What Does This New Building Say About China’s Creative Future?

Designed to replicate China’s traditional courtyards and rice terraces, the Galaxy SOHO building, Beijing’s latest architectural addition, more closely resembles a UFO, a box of eggs or a winding slinky. Located next to the Second Ring Road in the downtown area, the impressive 330,000 square-meter complex features five connected blocks for retail, office and entertainment use.

ince its grand unveiling at the end of October, Galaxy SOHO has received significant praise and hype. It is hardly surprising. After all, save for a small area containing the old lanes, Beijing is an uninspiring urban landscape, full of gargantuan highways and grey, indistinguishable blocks. There are some design feats dotted throughout, not least the iconic CCTV “pants” building and the old imperial palaces and temples, but these do little to detract from a city that can largely be described as concrete and characterless.

And precisely because certain buildings stand out as exceptional, there has been a lot of soul-searching amongst the Chinese vis-à-vis their creativity. Is China a nation great at imitation but lacking its own innovation? Is the education system, which concentrates on rote learning, the enemy of originality?

Galaxy SOHO’s agency, Ogilvy & Mather China, have used the building’s launch to really engage the public about these questions through a series of video clips. In one 3-minute clip Abo, a Chinese monkey that was lost in space almost 60 years ago, returns to earth (a.k.a. Galaxy SOHO) because he feels this is a pivotal moment in Chinese history. The nation is undergoing a revolution as it realises its creative potential. “We’ve become a copycat empire, burying alive the creative spirit of a billion citizens,” admonishes the monkey. “A revolution is happening and I wanted to be here for it.”

Abo is then invited back to debate this in another 30-minute video, which features five cultural heavyweights: SOHO’s CEO Zhang Xin, Chairman Pan Shiyi, real estate developer Ren Zhiqiang, author Jiang Fanzhou and music maker Gao Xiaosong.

It is hard to quantify exactly what constitutes creativity, yet one suspects it is going to take a lot more than a building and some videos to confirm whether a “revolution is happening” in China. Added to this is the irony that Galaxy SOHO was designed by a non-native (the British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid), and the videos are obvious promotion for it, something necessary since other SOHO projects in Beijing have struggled to attract crowds.

However, these issues aside, engaging in this conversation in such a direct, open way is refreshing, encouraging and well, creative. Moreover, even if Galaxy SOHO does look like a spaceship stationed in central Beijing, its intention to borrow from China’s rich cultural and geographical heritage is very welcome. Too often these elements are overlooked or, worse still, completely bulldozed.

By Jemimah Steinfeld

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