Date of this Version
August 8, 2008 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
Even before Beijing was awarded the Olympic Games in 2001, the pace of construction in the city was frantic and relentless. A combination of expansive central planning, low interest loans, and a real estate bubble have all contributed to the construction of hundreds of new buildings and massive infrastructure development. Lax regulatory and environmental laws combined with a desire by politicians to make Beijing a “showcase” have enticed dozens of the world’s best architects to experiment with new designs and new materials on a scale not possible in New York, London or Berlin. While some critics bemoan these new designs as “shock and awe” architecture and others point to the loss of culturally significant areas such as the hutongs, the scale and pace of development will likely continue well into the next decade as Beijing continues to grow in population and international importance. A more subtle but lingering problem will be integrating these massive center-pieces into Beijing life in a way that is natural and beneficial to residents struggling to adapt to the ever-changing city-scape.
For all Olympic tourists coming from abroad their first experience in Beijing is the massive Terminal 3 building of Beijing Capital airport opening this spring. As the world’s largest building at 10 million square feet (displacing the Pentagon from the top of the list), it overawes visitors with soaring ceilings and a full range of restaurants, shops and convenient services. The Norman Foster-designed structure cost just under $4 billion and went from proposal to completion in less than four years. In addition to its vast scale, the open building layout and obvious attention to diffusing human traffic flow makes the check-in, security and boarding process relatively painless and less like the rugby scrum atmosphere of LAX. This past week the airport express light rail system opened, linking the airport to the rapidly growing subway system. Gushing domestic news reports with riders saying boilerplate phrases such as “Riding it makes me proud to be Chinese” perhaps overstate the importance of the fairly basic light rail link similar to San Francisco’s BART system. However, with tickets costing 25 RMB one way it eliminates the need for a 100-150 RMB journey into Beijing by taxi, the only previous option. The airport link not only makes traffic sense but importantly, for foreign tourists, eliminates the potential for price gouging by taxi drivers on new arrivals which made many first experiences in China a less than happy one. Terminal 3 is not without flaws: food and beverage prices are high, limited electrical outlets and no wireless internet service hinders business travelers, and baggage service is slow. But compared to Heathrow or LAX, it is a comfortable airport.