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Today’s post features an excitingly strange intersection between 3 of our favorite topics here at Ferrebeekeeper: crowns, China, and cities.   This is the Bund Center in the Huangpu area of Shanghai.  The building was finished in 2002 by the architects of John Portman and Associates.  It stands 198 meters (650 feet) tall—approximately the same height as the Sony Tower in Manhattan (which is probably now named after some other monolithic company, but which New Yorkers will instantly know as the building that looks like a Queen Anne highboy).  Like most skyscrapers, the purpose of this tower is surprisingly banal—it holds a bunch of offices for paper-pushers, financiers, and cell phone makers—however the top is anything but dull!  Look at that splendid daisy-style crown in glittering steel and lights.  I really thought the Chinese were on to something with their lovable propensity for making amazing novelty buildings during the 90s and the aughts.  The central authorities have since cracked down on that trend out of fear that too much imagination and fun would make the Chinese subjects less biddable to the whims of their new emperor erm president-for-life, but frankly we Americans have no moral authority anymore when it comes to subjects like evil autocrats and gaudy/banal towers.  All of which is to say, I like the top of the Bund Center!  I wish I could go to Shanghai and get a closer look at the new model for an international super-city…

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Torus-shaped building by Italian architect Joseph di Pasquale in Guangzhou

There is disappointing aesthetic news from the internet today: The People’s Republic of China is trying to reign in weird architecture.  A CNN article provides the basic facts, “A statement from China’s State Council Sunday, says new guidelines on urban planning will forbid the construction of ‘bizarre’ and ‘odd-shaped’ buildings that are devoid of character or cultural heritage. Instead, the directive calls for buildings that are ‘economic, green and beautiful’.”

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The great teapot of Wuxi. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Based on this language, one might hope for a future of soaring super pagodas covered with solar cells and hydroponic forests, however I think it is much more likely that we will see lots of boring giant rectangles designed by committees (like the new World Trade Center…or Freedom Tower…or whatever it ended up being called). Communist China had its own history of creating dull monoliths.  This was interrupted by a spate of crazy fun building projects, but it seems like the party is cracking down on the architectural effervescence (probably as a symptom of the vast market correction now under way).

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The China Central Television building in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.

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Sheraton in Huzhou

During the last quarter century China has seen outrageous economic growth.  Along with this boom, strange giant edifices popped up all along the Chinese coast like weird mushrooms from outer space.  I have put pictures of some of my favorites in this article.  I particularly like the Shanghai World Financial Center (which has always reminded me of a broken off piece of some cool mystery awl) and of course the many torus buildings.  However the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” Stadium and the Shanghai Tower and the “Giant Pants” and the huge teakettle were all good too.  There were some less famous but more charming sculpture buildings at a local level which I have also included here.

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Rendering of the Shanghai World Financial Center with the Jin Mao Building at right

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I did not realize how much I liked these buildings until I read the news today and found out they now belong to the past.  These buildings went hand in hand with eye-popping double digit growth percentages for the Chinese GDP.  I wonder if, now that the buildings are going to stop going up, the stupendous growth will cease too.  Mandarins from all cultures have a way of forgetting that just as art reflects society, society reflects art too.

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The Emperor Hotel in Yanjiao may legitimately be counter-revolutionary

 

When I was younger and happier I worked as a drudge in an Investment Bank.  Actually, remove the happiness from that first sentence—the place was one of the most toxic & unpleasant environments ever.  Nobody there was happy.  The bank sucked away human life force…and so I destroyed it from within!  It’s gone now.  You’re welcome, world.

That all sounds pretty bad-ass, but unfortunately this story reads less like a John Grisham thriller and more like a Russian folktale about a slow witted bumpkin who kills a sorcerer by accident.  Although I worked at the investment bank, I was in no way an investment banker (thank goodness).  The bankers and analysts were all stressed-out type-A personalities who spent 14-18 hours a day currying favor and staring at columns of numbers.  A great many of them were hooked on amphetamines or other drugs.

