February 1, 2005
Why should we care what happens to Chinese cities? Because the Chinese care what we think.
On a forlorn spit of earth overlooking a vast construction pit a few miles west of Beijing’s Forbidden City, a single hutong—a cluster of traditional one-story houses surrounding a courtyard—is all that remains of what was once a neighborhood. The red paint on the doors is flaking, but the sloping tile roofs are still perfect. In every direction the steel-and-glass frames of new high-rises rear out of the mud, attended by flocks of yellow cranes. An entire quadrant of hutongs, half a mile on a side, has been flattened to make way for Beijing Finance Street, the centerpiece of the capital’s new financial district.
Beijing Finance Street is the work of corporate architectural giant Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Craig Hartman, the partner in charge of design on the project, thinks it marks a bright new moment in Beijing’s urban modernization. “We’re developing the pedestrian scale as opposed to the megascale,” he says. Beijing Finance Street will integrate its office towers with low-platform residential buildings, retail, and park space, fitted into an invitingly asymmetric street plan. Hartman claims that Beijing Finance Street, unlike the motley concrete monsters that have eaten much of Beijing over the past decade, will cultivate a livable organic urban fabric.
Then again, maybe it won’t. Beijing Finance Street is “a disastrous development,” says Liang Wei, deputy director of Beijing Tsinghua Urban Planning & Design Institute. “It’s on the wrong site. If it was just empty land, like in Nevada or somewhere, that’d be okay.” But the hutong neighborhoods, with their lazy tree-lined alleyways and tiny storefronts, are the heart of Beijing’s traditional residential culture. And the city is already losing them at a frenzied pace. With the value of real estate skyrocketing to $70 a square foot, the pressure to put up commercial high-rises is overwhelming. In 2003 Beijing built around 225 million square feet of new housing, roughly as much as that in all of Florida. Indeed much of Beijing has come to resemble urban Florida: garish high-rise condos between grids of six-lane boulevards.
Meanwhile the city has undertaken huge new projects in preparation for the 2008 Olympics: a stadium and water-sports complex set in a vast Olympic Green, a new airport terminal, the Dongzhimen rail and bus transit interchange, five new subway lines, and on and on. “The demolition has accelerated with the Olympics in sight,” says Beijing-based architect Yung Ho Chang. The city planning commission has protected 42 historic areas around the Forbidden City. But some sources estimate that by 2008, ninety percent of the city’s original 6,000 hutongs will have been razed.
It sounds like a classic Jane Jacobs script: prestige-driven government/business megaprojects destroying organic mixed-use neighborhoods and annihilating historical traces and local character. But that would be an outsider’s perspective. Many Chinese are glad to sacrifice the hutongs for modern high-rise apartments. Hutongs lack indoor plumbing and insulation, and most are wildly overcrowded. “These areas are in very bad condition,” says Yan Huang, deputy director of Beijing’s Municipal Planning Commission. Chen Dan, a 23-year-old student I met outside a soon-to-be-demolished hutong, voiced a typical view: “These buildings are old and small, and China has too many people.”
The lack of interest in hutongs isn’t just practical—it reflects a cultural aesthetic difference. “People here don’t understand the notion of preservation as Europeans do,” Chang says. Where the Chinese do preserve landmarks, they tend to Disney-ify them, sprucing up exteriors with colorful imitation materials. Chang thinks it has to do with the continuity of Chinese cultural history. In Europe, the rise and fall of successive civilizations led to clear distinctions between building styles and specific historical eras. In China, whose civilization has been fairly continuous for more than 2,000 years, Chang says, “People don’t differentiate between the old and the new.”
So if most Chinese don’t care that the hutongs are disappearing, why should we? Should SOM be lambasted for participating in Beijing’s destruction of its own heritage or lauded for at least doing so in a well-planned, pedestrian-friendly way? It’s hard not to feel that 20 years from now millions of Beijingers will look back in anger at some of the decisions made during the city’s frantic modernization, much as today’s New Yorkers mourn the loss of Penn Station. But what if they don’t? Do foreigners really have any business venturing an opinion on how China should modernize its urban landscape?
