Beijing is monumental. Masculine, strong and tough, some of the finest buildings in the world are here. Just arriving at Beijing airport is an amazing experience. Designed by Foster and Partners, the airport is massive and looks like it has just lifted itself gently from the earth, the roof line soft and undulating, but in its underworld, it vaults and soars effortlessly, like billowing material, pinned on towering white pillars.
One enters the city, vast as it spreads out over the plain and dotted with some fantastic contemporary buildings, to see the Forbidden City and its colossal walls and gateways, the great Tiananmen Square stretching before it towards the Temple of Heaven, broad strokes of rich colour and repeated pattern work, lifting the grey stonework from the earth.
Food is not all that makes the restaurant, and this is never more clear than at Capital M Beijing Restaurant. Situated on a corner of Tiananmen Square overlooking the monumental Gates to the Forbidden City, Capital M Beijing has not only a unique and rarified position but an ambience from design that makes the experience romantic and memorable and `the place to be’. The terraces outside are set up like little gardens, roses and ivy dripping and complementing teacups in pink rose and turquoise colours, pebble pathways and twirly iron chairs, the flower pots are hand designed and incised with Chinese cloud images and the views of the old city are wonderful, especially as sunset adds grace to the iron grey of Tiannamen. Inside, the restaurant is even more spectacular.
The designers, Debra Little and Roger Hackworth, (Dialogue ltd and Collaborate ltd) were faced with a huge task to transform a great ugly low ceilinged concrete space into what is today a wonderfully eclectic mix of mirrors and brass and geometric terrazzo black and white flooring, crazy fireplaces and designed furniture lifted from the forties. Michael Cartwright was commissioned to create a fifty metre mural on canvas, to be inspired by an old Chinese tapestry, to feature along the spinal wall of the restaurant. Red swirling Chinese clouds, giant blossoms and tortured trees, a rushing turquoise river sometimes burning from the sky above, wildflowers, grasses and rushes, thick fresh paint, all of it reflecting and double reflecting in mirrors and brass. It brings a lushness to the eating places whose colours are otherwise subdued and revives the hues of the Forbidden City, the rich reds and greens and yellows and provencal blues. The toilets are an absolute delight. The floors and walls in white terrazzo are incised in brass with a lovely old Chinese pattern. The cubicle doors are blood red and the outer doors in brass are adorned with blood red handles like old vines, these also commissioned from Michael. The bar is beautiful in brass and luminous green resin, the glasses rimmed in red, twinkling against the mirror ceiling. The place is sensuous. Attention to detail even in the etched metal pillars and the carved wood ceiling in the one high space of the restaurant. Absolutely gorgeous – and the food was pretty good too!
It was great going back this time to see the restaurant and Mike’s painting. When we were here before, setting up the painting, caught in the frazzle of tempers and undoing and redoing the installation of the painting, it was hard to put aside the emotions of two years of work finally going into its resting place. The anxiety at rest when finally we saw it all up, complete and beautiful and giving something truly magical to the space, working bountifully with the richness of design around it. But still, to arrive as a customer several years later, and to be greeted by its warm presence in the foyer and into the restaurant which had worn in a little and had acquired a personality through the maitre’d, was to see it with clear eyes. And we had heard such a lot about it from our own collectors and friends who had been in to dine, all declaring it to be a really special restaurant and the one they frequented always for special events.
Every day Mike would go down to the studio from six o’clock in the morning to paint this painting. He felt urgent about it. Anxious to catch the season as it awoke to greet the summer. He’d go out to the river to examine the new buds comparing them to his finds and sketches in the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Michelle Garnaut, the creator of the M restaurants, prepared him for the painting, taking the time to show him the colours and the special trees in the walls and gardens of the palaces. On a wintry Easter she arrived at the studios with Debra Little, the designer, to inspect the painting so far. Michael was really nervous. He loved the painting and didn’t want to have to tell them that this is the way it had to be if they didn’t like it. They loved it. Michelle declared, ‘He knows what he’s doing – lets leave him alone’ and they did – just a few small objections from time to time to trees a little too stark for their liking. As things go with design, the wall measurements changed, especially after one of the big bureaucratic delays in working in the space, and some of his painting got discarded and others grew taller. One space grew to 5 metres high and Mike was forced to hand stitch new canvas to the original. At this time he rented an old theatre that had the height for his work and for several months he was up on scaffolding before he could see it whole again.
Its a great thing to create. In something like a restaurant or a building, there is such a lot of collaboration to be considered. It is not the master work of one – somehow the master has to be awoken individually in each collaborator so that the whole can be a masterpiece. And Capital M Beijing is a masterpiece. It is the collaboration of the dreamer, the designers, the artists, the artisans, the workers, the managers, the chefs and waiters and all in all it comes together to create a feeling of deep pleasure for the diner who remarks, the meal was fantastic!