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'Reality's' Reveal

With the Olympics nicely coinciding with my vacation, I think I’ve watched more coverage of the games than the average human should. Prior to the start of the games, I followed with interest the story of how Beijing was re-fashioning itself to host the games. Much has been written on this subject from the loss of the city’s “hutongs” to the “distorted” messages conveyed by the starchitecture. Some have referred to Beijing as a “Houston on steroids.”

Scott Page | August 20, 2008, 7pm PDT
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With the Olympics nicely coinciding with my vacation, I think I've watched more coverage of the games than the average human should. Prior to the start of the games, I followed with interest the story of how Beijing was re-fashioning itself to host the games. Much has been written on this subject from the loss of the city's "hutongs" to the "distorted" messages conveyed by the starchitecture. Some have referred to Beijing as a "Houston on steroids."

But in watching the games, I wasn't fully prepared for just how orchestrated the stage set is. The blue "water cube" and "birds nest" stadium pop on television. Even the clover leaf interchanges – both seemingly larger and more lushly planted than I've seen before – are impressive visuals. Try getting those kinds of images of Houston.

That's not to say I'm a fan of this veil. I honestly don't know whether the experience of these buildings on the ground is awe inspiring or akin to the stadiums set alone in a sea of parking in South Philadelphia. With only a very small percentage of people actually attending the games, it seems the Chinese have realized that television is their true audience.

Cities have always been used as stage sets of course. I've written before about the use of the city as orchestrated backdrop in the film The Naked City. Jean-Luc Goddard's Alphaville took the same approach. Anyone from Chicago knows that Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are driving the wrong way when they are leaving for NYC in "When Harry met Sally" and even the recent Batman franchise movies use a smart edit of Chicago to present a Gotham that is both familiar and new.

And then came reality TV. The Real World was innocent enough in the beginning until every season felt like a caricature of the first. Today, in the worlds of HGTV and TLC, we have the array of home improvement, interior design and other assorted shows where nothing is more important than the "reveal" – that moment where all the changes are viewed for the first time by the unsuspecting homeowner. It's become such a central moment of every reality show that we have come to expect it as viewers. Beijing is having its reveal.

But like reality TV, the reveal is great the first time but boring afterwards. Where is the rest of Beijing? What makes the City unique? I can't tell based on the stage sets offered through Bob Costas's backdrop.

Beijing's reliance on building icons has a history of precedents from the Sydney Opera House to Bilbao. But as other cities have tried to copy Bilbao's model, Bilbao was realizing it needed more than architectural confection to make a unique city.

Kudos to the Chinese government for pulling off a very difficult task. They pinned their hopes on successfully building icons to represent the nation and created a TV ready city. The "birds nest" will automatically summon thoughts of Beijing in the future. But besides the birds nest, I'm not sure what other images to conjure when I think Beijing. Some would say it doesn't matter. But I think Beijing represents an interesting lesson that needed a high profile reminder – cities need to be designed for their reveal but also for stamina. Here's hoping that future Olympic host cities (as well as those cities hosting other notable events) plan creatively for both.

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