I worked as a temp in the legal department where my job was to redline legal documents–a sort of grown-up “spot-the-difference” puzzle where one compares two nearly identical legal documents to see if the opposing bank has treacherously slipped new provisions into the contract (legal jobs tend to involve this kind of drudgery).  I also helped update and distribute officers and directors lists—a task which was especially onerous since the officers and directors changed with blinding speed.  Also the bank was really dozens of different legal entities and shell-corporations, each of which had its own board and officers all of whom overlapped considerably.  I completed these monotonous tasks in a freezing cold plastic workstation visible to everyone from all sides. My only joy was to surreptitiously cut arctic animals out of post-it notes with a pair of office scissors.  I had an entire Siberian ecosystem by the time I left.

The bank was on a 30somethingeth floor of a dull 80’s skyscraper in midtown.  The bankers were forever trying to modify the office to suit the whim of the latest leaders (who were always changing—see above), so what should have been a simple series of embedded corridors was instead a shifting warren of slate-green upholstery, sharp glass edges, faux mahogany, injured egos, and construction detritus.  The only constant (other than cold and fear) was an arrhythmic grandfather clock, which wheezed away the interminable hours.  Once I was sent to deliver a document to an obscure department on the far side of the bank.  On the way back, I got lost in a newly created hallway swathed with plastic sheets and plywood.  As I scurried along the passage I heard loud impatient footsteps behind me.  I turned and was horrified to see the president of the bank, a cold bossy woman, walking immediately behind me.  Why was she walking so fast?  How could I escape her? Then it occurred to me: there should be a doorway to the kitchen/breakroom ahead. I flung open the door to escape, but the president had ceased her rapid walking and was staring directly at me, her mouth hanging open in an “O” of surprise. With a touch of élan, I opened the door wider in order to let her pass (I was surprised she knew about the shortcut through the kitchen) and then I noticed the room beyond the door had pink tiles!  It was the women’s bathroom!  I screamed shrilly, dropped the door, and ran away down the hall.  It was not my best career moment… fortunately a new president was appointed shortly afterwards, and then another new president after him!

Anyway you want to hear about the destruction of the bank.

Above the little cubicle I was stuck in, there was a big air vent.  It roared incessantly all day, continuously delivering a stream of cold stale air on my shoulders.  One day, when the legal department was unexpectedly empty, I decided to try to do something about the vent.  Balancing precariously on top of my workspace I reached up into the evil grate and found a tiny rusted lever which would not budge, no matter how I pulled at it.  Desperate not to be caught, I swung my whole weight at the lever.  There was a rusty scream, a shower of dirty particles and a great dull “BOOM”.  I sprang down into my chair and looked busy, as martinets in pinstripes manifested from nowhere, but I heard an alveolar shift up inside the ducts of the skyscraper.   The hateful cold air was now directed somewhere else!

My moment of triumph it was short-lived.  The top boss of the legal department (famous for OCD & prickly disposition) came back to find that her fancy office was unbearably cold.  A normal person would have summoned the building engineers–who probably would have traced the problem back to the closed vent.  Fortunately that was not the way she did business.  Her first action was to have her paralegals find the contract with the building and flag the engineering/maintenance section.  Armed with contractual righteousness, she called the property firm and ordered them to raise the temperature on the floor by 15 degrees.

The legal department was on the cold dark side of the building.  The important bankers and financiers were portly men with window offices on the sunny side of the skyscraper.  While the rest of the bank suddenly became hot, their offices became ovens.  To lower the temperature, the bankers started working their way through successive levels of workmen, technicians, and engineers (I heard the angry conversations in the lobby) only to find that the temperature had already been changed by the legal department.  Both sides then began a violent squabble about the thermostat.

"...maybe I should go. You guys settle this on your own."

One day I just didn’t go back to the bank—in fact that was the only job I quit outright with no other prospects.  Later on I found out that, a few months after I left, the bank was gobbled up in its entirety by a huge New York capital management firm.  Perhaps it is wrong not to assume that some other factor was responsible for that place’s demise (its dysfunctional office culture or rapidly changing leadership, for example…or maybe the wave of banking mergers in the nineties) but I think anyone who has worked at an office where everyone is fighting about the temperature can correctly assign credit to me.

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