Urban planning exhibition

Today, September 10, the Yale program organized an excursion to central Beijing. We first looked at the Urban planning exhibition, which is a museum devoted to Beijing. The guided tour and much of the exhibits focused very much on modernity. We got to admire models of various buildings built for the Olympics in 2008, and the tallest buildings, the "Beijing Silicon Valley", and other modernities were especially pointed out to us. Not much about historic preservation. Instead, the guide pointed out that the old small alleys in the hutongs were narrow and crooked. (Indeed, my Baedeker from 1912 warns that they stink and are impossible to get through when it has rained). Of course, the hutongs are being replaced by modern concrete, steel, and glass. According to the Lonely Planet guide to Beijing, 3679 existed in the 1980s, while in 2006 only 430 remained. More will have disappeared since then. Beijing's old buildings are, thus, suffering much of the same fate, and for the same reasons, as the are around St. Clare's church in Stockholm did in the 1960s, altough on a much greater scale. Mao wanted Beijing to become a productive, industrial city, while his successors over the last twenty years are making Beijing into a city of high raises, steel and concrete.

In Stockholm, the government ran out of money before they were able to raze the Old City, which was then something of a slum: unsanitary and not very wholesome. Of course, by now all of it has been carefully renovated through private initiative, and it is among the absolutely most attractive addresses to live in Sweden. It is certainly no longer an unsanitary slum. Perhaps something for Beijinng to learn from?

A great part of the exhibition was a model of the entire city.

But there were signs already at the exhibit that things might be changing in Beijing. For one there was this wonderful model of the Forbidden city.

But perhaps more importantly, there was a newly opened section on historic preservation. Oddly, this was not included in the tour (it looked very new, and there was actually not that much to look at there). At the entrance to this section there was a sequence of busts of the people who drew up the plans for the city in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing periods, and last came Liang Sicheng, who was a professor of architecture at  our neighbor, Qinqhua University. He worked on preserving the old architecture of Beijing. The fact that he is given a bust in the Urban planning exhibition suggests that the government has come to share something of his vision, which makes me happy. Unfortunately, they also in Beijing seem to be stuck in the kind of thinking that produces heavy-handed reconstructions (like in Datong) in the style of the much reviled Viollet-le-Duc.


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