There is something absolutely terrifying and exhilarating about the sight of a million people in one place. Tiananmen Square is that big. Or at least it seemed like it. Surely hundreds of thousands in the Square itself. But more than a million in the streets, by many estimates. The numbers came much later. At the time it was just massive. While the Square once set the logic of official Beijing, it had, at that time, been transformed into a sprawling encampment of protest.
It is 1989 and Dean is seeing the Square for the first time in many months. That morning he had arrived at the station on a filthy train packed floor-to-ceiling with stinking, sweating students from far-flung regions west. Remarkably, the trains were still running like clockwork as they delivered the ragtag throngs to the capital—even as martial law was being laid down. This was all before the gunfire and the tanks. The optimism of “eight-squared,” the pro-democracy movement, still swelled, even as hunger-strikers were passing out and garbage was accumulating. The journalists were swarming and it felt like a turning point. It was. Just not in the obvious ways.
“Big boxer shorts”, “water cube”, “bird’s nest”, the “tomb.” All the iconic new buildings have pet names given by cab drivers. Their descriptions are at least more entertaining than the architectural press and usually right on the mark. To Dean, none embody the power of Tiananmen. Tiananmen is just Tiananmen. No pet names.
Tiananmen…. What was it? Potential? Was it the charged void? He had read that somewhere long ago in architecture school. The urban void? But long before the intellectual framework, the place itself simply had power. The power of place. In fact, it is somehow more powerful empty than when it was full back in ’89. The idealism of those days was long ago supplanted by socialism with Chinese characteristics. The market has won and the smog now lies heavy over China’s city of dreams.
Dean visits the Square whenever he’s in town. He’s been doing this for years. He’s also been somewhat obsessively collecting photographs of him taken in the same spot of the Square from each time he visits. Someday it will be his alternate history. It’s the northeast corner, with the gate of the Palace and Mao’s portrait in the background. Apparently the portrait is changed every few weeks.
His colleagues like the shopping streets, the temples, the hutongs, the Palace, or Caochangdi where the sort-of counter-culture elements live. Then there is knocking on dissident artist, Ai Weiwei’s blue door to get an autograph or give him some cash to help him with his fine.
Dean prefers to stroll around the Square. It’s usually empty save the few Chinese tourists who come for something. For what, he isn’t sure. The charged urban void, was that it? He once did a studio project around that theme. They were encouraged to have some “theme” or “theory” or some thought, at least. It was on a much smaller scale, of course—the theory and the site, both. At the last possible moment, the night before the final presentation, he panicked and filled the “void” with architecture. He then spent his review trying to convince the jury it was actually a “charged urban void.” Reviews never went well. The stupid things people do in studios. Smithson? He can’t remember. Sounds right. Doesn’t matter in the Square. It defies all that. It pre-dates the nonsense.
Tiananmen is it’s own game, in there with other mega-communist spaces, but also a category unto itself. Part of the chess game that is China. The empty Square as one of the empty squares that has yet to be played. Or, was it already played out in ’89? Might have been.
He goes, in part, just to confirm it is indeed still there. He was amazed that the government had not simply re-developed it. That took guts, or just the common audacity of government. They simply power-washed it, towed away all the burned-out buses, and brought the tourists back in. Everything back to normal.
The architects coming to China these days have no idea what they are looking at most of the time. They see cities and buildings, but it all needs translating, like the language. But even then. They think it’s sort of like New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. The analogies fall apart because this is all generated from a different context. And the Square is emblematic of this, he thinks.
In 1989, within the span of a few weeks, a few days even, the Square had gone from empty, to a nation of tents, banners, and tight denim. An optimistic garrison all fired up on books and visions of the west. It was tricky being a foreigner back then. The embodiment of desire and possibilities. Object of envy. Pissing everyone off. Most of them remained huddled in their concrete compounds, faxing everyone back home to send more shipments of Cadbury’s and Frosted Flakes. All of them screaming in long-distance telephone booths, telling relatives not to worry about the protests. PERFECTLY FINE HERE! NO NEED TO LEAVE! THANKS! OK! LOVE YOU, TOO!
The Monument to the People’s Heroes was the giant obelisk giving the middle finger to the imperial axis. A pseudo-Stalinist erection in carved stone. When Mao finally died they interred his body in a mausoleum right in the center of the Square. Another break in the flow of the old city. The students (mostly students, but at that time it was hard to tell who was what), camped around the patriarch’s tomb in such numbers that it seemed they would lift the boxy building and carry it away to some other destination. Don’t think it hasn’t already been conceived of. Where it should have gone to, no one could say. Or were they protecting him? There was a sort of romanticism about the old man that inspired. He had been a protestor of sorts himself—before going crazy.
Between meetings, with his Starbucks coffee (he had to request a paper cup with the little green logo because the authorities did not want citizens of the realm marching around with Starbuck’s coffee in the streets) he strolled around the mausoleum. Pilgrims from the provinces had come to pay their respects. Even school children filed through, led by flag-bearing, bullhorn-totting teachers with thick accents. How would that mark a child? To see Mao’s waxy corpse under glass and harsh lighting had been disturbing even to him. And he had seen different sorts of dead bodies before. Somehow it’s easier to take when they are less doctored-up. Was it even the real body? Was it really him? Well, not him anymore, but his former body, the body. There were rumors the real body had long ago been destroyed due to a botched embalming by some Soviet doctors. Perhaps a little joke being played on the Chinese.
There is nowhere to sit, like a Chinese mall where you have to circulate endlessly to exhaustion to find a way out. No benches. Just human transit. It isn’t a park, after all. He walks with his coffee and periodically inspects the stone pavers for mysterious stains or signs of tank tread. Nothing. They are pristine. No fossil remains of pre-historic times. “Eight-squared” doesn’t really exist. It has no history. Everyone is making money now. Perhaps if they had only been a little more patient. If they had only waited a few more years. But maybe, just maybe, the doomed movement was the catalyst for all this building. It was a blip. The economy started to ignite soon after. Maybe just coincidence, he thought. But, given what he understood about how the Middle Kingdom functioned, it seemed unlikely. The big moves were all scripted, like the Olympics and everybody saw how well that went off.
The charged urban void was still charged. That is what he came back for. No one thought it would end so badly. He also hadn’t suspected that the events that unfolded in this vast space would inextricably bind him and hold him close.