Beijing show spotlights reform-era landmarks in China
High-rise buildings that dominate the skylines of major Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou include well-designed luxury hotels that passers-by take for granted.
But in the eyes of Cole Roskam, an associate professor of architectural history at the University of Hong Kong, these skyscrapers started to grow since the 1970s and ’80s, during which time the construction of several international hotels helped China to connect with the rest of the world and provided physical evidence of the reform and opening-up.
And, Roskam’s interest in China’s international hotels of those two decades isn’t only academic. He isnowco-hosting in Beijing an exhibition, Accommodating Reform: International Hotels and Architecture in China, 1978-1990, which is being held at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art through Oct 23.
The exhibition reviews the birth of seven landmark hotels — some among the earliest Sino-foreign ventures established at the start of reforms. They stand as examples of the phenomenal development of five-star hotels to accommodate increasing foreign visitors for tourism and business in China in the 1970s and ’80s.
A display of photos, building models and relevant documents offer a behind-thescenes look at their cultural, economic and political relevance.
The east wing of Beijing Hotel, Jianguo Hotel, Great Wall Hotel and Fragrant Hill Hotel make for the four Beijing hotels featured in the show. The remaining are the Shanghai Centre, Jinling Hotel in Nanjing, East China’s Jiangsu province, and White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, South China’s Guangdong province.
“In general, they present a nice array of buildings in different cities designed by different architects,” Roskam tells China Daily.
He says many such hotels in reform-era cities were designed by famous foreign architects and became tall, monumental buildings at the time of construction. The hotels also introduced the concept of modern architecture to China. The buildings were facilitated with more advanced technologies than others back then.
Chinese architect Zhang Bo designed Beijing Hotel’s east wing that was completed in 1974 and it features a grid facade with balconies overlooking the Chang’an Avenue. Renowned Chinese-American architect IeohMingPei drewon his childhood memories of the elegant gardens of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, while designing the Fragrant Hill Hotel, which blends with the surrounding FragrantHills Park in Beijing’s northwestern suburb.
Roskam says glass-curtain walls were first displayed in China in such hotels, and amenities like TV sets, air-conditioning units and elevators influenced the country’s industrial development later.
Symbolizing China’s opening up to the world, the hotels for the first time in the country had foreign restaurants, bars and discos. They also hosted crosscultural activities and accommodated many celebrities and dignities.
Jianguo Hotel attracted customers with Beijing’s first French restaurant, Justine’s. It’s first-floor rooms were where many international banking representatives resided and becamepopularlyknownas the “Wall Street” of Beijing.
American cultural icon Andy Warhol and his photographer friend Christopher Makos stayed at Beijing Hotel during their travels in the country in 1982. The photos taken during their trip that captured the interior decorations of the hotel and the Fragrant Hill Hotel they also visited are also displayed at the exhibition.
In 1981, Beijing Hotel witnessed the country’s first public fashion show since the founding of New China in 1949. It was staged by Italianborn French fashion designer Pierre Cardin who was among the first foreign businesspeople to land in the country in 1978. A dress that was shown at the couture show is displayed along with a photo taken by Chinese-American photojournalist Liu Heung Shing showing Cardin at the opening of Maxim’s Beijing restaurant in 1983.
Robert Rauschenberg stayed at the GreatWall Hotel in 1985 when holding his retrospective show at theNational ArtMuseum of China. His second solo exhibition since then, titled Rauschenberg in China, is also underway at the UCCA.
Roskam says many Chinese have fond memories of the hotels. When he interviewed some who had worked in them or lived nearby, they mostly spoke of how “groundbreaking” the hotels were.
“They (the hotels) are valuable reminders of how important tourism and foreign businesses were to China’s economy after 1978. They are also vital reminders of how quickly China has developed,” he says.
Above: Photos, building models and a dress designed by Italian-born French fashion designer Pierre Cardin are displayed at an exhibition reviewing China’s construction of international hotels in the 1970s and ’80s. Left: A sectional drawing of Shanghai Centre designed by the international architectural firm John Portman & Associates.