Beijing urban landscape: architecture, planning, design and conservation

Should the old urban landscape of Central Beijing have been conserved?

The montage, which is rough, shows a 1914 plan of Beijing superimposed on a recent Landsat image of the Beijing metropolitan area. When the reconstruction of the old city began, after 1949, Chen Zhanxiang recommended that a new city should be built outside the old walled city – so that the central area could be conserved. He had worked with Sir Patrick Abercrombie in London and understood the need for a city to engage in both conservation and development. Professor Liang Si-cheng commented that ‘demolishing the old wall is like peeling off my skin’ (Turner, T., Asian gardens: history, beliefs and design 2010, pp307-8). Beijing’s old walls, which became the 2nd Ring Road, are shown in the below photograph.

Osvald Siren's photograph of the old walls of Beijing, before they were demolished to make a ring road

Were the academics right or were the municipal authorities right? My vote goes to the academics. Central Beijing should have been as well protected from the twentieth century as Haussmann’s Paris.  The two capitals have comparable design histories. But, for Chinese urban designers and landscape planners, there were other problems. The old map makes a distinction between the ‘Tartar or Manchu’ Inner City (which contains the Forbidden City and the three Seas) and the ‘Chinese’ Outer City. The Manchus were invaders who spoke a different language. Their walls were a symbol of exclusion and repression, like the Berlin Wall, and were demolished by Chairman Mao’s government. Had the French and British not demolished the Yuan Ming Yuan, Mao Zedong might have done it for political reasons, much as he destroyed Buddhist monasteries. Mao’s position in Chinese history is peculiar. He will always have credit for modernising the country and educating women but, one day, he is likely to receive even more blame for the Cultural Revolution. He will also be blamed for destroying too much of China’s architectural and landscape heritage. So here is my advice to municipal authorities everywhere: find the best parts of your heritage FROM EVERY ERA and apply the most stringent conservation measures possible. This will require landscape assessement technqiues. The ‘blocky landscape’ of early 21st century Beijing will be disliked, sooner or later, but a good-sized zone should be subject to strict conservation measures – including those ridiculuous ‘flower beds’ which line any roads wide enough to have them.

The 2nd Ring Road in Beijing follows the walls of the old city - on which it stands

Images of Beijing’s 2nd Ring Road courtesy of ernop and poeloq

18 thoughts on “Beijing urban landscape: architecture, planning, design and conservation

  1. Christine

    I am with the academics too. It would have been wonderful to have preserved the old city and its walls. The new city could have developed outside the walls surrounding the old city in much the same way that New York’s urban fabric surrounds Central Park.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      A comparison of the planning histories of Beijing and Paris would make a great project for a young historian, preferably someone with a good working knowledge of Chinese and French. But they could come across difficulties in accessing Chinese books. My guess is that not many copies were printed and that access is difficult. The post-1945 planning histories of Paris, Beijing and London are easily summarised:
      – Paris conserved its historic central area and only built tower blocks outside the Boulevard Périphérique (except for Montparnasse).
      – Bejjing destroyed 90% of its historic central area and built tower blocks everywhere
      – London couldn’t make up its mind and is building a spatterdash of tower blocks throughout the urban area
      I think this aspect of urban design deserves further study.

  2. Christine

    Yes a planning history of the three cities post 1945 would be very useful.

    It would also be wonderful to understand the historic development of the three cities too. As you say the historic centre of Beijing consisted of a Manchu inner city and a Chinese outer city. It would be great to understand more about these differences too and how they could have contributed to a contemporary Chinese city.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Teresa Stoppiani wrote a book comparing two ‘island cities’ (Venice and New York) and perhaps this type of city-to-city comparison would create a useful role for the vacuous idea of ‘twinned cities’. Island cities could become a study in their own right, including eg Istanbul, Hong Kong and Singapore. They are such brilliant successes that one wonders if Walter Burley Griffin should have proposed a more extensive ring-lake in which to set Canberra. Or he could have planned a circular park belt, like Adelaide, with the possibility of a lake if and when it was wanted. Canberra was planned as a capital city, like London and Paris. Venice and New York developed as commercial and cultural cities. Venice has resisted modernism since at least 1800, thankfully. Should New York resist whatever the modernism of the next two centuries turns out to be? Yes: it is the prime example of a twentieth century city and should now become a grade 1 conservation area. Like Venice, it could retain its outward experience while changing almost everything else!
      The below info is from Wiki
      Canberra is twinned with Nara, Japan, and Beijing, China [Nara is an oddity: it was planned as a ‘walled city’, like Chang’an, but did not have a wall]
      London is twinned with Beijing, China;
      Berlin, Germany;
      Bogotá, Colombia;
      Moscow, Russia;
      Santiago, Chile
      New York City, US;
      Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia;
      Paris, France;
      Rome, Italy;
      Tehran, Iran;
      Tokyo, Japan
      Brisbane is twinned with what seems to me an inexplicable list of cities:
      Kobe, Japan (1985)
      Auckland, New Zealand (1988)
      Shenzen, China (1992)
      Semarang, Indonesia (1993)
      Kaohsiung, Taiwan (1997)
      Daejeon, South Korea (2002)
      Chongqing, China (2005)
      Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (2009)
      Nerima, Japan (1994)

  3. Christine

    I am not sure if any of the twinned cities mentioned have any real relationship with each other.

