Beijing chooses modern architectural mascot
When foreigners take photos of buildings they think represent Beijing, say for magazines or travel brochures, they usually shoot grey brick courtyard homes or anything with red-trimmed Ming or Qing-style wooden gates. Foreigners like this style, found mostly in the old town core, because it says "Beijing." Photos of modern Beijing could be confused for Tokyo or Chicago or Mexico City.
When Chinese seek photos of buildings to represent Beijing, they usually shoot the 30-story glass office towers along Chang'an Avenue or East Third Ring Road. This style of architecture reflects the government-preferred image of progress, the notion that, thanks to the correct leadership of the Communist Party, Beijing is as modern as any other city in the world. Chinese think courtyard homes and dynastic architecture focus too much on a bygone past.
So in fairness to all, Beijing has selected the incomplete building as its architectural mascot.
A half-built office-condo block is not only a literal halfway compromise. It also better represents Beijing in 2005 than Ming gates or the e-Tower.
First, incomplete buildings outnumber every other kind. Most structures in Beijing are unfinished, and that's not an exaggeration. About one building on every city block is under full-blown construction. The rest are being remodeled, inside or outside, sometimes just a single storefront and sometimes the whole thing. Or they're marked for demolition, like the six-story Soviet-style brick apartment blocks just west of the famed five-star China World Hotel complex and along the west side of Sanlitun Bar Street, I mean the old classic Sanlitun, not already rubblized South Bar Street where expats liked to drink.
Secondly, incomplete buildings anchor modern Beijing's economy. Bankers earn money by making under-the-table loans to developers, who may or may not pay back the whole loan but do take money under the table from their building contractors to settle competitive bids. Developers pay individuals in the city government for the privilege of developing Beijing's most expensive inner-city land parcels. Developers are often related to city officials, by blood if not by bank account, and the money comes from a bank loan no one has to pay off anyway. Demolition companies make money off every job, from breaking apartment windows as a warning that occupants should move out or else, to leveling brick flats to flat fields of bricks. Remodeling companies and furnishers earn big while the city's building business gives construction jobs to desperate migrants from rural China.
Important: Half-built China shows the one-party system's best contribution to progress. Rulers do not benefit from a strong legal system or a transparent business climate, as both would knock the party's own people out of power by allowing commoners to get a foothold in things. The Communist Party won't supervise corruption as long as key members can collect bribe income from it. Laws, transparency and cleaner government are what average Zhou's want most. But they also love the image of progress, so they tolerate construction. The system works well because Socialists are famous for building grand projects fast -- no wussy Western-style public hearings, zoning reviews or compensation debates, just send the wrecker in tomorrow.
Construction also has spawned a nouveau Beijing lifestyle. Hammer-and-drill crews merrily work alongside diners in upscale restaurants. Pedestrians snake along asphalt through hundreds of cars as developers take over sidewalks to facilitate access to their pits, pipes and poured cement. I'm not sure whether someone born in Beijing over the past 10 years could fall asleep without the 24-hour ker-whonking of heavy equipment slamming metal bars into the ground.
An unfinished construction gives Beijing a unique look, and hey, this is a face-conscious society. Crane-suspended rebar and cement blocks floating across the sky up to half a kilometer above the earth's surface punctuate every wide view of the city. Rusty construction site barrier walls that go for hundreds of meters at a stretch are Beijing's unique landscaping. Nothing charms Beijing homeowners like 30-story blocks of bald cement growing like corn just outside their balconies. Picture taking a photo of your date in the public park rose garden when a cement truck cuts across the lawn behind her.
Chinese could argue that photos of incomplete buildings poignantly represent Beijing's endless shift from an old dynastic power base to a modern capital. Foreigners could argue complementarily that incomplete buildings say "Beijing" better than inner-city courtyard homes, because half-built stuff hangs off the skyline not just in old town, but all over town.