When visiting Beijing during Spring, my friend Chris who was born and raised there, advised to check out 798 Art Zone. Also known as Dashanzi Art District, it was walking distance from Crowne Plaza Lido (my home for the week) and visible and citymaps2go - a must when you don't have data, don't speak Chinese and plan to explore a city in a country where Google is not exactly welcome. This communist factory environment (industrial interiors but for real) which was built 50 years ago, turned into an avant garde neighborhood is the ultimate plan for a weekend morning exploring an unexpected side of Beijing.
This post is a bit of a photobomb, but it captures how I felt exploring the area. Amazed by the creativity and the size of this industrial dream. There are 3 main areas I found, took about 3 hours to explore including some souvenir shopping - really cheap and cool stuff:
- Public Service Center for Beijing 798 Art Zone (southernmost, featuring a Tibetan Art center)
- 798 Art District (street installations, shops, galleries and Bauhaus-inspired arcs and windows)
- 751D Park (from Ace Cafe, the area from the station through the buildings with many pipes)
The Dashanzi factory complex began as an extension of the "Socialist Unification Plan" of military-industrial cooperation between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. By 1951, 156 "joint factory" projects had been realized under that agreement, part of the Chinese government's first Five-Year Plan. However the People's Liberation Army still needed modern electronic components, which were produced in only two of the joint factories. Since the Russians were unwilling to undertake an additional project, they suggested the Chinese to turn to East Germany, a big producer of electronics at the time. The project was green-lighted in early 1952 and a Chinese preparatory group was sent to East Berlin to prepare design plans. This project was the largest by East Germany in China, was green-lighted in 1952. Officially named Joint Factory 718, it followed the Chinese government's method of naming military factories starting with the number 7.
The architecture was influenced by the Germans, who chose a functional Bauhaus-influenced design. The plans, where form follows function, called for large indoor spaces designed to let the maximum amount of natural light into the workplace. Arch-supported sections of the ceiling would curve upwards then fall diagonally along the high slanted banks or windows; this pattern would be repeated several times in the larger rooms, giving the roof its characteristic sawtooth-like appearance. Despite Beijing's northern location, all windows face north as the light from that direction would cast fewer shadows.
The chosen location was a 640,000 square metre area in Dashanzi, then a low-lying patch of farmland northeast of Beijing. The complex was to occupy 500,000 square metres, more than half dedicated to living quarters. Fully funded by the Chinese, the initial budget was 22MUSD, which is a lot of money today, but even more so in the 1950s.
The equipment was transported directly through the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian railway, and a 15 km track of railroad from Beijing Railway Station to Dongjiao Station, purpose built to service the Joint Factory 718 began production in 1957, amid a grandiose opening ceremony and display of Communist brotherhood between China and East Germany, attended by high officials of both countries. It would be fully functional until the early 1990s, when deprived of goverment support like many state-owned enterprise, it simply declined until it became obsolete. The remains of the management were reconstituted as a real-estate operation called "Seven-Star Huadian Science and Technology Group", charged with overseeing the industrial park and finding tenants for the abandoned buildings.
The Dashanzi factory complex was vacated when most of Beijing's contemporary artist community was looking for a new home. Avant-garde art being frowned upon by the government, the community had traditionally existed on the fringes of the city. In 1995, Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), looking for cheap, ample workshop space away from downtown, set up in the now defunct Factory 706. Through word-of-mouth, artists and designers started trickling in, attracted to the vast cathedral-like spaces. Despite the lack of any conscious aesthetic in the Bauhaus-inspired style, which grounded architectural beauty in practical, industrial function, the swooping arcs and soaring chimneys had an uplifting effect on modern eyes, a sort of post-industrial chic. At the artists' requests, workers renovating the spaces preserved the prominent Maoist slogans on the arches, adding a touch of ironic "Mao kitsch" to the place.
Public Service Art Center
798 Art Zone
I bought 6 of these and hanged them on the doors of our closet.
Ace Cafe in 751D Park station
Just like the ones in Vienna