798 Factory in Beijing is one of the greatest accidental public spaces to emerge since the turn of the millennium. What started as loft collective when a few artists set up their studio in a former armament factory built by transplanted East German architects and workers during the Mao era, at what was, at the time, the edge of town, soon became a collection of galleries, then a bookstore and tea room, then more galleries, then stores and restaurants, then private museums. The artists moved away when rents started to rise long ago, but the area has grown to encompass several adjacent factories whose concrete and brick structures, pipes, and narrow streets always seems to be buzzing with activity. The question on my mind since I first visited the area in 2003 is: Why don’t we have this in our country?
In mid November, I joined a few other “experts,” both from the local community and from around the world, to talk with 798 Factory’s management about how they could grow, solve problems such as traffic congestion and an influx of tacky stores, and become what the management company’s president called “an internationally operating art center.” It soon became clear in our discussions that the issues were symptomatic of a larger dilemma: Everything that would clean up 798 would also reduce its—to borrow a phrase—messy vitality. Also, despite the management company’s belief that the area could grow by attracting more galleries and building its own nonprofit museum, the contemporary art world is seeing its activities shift to both temporary art fairs—such as the three Art Basel expos in Basel, Switzerland; Miami Beach, Fla.; and Hong Kong—and to internet-based sales.
798 Factory has already been widely copied in Chinese cities such asShenzhen, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, all of which have converted similar factories into art spaces. In each instance, the area appears as way station in the dissolution and sprawl of art spaces from monolithic art centers and districts to temporary and ephemeral moments of art stimulation and sales: from art museums and galleries in physical locations to art fairs biennials, triennials, pop-ups, trade-free zones, and internet-based display and sales mechanisms.
What continues to make these “factories” still attractive is, I would argue, exactly the aura of production that clings to them. While many of the gallery interiors are indistinguishable from their Western counterparts—from their white walls, concrete floors, and skylights to the fashionably dressed aspiring galleristas who guard their entrances—their outsides still look like factories. Each complex as a whole gives you the sense of a series of workshops crammed together around remaining gas tanks and leftover equipment. In other words, this appearance gives you the sense that the art establishments are not like stores, as they seem to be in districts such as SoHo or Chelsea in New York, but places where production has become art.
For that reason, one of the best ideas I heard during our sessions in Beijing was to open a museum dedicated to industrial art, centered on some of the machinery the management had salvaged over the years. However, what was really needed, I pointed out, was to make the sense of making real again. What 798 Factory needs is a good art school whose students are producing art and artists’ studios are subsidized by the high rents that 798 Factory can charge its upscale boutiques and galleries.
As products become more ephemeral (one of the most interesting and popular exhibitions I saw during this visit was one by TeamLab, a collective that produces selfie-friendly rooms filled with projections and interactive art pieces), and the frameworks in which they are sold become less bound to bricks and mortar, it is the process of production, and all that reminds us of that, that remains the thing that binds us in a shared experience of a refined, crystalized, art-based reality. It is the act of making that makes the maker culture real.
To a certain extent, 798 Factory will have to clean up its act to become more upscale to pay for this process orientation, but if it can, it will continue to be a model for how we can integrate art, architecture, and the urban experience around cultural centers that are neither monoliths nor fragmented stores. There are plenty of empty factories in the United States, and I have often wondered why none have been turned into a version of 798 Factory. American arts districts like Chelsea and SoHo are just part of a larger city and thus lack the intensity of the Factory. The closest domestic analogy I can think of is theHayden Tract in Culver City, Calif., which Eric Owen Moss, FAIA, has been turning into a hive for the Los Angeles creative class. But even that misses the public nature of 798 Factory, with its stores, restaurants, and alleys where people stroll past, looking at art, clothes, and each other.
If we want a true urban experience, where people, commerce, and culture intersect, 798 Factory is as good a model as I know. It could exist anywhere there is a factory, whether that be the suburbs or the inner city. I hope we find a way to make such a place in the United States as much as I hope that 798 Factory finds a way to continue its success.