Hunger Games Approved For Release In China: Should Architects Be Scared?

Quick -- If you had to pick one city in the world where the spectacle of a dazzling capital enabled by peasant labor most closely resembles Panem, the fictional Capitol of The Hunger Games, which would it be?

There is, of course, no right or wrong answer to that question. But now that The Hunger Games phenomenon is set to be released next month in China, it may be a moment to ask -- where, as architects, do we see ourselves in this allegory? How do we position ourselves as we are building in Beijing and Shanghai and Chengdu, not to mention Abu Dhabi and other mega-development cities? More simply, who has been doing the building of the world's newest "Capitols" and where do they come from?

Last Thursday, a human rights activist, three architecture professors and a professor of cultural analysis sat at a couple tables with microphones to address the question: "Who Builds Your Architecture?" Sponsored by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School, the panel launched a series of conversations directed by architecture professors Kadambari Baxi and Mabel O. Wilson with curator and writer Beth Stryker. The discussion followed up last year's New York-based efforts to boycott Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in protest of exploitative labor practices.

One might expect -- in an era in which political consciousness arguably demands organic farmed vegetables and sweatshop free clothing -- that architects would be concerned with the status of workers constructing their buildings. This relates to wider ethical issues about the overall circumstances of construction, beyond the sometimes apolitical framework of ecology. But the political circumstances of construction are, indeed, a new concern in architecture. Or, rather, one that architecture's major media outlets haven't taken on since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Back in 2008, in the build up to the Beijing Olympics, architect Daniel Liebeskind sparked a series of debates in the architecture blogosphere by admonishing architects from democratic countries to carefully consider the ethical dimensions of building for the autocratic state in China. From 2001 up to the Olympics, the Chinese government had displaced more than 1 million people for construction.

Since 2008, the architecture debates about construction in China have laid fairly dormant, while the pace of forced migration and rapid urban construction has increased. Last year, China announced the Shaanxi Province relocation of 3 million people for a massive water infrastructure project. While censorship inevitably helps to minimize our awareness of backlash, there are, in fact, dedicated protests and resistance. Last June, a man defending his property in Hunan Province even set himself on fire after demolition crews approached his home.

The Shaanxi Province relocation is the largest that China has undertaken since the Three Gorges Dam infrastructure project of the 1990s, which relocated 1 million people, mostly farmers. According to GlobalPost's "Relocation Nation" report:

Mile after mile on mountain roads, thousands of workers are installing new water treatment plants and re-channeling the river with giant earth movers. Mountainside banners urge farmers to "send clean water to Beijing."
For that reason, they're being moved off of their own farmland... Near Qiyan, villagers hope a bottled-water factory will employ many of those who lose their farms.

Farmers disconnected from their own crops, toiling to send resources off to a far away glimmering capitol probably sounds familiar to you. The allegorical narrative of The Hunger Games (critiqued here quite thoroughly) presents two distinctly separated worlds -- the world of the 12 Districts and that of the Capitol that manipulates them.

This past weekend Loinsgate announced approval to release The Hunger Games in China in early June. It is possible that, as the film travels to new contexts, the visualization of architecture and infrastructure presented may be more facile and potent than the allegory of the actual characters. (By the way, if it seems naive or oversimplistic to consider the potential impact of a popular science fiction film on a culture of 1 billion plus people, consider that one of the early fomenters of the revolution in Egypt was apparently inspired by Disney cartoons.)

The Hunger Games visually defines the Capitol with contemporary spatial forms -- complete with the folds, tessellations, and topographical forms that have defined a certain early 21st century architectural style. The angular metal of the Cornucopia, which stages the final battle scene, resembles a form by Coop Himmelb(l)au or the younger OfficedA, or countless other architects working in a digital Deconstructivist vein. On one fan website, a user named TheFan2000 noted, "WHAT THE HECK THAT'S THE CORNUCOPIA?! I kind of imagined it to look a little less...modern."

The architecture visualized in The Hunger Games also presents -- possibly for the first time in popular culture -- a seamless integration of the styles of 20th century European fascism and early 21st century digital formalism. Albert Speer's designs for Hitler's Berlin, for example, might be read into the Tribute's procession through the wide avenue leading to the Capitol's stadium.

In China, where The Hunger Games will be screening soon, many of the country's 150 plus stadiums sit empty, awaiting annual international festivities. Massive development projects, often designed by architects in New York or London, get built by laborers who may themselves have been forcibly displaced from a rural living.

Of course, The Hunger Games is a parable about oligarchy and control. Its reading is not limited to China, nor to autocracies. The questions the film offers -- in a convenient mass, popular package -- are as relevant in Beijing as New York. Regarding architecture, we might ask, how do we imagine spaces of power? Learning from recent decades of mega urbanization projects in China and the UAE and elsewhere, a question demands asking that is both more specific and more vague. Can architectural imagination ever be aligned with a democratic ethos if our work demands a captive disempowered labor force to be realized? Perhaps more simply, "Who builds your architecture, and how hungry do you really want them to be?"