Modern design in Beijing may not stand test of time

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


On May 24, as the audience in the National Convention Centre sat waiting for the start of the 2012 Beijing Architecture Forum, a short film featuring the capital's ancient architectural glories played on a wall-to-wall screen.

It was meant to be a happy occasion to honour Wang Shu, the first Chinese citizen to be awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture, but when shots of the Forbidden City appeared, I was gripped by a feeling of loss.

What else is left in this once-beautiful city? The hutongs (alleyways) with their siheyuan courtyard houses, once ubiquitous in Beijing, are rapidly disappearing to make way for high-rises with no notable characteristics at all.

The panellists were 20 minutes late. Wang entered wearing a traditional black jacket. Huang Yan, director of the Beijing Urban Planning Commission and one of the moderators, explained that the panellists had been stuck in traffic, which must have been an embarrassing confession for a city planning official. But for locals, it's a headache we live with every day.

Beijing must lead the world for the length of roads it has built in the past decade or so. We now have a sixth ring road - all of them are six-lane highways.

Nevertheless, it seems that the more roads we build, the more congested the traffic becomes.

Wasn't this the scenario foreseen by architect Liang Sicheng in the early 1950s, when he proposed building a new capital to keep the old one intact?

Once the panellists were seated, the other moderator, Yung Ho Chang, head professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asked each one: 'What is the state of architecture today?'

Some of the panellists - such as the Pritzker-winning Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid - were optimistic, but others were concerned. Wang accused mainland architects of producing a large number of 'rubbish' designs and admitted that he once wept over photographs of old Beijing.

Tears welled in my eyes, too - what happened to the Beijing of my childhood? I recalled how, from our apartment window, I could look out across vast fields to the Western Hills. What happened to the narrow streets lined with big trees, where there was little motor traffic and people rode bicycles, where my father would take me and my sister to visit an aunt on a tram and we'd pass beneath an ancient city gate?

I grew up on a university campus in western Beijing. Much of it is now enclosed by the Third Ring Road; the busy highway runs alongside the building in which I grew up. When I pass that building in a taxi, I look up at my old window and imagine what I would see if I lived there now: traffic at a standstill on the highway, dull-looking corporate buildings and residential high-rises.

Xizhimen, a northwestern gate on the Inner City Wall, was demolished in 1969 to make way for the Second Ring Road underground rail line. Workers dismantling the 500-year-old gate discovered a smaller one, dating from an earlier dynasty, entombed inside. Now, the site is best known as one of the city's worst bottlenecks, an overpass that stands near a weird-looking structure that resembles three giant buns.

I have interviewed a number of Chinese architects in the past few years, and I have often been struck by their self-assurance. 'Here in China, a recent architecture graduate has probably designed more buildings than an architect in Europe throughout his career,' they are fond of saying.

But I wonder how many of their structures will stand the test of time.

The winning of the Pritzker Prize by one of their own should remind mainland architects that it pays to spend years practising Chinese calligraphy, as Wang did, trying to understand the essence of national culture.

The international recognition of Wang's works could be a wake-up call for city planners, to see the importance of safeguarding cultural identity. When that happens, the era of relying on high-profile Western architects to create iconic works in our cities may come to an end - and we Beijingers may once again be able to get to work in good time.