Torching Beijing's Olympic Message

Posted: Monday, April 14, 2008

F rom the start of its planning effort for this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing, China has used architectural imagery to powerful effect.

In hiring the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron to design the main Olympic Stadium and London's Norman Foster to handle the international airport - among other bold and expensive projects that will be unveiled this year - leaders wagered that photographs of the new buildings would promote the notion of a modern, cosmopolitan China.

To a large degree, the strategy has worked. Even as politicians have weighed boycotting the games to protest China's policies on Tibet and Darfur, magazines have churned out a series of glossy spreads on the new landmarks.

Unlike Athens, where last-minute work on Olympic venues four years ago suggested a slapdash games, with a thin layer of sawdust seeming to coat the opening ceremonies, China's architectural class of 2008 has stood clearly for crisp planning and worldly ambition. However you felt about Beijing's human-rights record, you had to give the government credit for producing a tightly choreographed Olympic PR campaign with iconic architecture at its center.

Then came the Olympic torch relay.

Beginning in Greece, where security officials had to wrestle with protesters just before the torch was lighted - among the picturesque ruins of a classical stadium in Olympia, no less - its journey has been a political and logistical disaster for the Chinese.

Perhaps most damaging has been the steady stream of images produced by its chaotic international tour. In the space of two weeks, the most powerful and widely distributed of those images - banners unfurled from the Golden Gate Bridge, a torch-bearer hiding inside a bus in Paris - have managed to make a more forceful impression than the work of a dozen superstar architects.

Another bizarre episode came Wednesday afternoon in San Francisco, where the torch and its entourage took refuge for nearly half an hour inside a warehouse on Pier 48, along the city's waterfront. Local officials appeared to be debating whether to send it along its planned route down the Embarcadero, which was packed with protesters as well as flag-waving supporters of Beijing bused in by the Chinese consulate.

The pit stop turned out to be a bit of misdirection. While TV news helicopters hung in the air over the warehouse, organizers of the relay were sending a backup torch - apparently, yes, they have backup torches - from a hiding place inside a hotel on O'Farrell Street and ultimately Van Ness Avenue, a safe distance from the chaotic scene along the waterfront. There, the Olympic flame was escorted on a brief trip north by police on bikes and motorcycles and on foot, passing sidewalks that were mostly empty.

While the plan, hatched by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and his police chief, Heather Fong, might have worked from a cloak-and-dagger point of view - there was general confusion along the original route about what was going on - it also served to generate a fresh collection of architectural imagery that could not have pleased Beijing. For 30 minutes, the warehouse was the afternoon's star attraction. It got more screen time on CNN's "Situation Room" than Wolf Blitzer.

Reporters caught glimpses of Chinese and local officials in animated conversation in the dark interior but little else.

Most of the warehouses along the Embarcadero haven't stored goods for decades, since the city's port lost its place at the center of waterfront commerce. These days, many of them store ideas instead. Ideo, the influential San Francisco design consultant company, is based at Pier 28, in a stylishly updated warehouse at the foot of the Bay Bridge. Ideo helped invent the computer mouse, an item directly responsible for distributing news, pictures and video footage of Wednesday's confusion.

Pier 48, for its part, has held corporate parties and fashion shows and two years ago was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the larger Embarcadero historic district. It has been in the news lately because several teams of investors have been competing to redevelop a 16-acre tract immediately adjacent to it.

One leading plan would use fees from that parcel to turn the warehouse into an arts hub in much the same way that the nearby Ferry Building has become a food and wine mecca.

So what ideas did Pier 48 hold Wednesday? Muddled, whispered ones, mostly. It held the idea that what had been planned as a public gathering, full of protest and celebration, was being quickly reevaluated in private.

And think of all the symbolism conjured up - at least for American TV viewers - by this sort of cavernous warehouse building. It's got clandestine written all over it. In the movies, it's where the drug deals happen or where one character clicks open a case to show another machine-gun parts nestled in black foam. It's where people go to do things they don't want anybody else to see.

In policy circles, "transparency" has become a buzzword, verging on cliche, to describe how officials in the West want governments such as China's to operate.

Two years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained that the Chinese were secretly building up military spending and said Beijing should "undertake to be transparent" on the issue. The warehouse episode - a joint production by Newsom, Fong and the Chinese and largely improvised - was anything but transparent.

What the Chinese government is now realizing, to its growing frustration, is that controlling the visual symbolism of any event with global reach has become virtually impossible in a fully wired, YouTube world.

The athletic competition itself, on Chinese soil, will be easier to keep in check, and many of the venues might win praise as pieces of architecture.

But sending the torch out into the world has meant letting extraneous images of all kinds - many of them architectural, as it's turned out - attach themselves to the Beijing games. Like barnacles stuck to the bottom of a ship that's gone around the world, they'll be tough to scrape off completely.

• Christopher Hawthorne is the Times' architecture critic.



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