India and China. China and India.
Whenever discussion turns to the New World Order, these neighboring giants are always mentioned in the same breath as the up-and-comers. I understand the arguments, but remain deeply skeptical about the prospects for both countries, though for vastly different reasons.
With the Beijing 2008 Olympics drawing to a close, one must concede that China has managed to pull off a fabulously successful advertisement for itself, even though its ugly authoritarianism and environmental shamefulness remained on plain view throughout. So the question nags: Could India hold an Olympics that would flatter, rather than embarrass the nation? I, for one, seriously doubt it.
The Olympics requires the host nation to provide three basic elements: infrastructure, architecture, pageantry. This is no mean feat; just ask the organizers of Athens 2004 and Atlanta 1996. Greece failed in two of the three, just managing to save face, largely as a result of the world’s extremely low expectations. The United States failed across the board.
Infrastructure development takes vision and planning – not areas in which India has distinguished itself. Delhi is the only metro in the country which appears to spend on infrastructure in anything but an ad hoc, purely corruption-driven way – not that Delhi’s version of forethought has made it even remotely the world-class city it purports to be. Sure, it is difficult to remake old cities – although that is, essentially, what Beijing has done – but even its built-from-scratch, nouveaux riches commercial neighbor, Gurgaon, is an almost perfect study in tastelessness and dysfunction.
One of India’s most challenging infrastructural problems, from an international public relations point of view, would be to develop habits and systems of internationally acceptable public hygiene. I suspect that most first-time visitors to India will be under-impressed by the filth and noise of their surroundings, and the television cameras will have a difficult time avoiding the blight of omnipresent garbage, which flows through the streets of India the way water flows in riverbanks.
Perhaps India, like Greece, might shine in the spectacle, even if they would fail in the organizational aspects of building proper infrastructure to host the athletes and visitors in style and comfort. From classical dance to Bollywood, India shines in artistic performance. But would this kind of close-up oriented presentation captivate the world when executed on the scale of an Opening Ceremonies? Perhaps not. Have you ever attended a major pop concert in India (or involving India performers traveling abroad, for that matter)? They are unwatchably cheesy. A.R. Rahman may write world-class music, and Adnan Sami and Asha Bholse may be stars of Indian popular song, but their live concerts are hideously amateurish affairs. They are often accompanied by filmy dancing which, though so attractive on the screen, comes off as a bad joke when the scale of the movements are dwarfed by the live venue.
Architecture is an extremely important element in the Olympic mix if, as with China, the aim is to establish one’s prestige and announce one’s global intentions. It expresses a country’s ambition, accomplishment, sense of style, sophistication, and ability to produce tangible outcomes suited to a major occasion. Most of the world sees the host nation only via satellite feed, and images of the Olympic venues are the ubiquitous “context-establishing shots” which begin the coverage of almost every event. A country can do no better advertising for itself when hosting an Olympics than provide monumental, attractive architecture. This has certainly been a key part of China’s strategy – and it has worked.
China commissioned outrageously wonderful buildings from teams of architects and landscape architects from Switzerland, Australia, France, Germany, the U.K., and China. The superb “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, the “Water Cube” National Swimming Center, and Olympic Forest Park are the glamorous face of a spectacular Olympics. The subsidiary venue structures each have a degree of architectural merit, even if they are not as jaw-droppingly innovative as the main sites, and the 1,600 unit Athlete’s Village has received LEED “gold” certification for its sustainable construction techniques and energy efficiency. In addition, Beijing has undertaken an impressive array of non-competition-hosting buildings as part of its Olympic facelift, including a spectacular National Theater, a Digital Media Center, a Convention Center, and television network complex.
Now consider India, which has hardly built a worthy piece of major architecture since Independence – I can think of only two possible candidates, one of which was designed by a Canadian, the other by a Frenchman. A couple years ago, a friend sent me this idiotic Business Week slide presentation, touting the greatness of contemporary Indian architecture. I sent him back a note congratulating him on the excellent joke. Awkwardly, it turned out not to be a joke, but an earnest (if blinkered) piece of jingoistic bragging.
Are there great Indian architects working today? Surely there must be. But what are they building? And would insular, foreigner-resenting India consider commissioning high-profile Olympic buildings from international architects? Never. Indian national pride would never allow it to do what even xenophobic China was able to do – what the entire rest of the world does: commission world class architecture from throughout the world.
Then there is the little problem of paying for the infrastructure and new architecture. After the politicians and bureaucrats have siphoned-off their monumental bribes and contractors have been selected on the basis of kick-backs rather than ability, will the bid-winners have sufficient talent and remaining resources to deliver quality buildings, on time? There is certainly plenty of past experience on which to hazard a prediction.
I have tremendous affection for India, and a like degree of antipathy for China. But there is no question which country has announced its presence on the world stage with panache and which can never hope to do so. “I love my India” as much as the next guy, but not because it has a prayer of achieving greatness in my lifetime.