    Brisbane does however have similarities with London, both are river cities with a serpentine river setting.

    Although perhaps the Brisbane River has rather more prominent bends? [,London,+UK&gl=au&ei=p3QZUqeINufriAfbkIGQAQ&ved=0CCwQ8gEwAA ] and [,London,+UK&gl=au&ei=p3QZUqeINufriAfbkIGQAQ&ved=0CCwQ8gEwAA ]

    Brisbane also has a very hilly topography outside the CBD.

    It is also a very modern city with very little remaining heritage due to the 1960s and 1970s development. Although in comparison with London it had very little heritage to start with.

    Another outstanding difference is climate. Brisbane is a sub-tropical city.

    So I am not sure how far the comparisons of cities according to one criteria could usefully go? But perhaps you are right that it is a good place to start thinking about comparisons.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes, the Brisbane River has more than the Thames! Two questions (1) do you think more of the pre-1960 city should have been conserved? (2) would you like to slap a conservation order on a section of the post-1970 city in order to protect it from future change? – remembering that what is very modern today is likely to be very out-of-date tomorrow.
      It is easy to look at an existing city and think that ‘it is what it is and will remain what it is’. But cities can make choices and can have very different forms, which is why I would like to see careful comparisons of city pairs. This takes me back to the example of London and Paris. The geography of their countries has doubtless influenced their politics, economics and physical forms. But I do not think much can be explained by differential geography of the London and Paris basins. Many of the differences are best explained by the different choices made by their local and national governments.

  4. Christine

    Conservation shouldn’t necessarily be a question of the age of the building, but rather whether they are of particular significance to the city. In the case of Brisbane it would be valuable to have buildings representative of all the periods in its historical development – unless of course there were periods when what was built were very poor examples for the period.

    It is a little more difficult to say this about London, because the layers of history have already contributed to each other in remarkable symbiotic ways to create the existing urban fabric and patterning. It is more a question of identifying the buildings of no or little value (which could be demolished).

    The problem of becoming out-dated is what is known as the ‘white elephant period’. This is when the architecture is not new enough to be new and not old enough to be old. It is most in danger during this period. So it requires someone with a sensitive eye and good research skills to advocate for its preservation. I am sure, for example, Big Ben is outdated, particularly with today’s modern digital technology and the prevailance of mobile phones. But I am also sure if someone suggested demolishing or updating it – the outcry would be heard all the way to Australia!

    Of course the local and national governments have had an important role in shaping cities. But geography still seems to play its part. The siting of Canberra was due to its location mid-way between the two major rival colonial capitals of Sydney and Melbourne. It was a political compromise.

    The location of European cities were most probably chosen partly for defensive purposes. The colonial city of Brisbane was chosen because of the ease of access by ship. At the time they used to sail from the Port the length of the river to Ipswich and the Mary River for the purposes of trade and supplies. This of course is no longer a consideration as most freight is moved by rail or road and the nature of shipping from ports has changed dramatically.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I take your point about ‘white elephants’ and the Nash terraces round Regent’s Park in London are a good example – they were set for demolition in the 1950s. If asked what criteria should be guide conservation choices I would have answered ‘quality’ but your answer is much better ‘of particular significance to the city’. In London this would have included the slum areas which Charles Booth was so keen to remove. I am sorry that no examples survive but nor do I know how they could have been conserved. Auchindrain Village seems to have survived partly because the Duke of Argyll took Queen Victoria to see the ‘primitive village’. The east of Scotland once had villages just like this but they have all gone. The problem is that you need large amounts of money to protect and restore them. Colonial Williamsburg was lucky and the Beatles’s childhood homes are now in the care of the National Trust. I hope their gardens are being looked after with a high regard for historical accuracy.
      At school, in geography, we were given a useful list of the determing factors in city location. It was like this and I do not remember any discussion of ‘political compromises’ of the kind you describe for Canberra and which also apply to Brazilia and various other cities. A friend once asked if I would like to help with the design of Dodoma in Tanzania. I would probably have said ‘yes please’ if I had been free but next time we met he said ‘you were right, Tom, its a ghastly place – far too hot and nothing works’.

  5. christine

    [ ] The Colonial architecture certainly looks worthwhile?

