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Beijing: Modernising History

The demolition of the protected home of China’s most prominent 20th-century architect exposes the tension between preservation and progress, says Anu Leinonen

Chinese historical architecture managed to survive the Cultural Revolution, the Sino-Japanese war and even collective ownership, but the current changes in society threaten heritage in a new way. In order to raise the living standards of millions of Chinese people, the pressure to develop land in the old city centres is extremely high. Unfortunately, this is precisely where most of the ancient architecture is.

Beijing’s old city wall was demolished by Mao in the 1950s to make way for the new second ring road. It is inside this road-locked area that old Beijing sits, built of one- or two-storey courtyards (siheyuans), along a grid of alleyways (hutongs). Journalist Amy Stone has reported that there were 3,250 hutongs when Mao came to power in 1949 but by 2004, according to the Beijing Urban Planning Society, only 1,204 remained. As the capital city, Beijing is facing the dilemma of progress versus protection most poignantly, while trying to set an example for other Chinese urban developments.

After years of unclear ownership conditions, the buildings in the old centre are often dilapidated and without modern comforts: no heating, double glazing, running water or lavatories. A courtyard that might have once been occupied by a well-to-do merchant’s family is now crammed with shanty extensions to accommodate hundreds of lower-income and migrant workers. Change is inevitable, but the methods to achieve it need to be evaluated carefully.

Legal protection

Chinese laws for heritage protection are generally based on international standards. However the implementation of the protection laws is hardly monitored at all. This was shown dramatically in the recent demolition of a protected courtyard in the middle of Beijing.

The courtyard in 24 Beizongbu Hutong was once home of China’s most prominent architect, Liang Sicheng, who worked as advisor for the new Communist government in the ’50s. His plan to save the historical centre of Beijing led to a proposal for a new satellite city, west of the old centre, for the new party administration. He fought to preserve the old city walls, but was less than successful in that much of the city’s heritage has been lost. The demolition of his own house being the final irony.

The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre (CHP) headed by the lawyer, He Shuzhong, was able to stop Liang’s home’s demolition in 2009. It was then protected as a (low-level) cultural relic, requiring approval from the cultural heritage authorities for any redevelopment. However, during the Chinese New Year in February (the main holiday season), the entire structure was demolished. The CHP apparently received 8,000 emails from concerned citizens, while the micro-blogging site Weibo stated that 90 per cent of responses to its online survey said that Liang’s siheyuan should not be demolished.

Liang was something of a well-known personality for the Chinese public, largely due to a recent Chinese documentary that celebrated his life and times. Both the commissioning and televising of that programme and the Chinese people’s protest are indicative of the newly emerged appreciation of historical architectural roots. When CHP started ‘Friends of Old Beijing’ in 2005, more than 50 per cent of the volunteers were foreigners. Now, most volunteers are young Chinese people.

After a lengthy embarrassed silence, the municipal government finally relented and said that Liang’s residence will be rebuilt: but no reconstructed architecture can ever replace the original.

City of fakes?

The Beijing authorities now want to apply for UNESCO heritage protection to the entire north-south axis, running through the Forbidden City. Tragically, many original structures along this axis were demolished during the Cultural Revolution. For example, the area south of Tiananmen (Qianmen/Dashalan) was totally demolished five years ago and is now a shiny new ‘historical’ shopping street reconstruction, lined with Western fashion shops − no Chinese traditional handicraft shops could afford the elevated rents any more.

Likewise, the area around the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, cherished ancient structures that were used for telling time has been under the threat of a ‘style restoration project’ since 2009. The ‘Beijing Time Cultural City’ development project is threatening an enormous 12.5 hectare area.

China is undoubtedly aware of the importance of heritage. The temples, palaces and monuments are now well protected, but the protection of generic old city structures, like hutongs, needs urgent attention.

One of the main problems is the unclear ownership issues. If a threat of urban ‘restoration’ hangs above the entire old centre, private developers are not interested in investing in renovation that may very well be demolished in a few years’ time. Additionally, many courtyards are owned by government companies, who rent them out but do no maintenance work. The courtyards will keep deteriorating until it will no longer be possible to repair them, providing a convenient and plausible explanation for the developers to demolish it all.

The meagre 50,000 RMB (£5000) fine for the demolition of Liang’s courtyards can easily be covered with the gains from the planned 28-storey replacement building. There are indications of a genuine political will to preserve urban architectural history, but a comprehensive disciplinary process − without sounding too authoritarian about it − is needed in order to start a real change.

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