My first introduction to 798 Art Zone was one of laser pointers, loud music and more leopard print lycra than you could shake a stick at. Yes, it was the 2011 INTRO music festival.
Although a great venue for urban electronic festivals, 798 is most famous for housing Beijing’s vibrant art community. 798 Art Zone is an art district that first took root in an abandoned electronics factory site (the most prominent factory being named 798 Factory) in the mid 90s when the Central Academy of Fine Arts happened to be scouting for large, cheap studio and gallery spaces.
From these modest beginnings an artistic community developed and grew. Artists moved into neglected warehouses to open studios and galleries, cafes and restaurants began dotting the area and independent shops and even a boutique hotel appeared. At 500,000 square meters, 798 is one of the largest art districts in China, if not the world. This is even more exceptional when you consider that it is in China, and relatively close to the heart of the capital, a capital that until even 15 years ago heavily discouraged, even banned, contemporary forms of artistic expression.
The old warehouses and factories were designed in the 1950’s by East German designers in the Bauhaus style, breaking away from the Soviet style popular at the time. Tall chimney stacks tower over the site and an old black steam engine sits towards the back on abandoned rails originally laid down as an extension from the train station to easily deliver building materials on site when it was first being built. In fact, the tracks were decommissioned only a few years ago, up until which point they were used to help bring in coal for fuelling the heating during the winter months. Brick warehouses and factories with high windows and their distinctive saw-tooth roofs line the streets, creating vast and light semi-vaulted interior spaces. Cultural Revolution slogans in large red lettering stencil the white-washed walls, nostalgically adding to the worker-commune feel (also known as a Gongshe at the time).
I wanted to learn more about this very unexpected and unique place. To that end I recently met with David Kay, a long-time China expert who was one of the original believers in 798 and who set up Yuanfen~Flow – a consulting studio and business incubator located in one of the cavernous, industrial factory spaces.
A Series of Events
In 2003, after 15 years as a corporate lawyer in Beijing, David started work with Microsoft as their General Counsel and head of government relations. He asked the housing company assigned to him to find him somewhere “out of the ordinary” and expressed his interest at the idea of viewing an old factory or warehouse. Needless to say, this must have been a rather unusual request for a foreigner to make, especially one in such a prominent position. David remembers with a chuckle that the company proceeded to show him the luxurious serviced apartments attached to the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
He told them: “I’m so glad you’ve taken me here, because what I want is on the absolute opposite end of the spectrum.”
Upon hearing this he was promptly informed that there just wasn’t anything like that available. Undeterred David did some investigating of his own and one day stumbled across a mention of the decommissioned 798 factory in a news article. At the time the location of 798 – in and area called Dashanzi just outside the 4th ring road to the north-east of the city centre – was still very much considered “outside of the city”.
The description of the Dashanzi area back then is almost the complete opposite of what you would find in that neighbourhood today. At the time there was hardly any development surrounding the abandoned 798 factories and warehouses, and only a handful of the spaces had been taken over as businesses. Wandering around the 798 complex, David found a photography studio / bistro and immediately got a sense of the artistic atmosphere of the place. He enquired about other properties in the area for rent and was given the contact details of another owner. When David contacted the owner, a lady with a heavy Sichuan accent told him that she did indeed have a place available. She also told him in no uncertain terms that if he wanted to see it he would have to do so immediately, otherwise it would be going to another buyer that very day.
A Thousand Broken Windows
“She opened up these metal doors, and here was this cathedral… with a thousand broken windows. I walked in and I thought: ‘I’m really meant for this place’.”
David believes it was a kind of destiny that lead him to the building in which Yuanfen~Flow was born – hence the name, yuanfen ?? which literally means a form of destiny or “binding force” that brings two people together. When walking through the abandoned electronics manufacturing factory, littered with junk and building materials, he noticed a potter’s wheel amongst the rubble. David took this to be a good sign, as it was because of a ceramics class that he first started learning Chinese 40 years ago. Without any need for further proof that this space was the perfect fit, David decided to take it.
The space consisted of one large open-plan factory floor with an engine room and a high semi-vaulted ceiling known as a sawtooth ceiling. David hired a contractor from Zhejiang province who moved his entire workforce into the space and began work immediately. It took several weeks to clear out the rubble and make the building watertight. Every evening after a long day pouring over drawings and discussing construction details, David would go home (at that point a 50km drive outside of Beijing) and sketch out the design ideas he had in mind in order to present to the contractor the next day. With the workmen taking up residence there, it only took 3 months to get the space into habitable shape, including building a bedroom, kitchen and bathrooms.
“It became their home, and that was part of the magic. The workmen felt a real pride in what they were doing because they had to live with it. It was all in the keeping with the concept of Yuanfen, and a great way to start the project.”