The answer is yes—because, like it or not, foreigners are already involved in the conversation. It’s not just that the architects selected for Beijing’s most prestigious new projects (such as Herzog & de Meuron’s Olympic stadium, Paul Andreu’s National Theater, Norman Foster’s airport expansion, Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren’s China Central Television headquarters) are almost all foreign. It’s also that a more sophisticated and international set of Chinese architects and urban leaders is now coming into its own. “A generation now is becoming powerful that’s in their early thirties to forties and has very close contact with the international scene,” Scheeren says.
This generation does value character, historic preservation, organic pedestrian-scale development, and ecological sustainability—and it’s partly because they’ve studied abroad. Liang, 34, studied at MIT; 48-year-old Chang trained at UC Berkeley and lived in the United States from 1981 to 1996. At 39, Huang, who spent last year as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard, is head of municipal planning for Beijing’s Olympic construction effort. “It was unthinkable before, for someone with a lot of exposure to the outside to have a position like that,” Chang says. For this new generation, the future of the Chinese city is an international discussion.
Not that this discussion is an easy one, as can attest Steven Townsend, former head of SOM’s Hong Kong office. In one meeting with Chinese officials and urban planners to review a new suburban development, Townsend asked why they were privileging private cars over public transit. “I said, ‘You don’t have to make all the mistakes we Americans made,’” he recalls. “And they were offended. Their response was, ‘We have every right to make all of the mistakes you made.’”
Beijing has already repeated its fair share of foreigners’ mistakes. In 1949, shortly after the Communists took power, a committee met to formulate a city plan for the newly reinstated capital. At the time “the medieval city was intact,” Liang Wei marvels. The revered Chinese architectural scholar Liang Sicheng proposed leaving the ancient city as it stood and creating a second city center for government and industry on virgin land. His plan was rejected in favor of one crafted by Russian advisers modeled on the Stalinist plan for Moscow—ring roads, gigantic avenues, and the politburo in the heart of the ancient citadel.
It would, however, be a mistake to blame everything on the Russians; Beijing has long been an inhumanly vast grid of immense avenues. The present-day city was laid out in the thirteenth century by Emperor Khubilai Khan, whose Mongol forebears had nearly razed the previous city to the ground while conquering China. Khan’s intent was presumably to awe his lowly subjects by following the plan for Chinese imperial cities established in the Zhou dynasty, 15 centuries earlier. The Zhou plan, followed not just in Beijing but also in provincial capitals like Nanjing, mandates a square city wall with three gates on each side leading to three main arteries, or “meridians.” At the center of the square, where the main east-west and north-south meridians intersect, lies an inner forbidden city, with the emperor’s throne near the epicenter. The two chief meridians are the lines along which the city’s chi, or energy, flow; outside the city’s walls at the terminus of each meridian lies a temple. Within the city, the main entrances of all dwellings face south, the direction of yang, of warmth and reason. The north, the direction of yin, brings cold and danger. Even today in Beijing, the main gate of every hutong faces south.
This kind of urban planning, in which space is analogous to cosmology and political power, is not easy to harmonize with more modern understandings of how cities thrive. For example, Beijing’s mighty perpendicular avenues are starting to gridlock as the number of private cars explodes. “The avenues are wide enough, but there aren’t enough smaller streets for people to take detours,” Chang explains.
Of course, any traffic system would buckle under Chinese-style growth. More than 1,000 new cars hit the streets of Beijing every day—140,000 in the first four months of this year. Even the taxi drivers seem baffled; their shortcuts turn into bottlenecks from one day to the next. “I remember watching them build the second ring road, in 1980 or so, and thinking, ‘They’re crazy,’” recalls Eva Sternfeld, a geographer who first came to Beijing in the late 1970s. “They had no cars—there were donkey carts on the elevated freeway.” Today the city’s five ring roads are packed with cars, and they’re building a sixth.
