posted on July 21, 2008 05:40
We got the lowdown on Beijng’s preservation (or lack of) its old town last Saturday night at dinner with Matthew Hu of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre. Private developers who promised to clean up an entire neighbourhood were welcomed in by city officials, explained Hu, director of this non-government organization promoting architectural preservation.
Things could be better if the city stuck to its five year plans, but money has talked: Beijing went from a neat grid of laneway housing to a post-1949 splash of communist blocks of self contained factories and apartments until private developers were allowed do the building in the 1980s. Politically connected developers got parcels of land from local governments keen for cash and flashy buildings with which to impress peers and superiors.
Maybe because they see tourists flock to the old buildings, district governments long blamed for selling land to private developers insensitive to local heritage, have become more accountable to please higher officials to preserve the remaining hutongs, says Hu. China is preoccupied with rushing up a mass-produced city, says Neville Mars, a Dutch architect who has done great things to publicise the follies of bad architecture and planning through his Dynamic City Foundation. “China is still being constructed as an empty slate. The idea is you build a project today and copy paste it."
Hu sees a new, subtle willingness among officials to listen first to preservationists. Well lets hope we see that in the rest of the city's breakneck urbanisation. Beijing is a bit like Dublin in that there's a deeply engrained divide between the northern part of the city, home to universities and business, and the south, a sprawl of cheap apartments, army barracks and factories. Now that developers have run out of space or money in the north, they're moving into southerly neighbourhoods like Fengtai. Down south Daxing has proven itself as Beijing’s industrial hub. Industrial focus has consolidated around the Beijing Development Area in Daxing.