7 reasons why the Design Week struggles to make it in Beijing

Beijing Design Week, opening at the China Millennium Monument
Beijing Design Week, opening at the China Millennium Monument

Beijing Design Week, opening at the China Millennium Monument

I know it is not easy at all to organize such a huge event like a design week, and surely in a city of 20 millions citizens like Beijing… it’s hardcore! However, in this article I will try to explain what are the five main reasons why the Beijing Design Week is not growing as you would expect. [This article only represents my own views, no offense to anybody]

Design still far from life.

In China design is mostly perceived as an academic matter. Designers might be ‘cool’ but somehow many Chinese see them as 屌Diaosi. For the city of Milan, the Design Week is a social event, able to gather and connect different social layers. In involves electronic concerts for students, academic lectures for universities, fairs, corporate events etc. Design embraces many different fields and personalities. In China things are radically different: design is confined in the narrow spaces of academic curricula, professional associations conferences and such circles. This means it is very difficult for a design event to provide the impetus to a virtuous circle involving different types of media.

BJDW 2011.

BJDW 2011.

Lack of a gravity center.

The Milan Design Week, for example, developed around the Milan Furniture Fair, the largest trade fair of its kind in the world. Even though the events in the city became the main content of the week, the fair is still working as its propeller. Visitors still see it as the must-go happening, and without it the whole Design Week within the city would not be able to attract enough sponsors. In Beijing the whole organization is rather extemporary, without a focal point. To this it adds up the completely different urban environment. While Milan’s city center is composed of pedestrian areas, and most neighborhoods involved in the events are all within 30 mins walking, Beijing is much bigger and has a rather scattered composition. Beijing is organized in many huge neighborhoods that can be seen as functional blocks. Considered the terrific traffic and the dimensions of the city itself, to move from a block to an other requires time and fatigue. The Beijing Design Week anyway decided to split the festival into many different areas, quite far from each other, each with its own administration and peculiarities. Caochangdi and 751 D-park in the Northeast, Dashilar in the center/South, and at the China Millennium Monument [also called Beijing World Art Museum] in the ‘far West’ of the city. None of these places can be said to be the main venue, and none of these for sure is regarded as a must-see occasion, even for industry professionals.

Social media left out of the games.

Everybody knows how the Internet and social media play a big role in contemporary Chinese society. E-commerce is bigger than anywhere else in the world. Changes are so huge that shopping malls are going through a rather big re-thinking process and in the near future most shops are going to become what Chinese call 体验店 experience store. Yet the Beijing Design Week has been quite silent on social media. For a design event should be relatively easy to produce viral content for Internet users to devour. I recognize last year attempt of a breakthrough by bringing a giant rubber duck in Beijing. But, even though represents a good selfie-opportunity, bringing it over after is was already exposed at Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor is not something you would call a “viral strategy”.

BJDW 2013, Anti-tectonics Pavilion. Image courtesy of antitectonics.com

BJDW 2013, Anti-tectonics Pavilion. Image courtesy of antitectonics.com

As long as guanxi are the key, promotion won’t be necessary.

Numbers in China are big enough to make every niche market look like a primary one. While architecture and civil engineering have a slightly longer history in modern China, design as a value has begun to be recognized in first tier cities only a few years ago. Those architects and designers that successfully made it through all the difficulties of operating in such a rough environment have by now already established themselves: they don’t need to invest in marketing events anymore. These people get most of their commissions through the same of client(s): usually a real estate developer with whom they built a tight relationship that goes beyond a simple business relationship. Until today, these are the type of relations that form the bone structure of Chinese society: the over-quoted 关系 guanxi. This being the background there is no need for these professionals to spend money and even more precious time to do such an impersonal promotion. Of course, things are changing. After Xi Jinping became the President of the People’s Republic of China many well powerful people have started to fall. This includes people at all levels, even “tigers” like the former member of the 17th Politburo Standing Committee [China’s highest decision-making body Zhou Yongkang, the former secretary of the Communist Party’s Chongqing branch Bo Xilai, and news anchor Rui Chengguan. Now many Chinese feel their guanxi are not as stable as before, and that their long-term relationships might hit into a sudden end. Thing might be changing, but we are not even close to make it necessary for famous architects and designers to promote themselves at such a design event. For this reason independent young and sometimes naive designers took the stage at the Beijing Design Week, but more than a few times weren’t able to excite the public. 