The sheer speed and scale of change is probably the greatest enemy of organic growth and historical preservation. Notwithstanding Chang’s earlier point about its cultural continuity, China is also a country prone to sudden social upheavals. One could look at the current remaking of Beijing as simply the latest instance—a new “Great Leap Forward.” “China is a country with a history of radical transformations,” Scheeren notes. “They have an ability to deal with that more than we do.”
That may or may not be true, but it is the foreign-designed megaprojects that have come to define the transformation of Beijing today. Scheeren and Koolhaas’s CCTV building is the most iconic of the lot: a daringly cantilevered 700-foot-high trapezoid folded at the middle. CCTV demanded a building that, in typically gargantuan Chinese style, would house the entire network’s creative, technical, and management operations—and be able to produce and broadcast 250 channels of programming. The engineering requirements were so revolutionary that an entirely new planning body had to be convened to approve it. “It’s the most precisely engineered building structure in the world,” Scheeren says. “There are ten thousand steel members, and we know the exact performance of each one.”
Such groundbreaking technology comes at a price. The building is expected to cost more than $600 million—in a country where tens of millions of farmers survive on less than $200 a year. And the high price has prompted a subdued backlash. For months rumors circulated in the architectural community that the CCTV building had been quashed by Premier Wen Jiabao, known for his concern over issues of poverty and income inequality. The rumors, according to Scheeren and planner Huang, are false, but they were reported as fact in a state-affiliated Chinese magazine this summer.
The CCTV building has widely been portrayed as the epitome of the Chinese boom’s thoughtless gigantism, as if it were just another immense, tacky skyscraper. But according to Scheeren, it’s actually an attempt to interrogate that tired form. “The skyscraper today is usually just a generic tower. There’s a podium to compensate for its lack of relation to the rest of the city, and an ornament on top to create some kind of identity.” Scheeren and Koolhaas’s trapezoidal loop tries to weave steel and glass into something less static. “The loop is a nonhierarchical function that connects all the different activities where they can all meet,” he says.
Scheeren and Koolhaas are also working on a study for the municipal government on, of all things, historical preservation. They want to take a different angle—“to push the sense of preservation away from historical nostalgia. Hutongs are not the only problem. The fifties through the eighties also produced structures in the city that are interesting and are just part of the reality of historic continuity.”
One example of what Scheeren might be talking about lies in an area called Dashanzi, north of the city center past the fourth ring road. Here, in a peaceful block shaded by tall poplars, lies the former industrial complex known as Factory 798, which until the early 1990s manufactured civilian and military electronics. The factory’s buildings were designed in the mid-1950s by Bauhaus-trained East German architects. They boast wide-open brick and concrete interiors with curved ceilings drenched in light from angled skylights.
During the past four years, like industrial lofts throughout the developed world, these buildings have been transformed into galleries, boutiques, performance spaces, and restaurants. The Dashanzi art district is now the most sophisticated cultural zone in Beijing. The photographers who show at the prestigious 798 Gallery also show at the ICP in New York. In the informally hip Yan Club, audiences gather to listen to Uighur-influenced indie-folk bands, a scene that would be perfectly at home at the Knitting Factory. This is the face of Beijing’s new cultural elite.
Unfortunately this cultural elite is still small. And few other Chinese cities have the cultural ferment needed to emulate something like Dashanzi. For an example of historical preservation and small-scale organic development that could serve as a model for the rest of the country, you have to go to Shanghai, to the Xintiandi retail district.
“I hate the [expletive] Feng Shui guys,” Benjamin Wood says, pointing out a pair of symmetrical fountains in the atrium of a renovated nineteenth-century mansion. Wood—a portly American with the demeanor of a lumberjack—is leading a group of Loeb Fellows from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design around Xintiandi, the high-end urban retail redevelopment project that he largely created. Wood detests the fountains—particularly their symmetricality: “But the Feng Shui guys say you have to put them in, and you have to do what they say or no one’ll rent your property.”