With a project of this size, it is pretty clear that proceeding would not be an easy or smooth process. Everyday there were unexpected surprises to solve, and having worked on fairly straightforward projects thus far, the workers were sometimes dubious about some of David’s less traditional design ideas. One element that proved a challenge for everyone was replacing the windows in the engine room, which was marked to become the bathroom.
“I wanted them to take these little biddy windows and make them into round windows with pivoting glass, and they said: ‘That’s impossible! You can’t do that.’
David admits it took some time and much cajoling to convince the foreman (now a good friend of David’s), but the end result was well worth the struggle.
“When it was done they were so proud of themselves. They had become part of the creative process. The whole ethos of this has been, from its inception, the creative process.”
Through the Grapevine
Once the work was complete the space was used partly as a second home for David and his family, as well as an events and a reception space for entertaining Microsoft’s visiting executives and government officials. It was a side of Beijing people rarely got to see, and David would use these events to demonstrate how these buildings could be reused and add value to their surroundings.
“I said to them at the time: ‘You don’t know what you have. If you tear this down now, you’re never going to be able to replace it.’”
However, whilst western visitors marveled at finding themselves in such a unique and oddly European setting in Beijing, the Chinese officials needed a little more convincing. It was more difficult for the officials to see the value of these buildings, which to many Chinese people represented an era of turbulence and upheaval. David concluded that one way of proving the value of these buildings was for them to receive high-profile attention and become a talking point. One afternoon following a successful presentation and lunch for a group of Deutsche Bank visitors David announced:
“In my country there’s a saying that goes ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’. When you return to Germany, I’d like you to help me out here by telling people about these extraordinary German-built structures in China. I want you to tell them that there is a real danger they will be torn down.”
In a fortunate turn of events, one of the visitors happened to be a member of the Deutscher Bundestag – the national Parliament of Germany – and within 6 weeks of the group returning to Germany, Chancellor Schroeder, on a visit to China, came to visit 798. This was shortly followed by a visit from the President of France, Jacques Chirac and his wife, who had also heard about the Art Zone through the grapevine. Through encounters and conversations such as these, the profile of this factory-area-turned-art-district was gradually being raised, and, with the help of some prominent contemporary artists starting studios in the area, people started to take an interest in 798. One such prominent figure who was instrumental in promoting 798 was contemporary artist Huang Rui, who published a book called Beijing 798 and opened “At Cafe” just down the road from Yuanfen~Flow. The renowned and outspoken artist and architect Ai Weiwei was also an advocate for the area.
What is the Future of 798?
In 2006, 798 became the first officially recoginsed art district in China. The sawtooth roofed buildings, such as the one Yuanfen~Flow is housed in, were placed under building protection, but unfortunately the other buildings within the complex were not. The future of 798 is uncertain, and that lies in part with the uneasy relationship the Chinese people have with their recent past. Industrial buildings of that era (1950s – 70s) are synonymous with the Cultural Revolution, physical reminders of an era preferred to be forgotten by most.
“There has to be a change in attitude towards what these buildings represent. Instead of blindly culling everything that is “shameful”, the Chinese could take a leaf out of other European cities with difficult pasts, such as East Berlin, and transform it into something of historic value, with modern uses but Chinese aesthetics and principles.”
I personally tend to agree with this point of view. Chinese cities with a European history such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Harbin have the ability to continue what is essentially a western tradition of preserving and reusing their historic buildings. However, for several decades Beijing was the centre of making good on an “out with the old, in with the new” mentality.
When asked about how optimistic he was on the continued survival of 798, David feels that in the end the only thing that will save this type of architecture is a sense of nostalgia coupled with the foresight to listen to the building restoration experts. In China, there is now a growing recognition of the value inherent in ancient history, but there is not necessarily the same appreciation of the value of more recent history. If anything, David believes it will be the next generation, the one that studies abroad and has the luxury of time and money to pursue lost arts and traditions that will nurture this neglected segment of cultural preservation. They are the ones that will find an interest in preserving their heritage, in “getting back to their roots”.
At least 798 already has a young and energetic community backing it. Wandering through the area last weekend I witnessed an art zone that was bustling and very much alive. Restaurants and cafes were full of people sitting outside enjoying the sun or working on their laptops, taking advantage of the free wifi readily available everywhere. Tourists and art students shuffled around the shops and exhibitions, young couples took photo ops next to all the industrial relics and art installations, parents pushed strollers down the side streets whilst grizzly looking men rode past on their Harleys. It truly is a unique melting pot of peoples and cultures, and thanks to innovative and proactive people like David, let’s hope it stays that way.
In my humble opinion Beijing could do with a few more places like 798, and a few less half-empty malls.