BJDW 2013, 751 D-park gas-tank

BJDW 2013, 751 D-park gas-tank

No mind controlling the limbs.

As I said the BJDW is spread throughout the whole city, and every district is taking a challenge with the others. This means the BJDW brand is somehow out of control, everyone wants to eat a piece of the cake, but in the mess nobody ends up eating it. Take the example of 751: even people who have been living in Beijing for years might not be familiar with the 751 name as it sounds a bit like a shanzhai version of the more famous 798 art district. What is today called 798 art district was previously a state-owned electronic appliances factory built during the 50s by soviet architects educated in East Germany at the Bauhaus school. Around the 798 factory there are plenty of other similar factories with different “7xx” names. After these factories were [partly] abandoned, artists and the likes moved in, in order to avoid the high rents of the city, thus 798 slowly gained a reputation of “art district” and went through a still ongoing process of gentrification. These transformations later involved also the surrounding factories, and in particular the one called 751, which was [and partially is] operating as a thermal power station, first burning gas, later coal. The central government planned to move all the heavy industries outside from every first and second tier cities, and thus 751’s distopic yet amazing spaces were left abandoned. The factory leaders had suddenly to reinvent themselves as art-connoisseurs and marketing experts. Needless to say that things didn’t go quite well and bureaucracy at different levels inhibited a healthy cooperation and maybe even a merger between similar entities. For this reason 751 is still pushing hard to brand itself as a design-oriented district under its own name, in opposition to 798 which should be a relatively artistic area. But real estate conditions change faster that people’s habits. In fact, while most of the beijingers only recall the 798 “brand”, rents in the whole area are growing so fast that it’s harder and harder for galleries to pay off the rent, and 798 itself is planning to develop a new area with the aim of attracting design companies and brands, repositioning its identity and threatening the equilibrium with the adjacent 751. China is sometimes very good at demonstrating the truth behind the second law of thermodynamics: everything is a mess and it doesn’t seem to get any better…

Public money didn’t help to create a sustainable business model.

It’s a fact that back in 2011 the government fueled the BJDW with a huge cash flow. This was partly because in government’s belief the BJDW could help foster the creative industry within the city and the country, partly because they thought that it could create revenue in the next editions, and mostly because the city’s administrators wanted Beijing to be named “international design capital” by the UNESCO. This eventually happened in 2012, and suddenly the government lost its interest in spending public money for an event that in the city’s administrators’ eyes should be able to stand on its own. When public money was involved, everybody was so busy eating his own slice of the cake, that nobody really bothered to build a sustainable business model for the BJDW. As Orietta Berti wisely sings “finché la barca va, lasciala andare” [as long as the boat is going by itself there’s no need to row]… So when the government cut the investment, the BJDW was left without a dime.

Mobile Design Agency. Image courtesy of designboom.com

Mobile Design Agency. Image courtesy of designboom.com

Lack of ties with the local community.

While well-meaning, many of the projects have not always been welcomed. Italian designer Luca Nichetto has installed a number of colored benches, designed to be moved and flipped to act as stools or tables, inspired by watching locals move their stools into shady spots along the streets. Instead, some clever residents have taken them apart and used their cylindrical legs as plant pots. Hong Kong-based designer Michael Young had been commissioned to design a new public toilet, with a curvaceous white-tiled shell that will arch over the new loos like a space-age pod. It looked nice, but inside it housed four conventional western cubicles, negating the fact that the current open squat-toilets serve a key social role, where people chat between knee-high partitions. Taiwanese practice Open Union Studio was originally intended to occupy the empty first floor level of a building at No 30 Yaowu Hutong, which extends along the street-front in a long glazed gallery, for up to two years. But when the downstairs residents caught wind of the fact this space was going to be unlocked, they said they would move in themselves and stopped the practice from taking up residence. These examples [more here] show how the BJDW failed to actively link with the local communities. And once again, ‘if content is king, context is god’…

Anyways, applications are open now for the 2014 Beijing Design Week. We already filled the application form and our project for an interactive installation got as well approved by the 751 D-park management [for updates about the project stay tuned].

Beijing Design Week, 751.

Beijing Design Week, 751.