Wood, cofounder of Wood + Zapata (now based in New York), was the principal architect behind Xintiandi, constructed in century-old shikumen stone houses in Shanghai’s historic French Concession district. In 1996 this was a deteriorating slum. As part of a general redevelopment plan for the district, the city government relocated 2,300 resident families; the developer, Hong Kong–based Shui On Properties, brought in Wood + Zapata to identify structures that could be rescued. Many had only viable facades, so the firm mapped out an inventive landscape of original brick walls and stone details mixed with transparent steel-and-glass additions. When construction finished in 2000, they had created a more elegant and intricate version of repurposed historical retail developments such as San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square.
Commercially Xintiandi appears to be successful, despite having preserved two-story buildings in an area dominated by 35-story towers. Shui On Properties’ EC Liu claims the development was a financial sacrifice (“Unfortunately we’re not money-grubbers,” he gibes). But a brief by the Urban Land Institute says the property is bringing in $8.7 million a year for an investment of $58 million. Furthermore, it’s helped raise surrounding real estate values faster than the Shanghai average.
Historical-preservation issues have always been easier to resolve in Shanghai, simply because historically the city is modern. Essentially founded as the concession zone for foreign merchants in China in the mid-1800s, Shanghai boasted its first skyscrapers by the early 1900s. Indeed the shikumen houses Wood remodeled had been built largely by Western landlords for Chinese tenants. But other Chinese cities are following Shanghai’s lead.
“Now that other cities have seen that Xintiandi works, they all want their own,” says Regina Chow of the cutting-edge Shanghai architecture firm MADA S.P.A.M. Some of these projects are better than others. “We’re working on one in Qingpu,” she says. “They stopped the original developer—he was doing a Xintiandi-style project, but with worse design. They brought us in, and we redesigned the traditional elements.” More generally Xintiandi has led other cities to focus on the integrity and vibrancy of city centers. MADA S.P.A.M. has done a cultural center for the city of Ningbo and is working on a project to integrate downtown Wuxi with a sinuous mixed-use development nicknamed the “Wuxi snake.” Principal Qingyun Ma is one of the best known of China’s young internationalists; he’s currently advising Scheeren and Koolhaas on the CCTV headquarters.
The issue of historic preservation is only one of a legion of problems raised by China’s breakneck urban development. The Loeb Fellows whom Wood was showing around had just finished a two-week tour of China, and much of what they saw had horrified them: repetitive, aesthetically numbing megadevelopments; an utter lack of attention to the relation between structures or to integrating residential with industrial, service, or other functions; madly wasteful energy use; runaway growth of private cars and failing public transport; and development proceeding faster than governments could plan for it. “What upsets me,” one of the fellows said, “is that they took all of these things that by the late eighties everyone in the world knew just absolutely do not work, and they went right ahead and did them.”
But the fellows were also impressed by the sophistication and sincerity of the younger generation of Chinese architects and urban planners they’d met. Westerners working in China agree. “There’s a great will to do sustainable development, to improve urban conditions, to reduce pollution,” says Vera Deus of Albert Speer & Partner, authors of a new master plan for Beijing and designers of Anting, a new satellite town in Shanghai. “But if a big developer comes in with a project that’s counter to the planners’ strategy, then usually the money wins.” The question is whether the increasingly sophisticated designers and planners will be able to take control of China’s urban growth before it’s too late.
The last untouched hutong in Beijing Finance Street isn’t empty—it’s being used as a field office by Beijing Building Corporation #6, which is putting up the boxy skyscraper next door. Engineers relax and take their lunch in the sunny rooms along the interior courtyard. When they’re done, they wash their hands at the spigot under the trees in the courtyard.
The only person I could find here who spoke even a sentence’s worth of English was a 25-year-old engineering intern named Yang Shao Fu. I asked him which kind of building he preferred, the hutong he was working in or the skyscrapers he was helping build. It took about three iterations before we were both sure he’d understood the question.
“I like this better,” Yang said, waving at the hutongs around him. “But”—he gestured helplessly at the yellow scaffold towering beyond the tile roofs.