    The problem with most development work is that it engages in ‘hut building’. That is it provides solid cheaply construct buildings. [ ]

    And what results is worse than the adhoc ‘slums’ in design and urban [ ] quality (if not construction quality and sanitation). [ ]

    Where are the elephants when you need them?! [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Thank you for the images, which put me in mind of Robert Frost’s Road not taken
      Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
      And sorry I could not travel both
      And be one traveler, long I stood
      And looked down one as far as I could
      To where it bent in the undergrowth;
      Not excluding the hotel, your photographs made me think ‘I chose the right road that time’ – until I got to the photograph of the elephant. I love elephants. Just think how wonderful Dodoma would be if had been designed as an elephant-friendly town. If such a thing is possible with African elephants then they should still do it. Indian towns often have elephants and they contribute much to Sri Lanka’s tourist industry. Elephants get on very well with humans who do not steal their tusks But African elephants are much more difficult to domesticate

  6. Christine

    That was a priceless photograph of an elephant! It made me laugh so much.

    Yes, it would be wonderful to design an elephant friendly town.

    There seems to be some connection between elephant friendly design and cycle friendly design so I am thinking you are on the right track here.
    [ ]

    Access to dirt and water showers seems to be a requirement? [ ]

    And flowers…[ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Me too re the elephant. And a very interesting classification of Dutch bicycle paths. One day, perhaps, English towns will be as well-run as Dutch towns. I think the English problem began in 1914, so perhaps it will draw towards a close after 2014. The problems, which we still see in the Tory and Liberal posturing over Syria, is partly a misplaced sense of pride in the old Empire and a well-placed sense of guilt about the wrong decision to enter the First World War (taken by a Liberal government) and its bad conduct (‘Lions led by donkeys’) by the old Ruling Class.
      Greenwich Park has been very dry this summer. The grass looks like a savannah and I think we could easily find space for elephants to have a dirt bath. It was made as a deer park and the deer are now imprisioned in a small enclosure, supposedly for their own safety. I think elephants could roam the park and would have no problems with dogs.

  7. Christine

    It seems the use of chemical weapons is against the chemical weapons convention. [ ] There seems to be some actions available under Article X – although it is a little vague. [ ]

    It also seems the use of chemical weapons is against the earlier Geneva Protocol.
    [ ] The Geneva Conventions are primarily about the conduct of war, and there are different kinds of war. The one is Syria is a civil war. I am not sure how the war against the Kurdish people was classified – perhaps it was genocide rather sectarian in nature?

    I am not sure that initiating external warfare in a civil war situation is the right way to go. Perhaps there is an urgent need for state parties to agree to appropriate sanctions on the use of chemical weapons in different situations?

    Are you proposing a new sort of zoo or safari park for Greenwich Park? Or should it be a nature sanctuary for British wildlife?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I can see the case for intervening in Syria but do not think a quiver of cruise missiles or a hail of bombs would do any good to such a tragically war-torn country. But I can see no case for the UK getting involved without a UN mandate. Since the benefits of intervention are so uncertain I would rather see a protracted effort to shame the Russians and Chinese into agreement.
      For Greenwich Park, the best thing would be to let the deer out of their pen. The problems would be with dogs, which could be kept on leads, and with flowers, which could be restricted to protected areas. Nice though it would be to have elephants I think the idea is highly impractical!

  8. Christine

    Obtaining 1) a UN mandated ceasefire [ ], 2) the deployment of UN peacekeepers to ensure the ceasefire is observed and 3) the requirement of all parties in the civil war come to the negotiating table to find a negotiated solution to the civil war seems like the best outcome in the context.
    [ ]

    The use of chemical weapons (by whoever used them) may result in the opinion that the conduct of a civil war in Syria is no longer legitimate under the Vienna Convention. Having Russia and China at the table with the Europe and the US would ensure that both parties to the war had equal status in the negotiations.

    A forced peace is better than a forced war.

    Yes, it would be good to let the deer out of their pens and return Greenwich Park to a deer park. I am not sure if there is an historic precedent for pleasure gardens and deer parks which could be followed to manage the issue of flowers?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Since the UN is deeply flawed, like most organisations, I am less troubled by formal ‘UN approval’ than by the need for widespread international agreement about intervention – and a substantial ‘coalition of the willing’ to join in. The UN tells us that ‘Russia and China’ do not want to intervene but who knows what a majority of Russians and of Chinese would like to do? In the UK we know that a large majority is against intervention. This is not so much a matter of principle as of the unhappy outcomes of the Bush&Blair interventions in the West Asia. Gladstone was generally against foreign interventions but happy to hector other countries (notably Ottoman Turkey) on how they ought to behave.

  9. Christine

    Gladstone seems to have been against ‘government by force’ rather than ‘government by law’.

    The Bulgarian situation was a war between states rather than a civil war, even if it was sectarian in nature.

    The responsibility to protect principle says that states have a duty to protect their own citizens. Clearly this responsibility has been contravened in a grossly serious way with the use of chemical weapons (regardless of who has used them).

    Thus, international law ought to support an intervention for peace and dialogue. It also would assist with the refugee situation in the region rather than making it a greater humanitarian crisis, which would be the result of a military intervention.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I think the neighbouring states have a key role in Syria, partly because the government’s actions are driving out so many refugees and they are suffering so much. The risk from a US-led aerial attack is that the people of Syria will suffer more and will flee the country in greater numbers than at present.


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