There is a freedom to experiment, but it takes much more for design industries to take off and establish global significance. Just think of how many years and what forces it took for a company like Apple to come about and evolve. For now, let’s just concentrate on Beijing. Give it time. Will China’s design powers be expressed through innovation or more though creative re-packaging and refining of innovations that have already been developed? Chances are good that it will be a little of both, but it’s still too early to tell. As Chen has recognized, this territory is still wide open in cities like Beijing. What remains to be seen is how this burgeoning design culture will begin to express itself beyond the city. For now, however, it’s a good idea to go and take a look for yourself. In this writer’s experience, there is enough going on to make every week in Beijing “design week.” To me, Beijing has always been a little bit like China’s L.A. or Brooklyn. It has that quality of being one of those places of the moment. If you were at Beijing Design Week, tell us: What were the highlights for you?

Guy Horton writes on the social, political, and cultural dimensions of architecture and design. He is a frequent contributor to GOOD Magazine, Architectural Record and other design publications. His new book, co-authored with Sherin Wing, is titled, The Real Architect's Handbook. You can follow Guy on Twitter @guyhorton. He lives in Los Angeles.

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