China puts a break on Beijing modernisation

July 28th, 2008 - 10:20 am ICT by IANS  

By Ji Shaoting, Wu Xiaojun and Sun Xiaosheng
Beijing, July 28 (Xinhua) The map of the Chinese capital on the wall of Zhang Wei’s room is almost full with markings in black ink. The 31-year-old has used the map to track the destruction of the capital’s ancient winding hutongs (alleyways) and siheyuan (traditional courtyard houses), marking the site of each demolition with a black pen.

“The hutongs are the blood vessels while siheyuan are the cells of Beijing,” says the slightly built Zhang who walks around his home, the base for the conservation website, in traditional black slippers, now usually favoured only by the elderly.

Zhang founded the website eight years ago after watching his childhood home in a hutong named East Banbi Street being reduced to rubble by the bulldozers.

He managed to rescue a piece of a delicately carved wooden window frame. “It had not changed a lot in the last 120 years,” says Zhang.

He treasures the frame in his new apartment, where he operates the website dedicated to preserving images and memories of the hutong life.

The non-profit project has become a virtual old Beijing for more than 16,000 registered users, with a file of more than one million photos and 45 million words.

“Beijing is changing too fast,” says Zhang, who photographs the disappearing hutong with his team of dedicated amateur conservationists every weekend.

Too often they take snapshots of ruins, he says.

Much of the old city of wood and brick has fallen victim to a relentless drive for modernisation that has seen image boosting steel and glass buildings and a network of wide highways and avenues.

The destruction of the old city began in the 1950s after architect Liang Sicheng (1901-1972) failed to persuade Chinese leaders to build the new downtown Beijing outside the old city.

Standing at the end of East Rongxian Hutong, the shining egg-shaped National Centre for the Performing Arts looks like an alien spaceship.

It joins other modern or post-modern buildings, such as the Water Cube (National Aquatics Center), the Bird’s Nest (the National Stadium) and the China Central Television (CCTV) Tower, in a list of new landmarks.

But thanks to the efforts of Zhang and like-minded campaigners, the city is beginning to realize the value of its architectural heritage — and looking to strike a balance between preservation and modernization.

It consulted a think tank comprising more than a dozen experts on architectural history and town planning, including Luo Zhewen, 84, a student of Liang Sicheng.

In 2000, the municipal government announced its most ambitious plan to date to preserve the old city, promising 330 million yuan ($48 million) over the next three years to repair and preserve old buildings.

Cao Yuejin, who sits on the city planning committee, says, “Beijing needs to be modernized, and also traditional. The city needs to be balanced, and this guides the government’s efforts.”

“Beijing used to be protected in an inappropriate way,” says Cao. “We are aiming to create a comfortable living environment.”

Instead of tearing down the whole hutong, the government made plans to rebuild dilapidated siheyuan, defining the property rights, and opening the hutongs to commercial uses such as shops, hotels and bars.

“There will be no more large scale demolitions, even outside the protection areas,” says Cao. “The culture of hutongs will be protected in accordance with the living patterns of the residents.”

The new spirit of conservation has prominent supporters among the very people who stand to gain most from modernization — the architects.

One of the architects changing Beijing, Australian John Bilmon, who designed the Water Cube, is blunt: “I feel sad to see the destruction of the hutongs.”

Bilmon says he has tried to adopt elements of Chinese culture in the Water Cube.

“The Water Cube represents water while the Bird’s Nest with its red lights stands for fire, which are the two elements of traditional Chinese geomancy, Fengshui,” he says.

The Cube also symbolizes the earth and the Nest the sky according to the ancient Chinese concept of universe in which the earth is square-shaped and the sky is round.

Bilmon was delighted when the site of the Water Cube was moved 100 meters in order to preserve an ancient temple dating from the Ming Dynasty.

Many of the “Olympic homestay” households designated as accommodation for foreigners showcase the modernization of the ancient hutong homes.

“My home is centuries old, but it has clean toilets, computers, televisions and a refrigerator,” says Wang Zhixi, owner of an Olympic homestay.

Wang and her husband, who both claim descent from Qing Dynasty nobility, have decorated their home with traditional Chinese paintings.

“We can both enjoy the birds’ singing in the old yard just as Beijingers used to do and enjoy the convenience of modern life,” Wang says.

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