Preservation law is a sign of progress
While Beijing's courtyard houses are not buildings on the same grand scale as those in the Summer Palace or the Forbidden City, many of them also date back to the 14th century, when the city became China's capital. Built into winding alleyways arrayed around imperial residences, they reflect the same Ming dynasty history and social structure. Thousands of these graceful homes had survived until the beginning of the reform era and the recent construction boom that is redefining the face of Beijing as the 2008 Olympics draw nearer.
Unfortunately, many sat on valuable land near the city centre and have already been felled to make way for high-rise apartment buildings, hotels, shops and office buildings. Of those that are left, several hundred have been declared historic monuments worthy of protection; now, Beijing is considering putting protection for such buildings into its laws. The move is a welcome sign that there is an awareness of what sets the city apart and of the commitment to preserve this difference.
The key to success in this endeavour will be to shape laws that are specific enough to be effective and enforceable - and then to enforce them. And for that, the city of Beijing already has a model in the form of a recently passed law to protect the stretch of the Great Wall that falls inside the Beijing city limits.
The Great Wall law makes clear what kind of commercial development and public access can take place, what activities are forbidden, who is responsible for maintenance and what penalties apply for violations. In this case, the responsibility falls to the local counties and townships, and there is a 500-metre buffer zone inside which new construction cannot take place.
For Beijing's courtyard homes, the law should take into consideration the idea that restoration and commercialisation are not incompatible. Often, the opposite is the case. Many of those now championing the preservation of courtyard homes hope to renovate them for commercial use, giving them a fundamental incentive to use revenue from such development for the upkeep of the buildings.
Such strategies have met with success when applied in Shanghai, with villas in the former foreign concessions and the imposing bank buildings that line the Bund. In Guangzhou, much of Shamian island's historic architecture - along with its pleasant seaside promenades - have been preserved, while also allowing some commercial development to take place.
For a great many of Beijing's historic courtyard houses, the new law will be too late in coming, while many that are left are in poor condition. The relative success of any plan to preserve them will depend on the details about who is to take care of them, under what circumstances they can be developed and how the laws will be enforced.