The Grand Bazaar, Urumqi

– by Gong Ruochen –

urumqi01President Xi has just announced the revitalisation of the “Silk Road economic belt” – a trading route for the 21st century that links China to Europe via the mountains of Central Asia; as well as the “maritime Silk Road” that links China’s port facilities with the African coast and then up to the Mediterranean. The original Silk Road – the 6,500km ancient Han dynasty trading route for merchants, pilgrims – now has a relatively modern trading point along its length

This is the International Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, designed by Wang Xiaodong whose office is also located in this capital of Xinjiang Province. This Islamic building group is also a blend of the lingering charm from old days and the magnificent style from contemporary times. Moreover, as a landmark under the Snow Mountain, this powerful architectural complex seems to integrate with its surroundings. Its Islamic characteristics set within the Chinese hinterland seems to offer an architectural olive branch to the many passing traders of all ethnicities. The liveliness and robustness – and some might say, non-Chineseness – of this area creates a genuine feeling of public space and civic engagement.

urumqi02These lively brick buildings seem to express a unique vitality: one derived from the combination of traditional brick detailing with modern decorative finishes. The nooks and crannies, recesses and level changes express and emphasize the subtle changes of light and shadow within and without. Internally, this has a cluttered street market ambiance – it is a historic mall that retains a unique, localist quality; it is a enclosed space that retains a bustling external charm. All is within easy reach, goods are still warm; there is characterful, meaningful life here. People are lost in commercial reverie.

At the same time, the International Grand Bazaar is also a significant epitome of both the long history in local business and the Uighur people. Wang Xiaodong designed the building so as to reproduce particular features of the regions of Western China, simply and vividly. The outer wall, for example, has a pattern of rhythmic repetition, which seems to follow the cadence of the local stringed instruments whereby the elevations seem to dance.

urumqi03The great mosque is surrounded by four pillars, whose colors contrasts with the shifting light and shade. Indeed, it appears to be a continuation of architectural chiaroscuro of dappled light effects in the buildings from as far back as the Mameluk Empire in Persia, 1000 years ago. As for the huge vaulting at the top of the trade market, they obviously belong to the regional Moorish legacy.

And taking pride of place at the centre of the Grand Bazaar, the observation tower is clearly derived from early Arabic minarets. The tower body is of traditional Uighur masonry designs including a large relief carving called “Twelve Mukamu” (In the Uighur language, the word “mukamu” means “great melody” and “musical movement”). Looking from the tower top, one can see the mirage of the Western 36 States around the Peacock River. Those wonderful legends recorded seem to come alive, perhaps results from the illusion of the sympathetic construction of this building and its crafted surfaces.

urumqi04Sadly, however, there are also many problems here. After entering into each building, it is immediately clear that all internal spaces are filled with modern technology: an unnatural but maybe inevitable truth. Most Uighurs do not want to live in the 12th century after all, which seems to mirror the narrative device of this building – where the internal structure retains its ancient form but with modern structural advances needed to help it stand up. An ancient mall with contemporary goods and services on sale inside. A traditional covered street scene constructed 15 years ago. So a question remains: instead of the playing the Chinese game of replicating the past through modern imitations, can these kind of buildings have a better relationship with the contemporary era? This is a big question – for the readers to interrogate – as it is something that needs to be assessed across the whole canon of architectural “styles” that claim to be modern while reflecting and recreating the glorious meanings of past times.