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White is definitely out

Persistent smog in China's capital affects architects' decisions. Even color choice bows to a fuzz factor.

August 08, 2008|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Architecture Critic

BEIJING -- The relationship between smog and architecture is not one that critics or scholars -- or architects themselves, for that matter -- have traditionally given much thought. But in the pollution-clogged Chinese capital, the link is nearly impossible to ignore.

Often exacerbated by more benign haze and fog and by periodic dust storms, smog acts as an always-shifting veil in Beijing, shrouding old and new architecture alike. It changes the personality and color of buildings and manipulates their outlines. Huge towers just four or five blocks away fade into oblivion.

Smog levels and the Beijing skyline are thoroughly intertwined: Not only have they risen in tandem during the city's growth spurt over the last two decades, but the construction of new skyscrapers is in part responsible for generating the haze that surrounds them when they're finished. Architects have begun choosing color palettes and finishes for their Beijing projects with the poor visibility in mind. And in an odd twist, completed towers in Beijing now look blurrier, somehow less fully formed, than the crisp computer renderings used to promote them before they're built.

With the Summer Olympics set to begin today, Beijing's foul air has proved remarkably stubborn. Officials have taken half the city's cars off the road and shut down factories across a wide swath of the country. And still the muck persists. Though the skies are marginally clearer than at this time last year, Beijing's official pollution ratings, which some environmental watchdogs say are cooked anyway, have been hovering in unhealthy territory for much of the last two weeks.

Smog in Los Angeles, which decades ago was nearly as thick as Beijing's is now, hangs these days mostly along the horizon. It becomes really noticeable only when you are looking at buildings in the distance, or at the L.A. basin from an airplane or hillside. Even on the soupiest of days, you can usually turn your head straight up and see a wide expanse of blue.

But in Beijing, pollution wraps the whole dome of the sky -- and the skyline -- in its fuzzy embrace. There are periods of the year when blue skies are common. But during the week I spent in the capital this summer, I caught a glimpse of the sun exactly twice. Both times it loomed as a pale disc, a single low-wattage bulb. Even a pair of big rainstorms in the middle of my stay failed to clear the air for more than a few hours.


Visibility zero

Riding through the dense Central Business District in a taxi one afternoon, I passed the China World Trade Center, a 74-story skyscraper by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The building looked endless, like a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk tower, because I could hardly make out its unfinished top floors. On another day, walking near Tiananmen Square, I turned toward Paul Andreu's new National Theater -- a pair of auditoriums suspended inside a gigantic dome -- and saw only the sketchiest, silvery outlines of its curving exterior.

The effect is exaggerated by the scale of new development here. If you're strolling on a narrow, shaded street in an older part of the city -- just as if you're sitting in a leafy backyard in Hancock Park -- the smog is barely noticeable. But if you're standing on a broad granite plaza at the base of a new office tower, looking from one super-block to the next, the haze swallows everything in your line of vision.

According to World Bank statistics, outdoor air pollution in China causes 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths each year. (The World Bank also reports that 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China.) For a lifelong Beijing resident, to look at a building whose edges are blunted by smog is, in effect, to consider your own mortality.


Color schemes

Discussion of Beijing's smog is itself shrouded by misinformation. Government statistics on pollution levels are tough to verify. And Western journalists and bloggers who write about the subject are often flooded with complaints from online readers in China asserting that, in fact, the air in Beijing is just fine.

In general, architects say, white facades and pale stone finishes are worth avoiding in China: They look anemic against smoggy skies and show pollution's grimy residue. Ole Scheeren, who designed the yet-unfinished CCTV headquarters with Rem Koolhaas, told me that he selected the building's dark-glass exterior in part because of how it would appear against a flat, gray sky. "We wanted to consider the whole spectrum of forces, including pollution, that the architecture would have to withstand," he said.

Beijing seems to lose its pizazz when the smog is thick. It's like the Las Vegas Strip during a blackout or downtown Seattle on the 19th straight afternoon of light drizzle. It can begin to depress you and even prompt you to flee.

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