Travel + Leisure

November 2007, Travel + Leisure

Boomtown Beijing

Gearing up for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is a city in transformation, remaking itself for the 21st century at full tilt

The highlight of a visit to the new Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall is the extraordinarily detailed scale model of the city that projects what China’s capital will look like in the year 2020. English-speaking guides dressed in scarlet-and-black silk tunics offer assistance to foreign visitors as pulsating lights flash over the exuberant mock skyline. The government-operated urban planning museum is housed in a four-story building the size of a major U.S. department store, and the model–a testament to the city’s current explosive growth–covers some 3,200 square feet.

Just outside the museum, which is located in the heart of the capital near Tiananmen Square, construction proceeds at breakneck speed. Beijing’s latest transformation, driven by the turbocharged expansion of the Chinese economy and the city’s intense desire to present a new face for the 2008 Olympics, is producing a resounding clash between the past and the future. Although wall text in the museum proclaims a “perfect fusion” of the two, the rampant destruction of narrow lanes lined with courtyard houses dating back six centuries alarms many Beijingers who fear their heritage is on the auction block.

Yet amid the wide-scale demolition and new construction, some of the city’s most prominent historic landmarks–the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven–are undergoing their most comprehensive restorations ever. These, too, have sparked controversy, with criticism coming from the UN agency that oversees world cultural heritage, concerned the makeovers will leave these centuries-old structures looking freshly minted.

In the same way that they have invited leading foreign architects to build skyscrapers and stadiums, Chinese authorities are now seeking assistance from foreign experts in restoring the Forbidden City. The World Monuments Fund, a nonprofit group based in New York, is guiding the renovation of some of the interiors in the 999-room former imperial residence, and Italian conservationists are bringing their experience to bear on retooling the palace exterior.

“In China, the idea of preservation is quite new,” says Wei Wei Shannon, a spiky-haired Chinese architecture critic who intermittently text-messages on a red-and-white cell phone as we talk over dinner. “Walk through Rome, and the city is like a museum where you can see the passage of time. But history in China has been rewritten over and over again. There’s a constant pushing forward.”

This is not the first time Beijing has undergone reinvention: Successive dynasties have remade the city to their liking. Built on flat terrain in a grid pattern that gives it the feel of a checkerboard, with the emperor’s palace set in the middle, Beijing was made the imperial capital in the 15th century, during the Ming Dynasty. Until the 20th century, the city was surrounded by a massive wall with fortified tower gates. “Not one of our European capitals has been conceived and laid out with such unity and audacity,” a French naval officer observed after visiting imperial Beijing at the conclusion of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, it ignored the pleas of Chinese architectural experts to create a new administrative center outside the historic core of Beijing, and tore down the city wall to make way for a major road ringing the metropolis. Chairman Mao himself is said to have surveyed Beijing from atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace and announced he wanted “the sky to be filled with smokestacks.” A master plan for redeveloping Beijing as a socialist city was adopted along guidelines provided by comrades from the Soviet Union. Factories arose all over town, rapidly supplanting temples, gardens, and teahouses.

Axial streets were widened into mammoth boulevards lined with bulky modern buildings. Still more national treasures were lost in the Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966 under the slogan “Destroy the old to establish the new.” The Forbidden City itself barely escaped assault by the Red Guards before Prime Minister Chou En-lai ordered the palace gates sealed to thwart their rampages.

Ever since reformist leaders proclaimed an Open Door policy in 1978, the arrival of global capitalism has wrought even more damage to the remnants of the urban treasure that was old Beijing. Four more, ever larger, concentric roads ringing the city have been built over the past 15 years, and a fifth is planned. Daring architectural constructions are rising all over what is now a megalopolis of 15 million people, most notably the bubble-like National Theater complex, by French architect Paul Andreu; an expansion of the Beijing airport, by Norman Foster; the new Chinese state television headquarters, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren in the form of a gargantuan contorted arch; and a huge Olympic stadium, by Herzog and de Meuron.

The television headquarters will be the second-largest building in the world, after the Pentagon, and the architects have attributed at least part of the building’s dramatic form to the need to make it visible in the heavily polluted air hanging over Beijing. “It’s an environmental condition you have to be aware of when you design here,” Scheeren says. “It’s not only bad for your health, it also makes all architecture look bad. I call it Beijing blur.”

Coming into clear focus despite the blur is the destruction of the traditional neighborhoods, known as hutong. In these areas, a pitched battle over the city’s past and future is being waged daily, as Beijing rushes to modernize and adopt Western-style ways and standards of living.

A few minutes’ walk south of Tiananmen Square, I find the bustling Dazhalan neighborhood in an upheaval. A central road is being widened and large swaths of old houses and shops are being bulldozed to make way for new apartment buildings, including rebuilt contemporary versions of the traditional courtyard houses called siheyuan. Billboards advertising the new development show Pizza Hut and Starbucks among the new tenants.

Picking my way through the rubble, I spot several buildings of architectural merit, but here squalor often trumps charm. In many of the courtyard houses, built around an open quadrangle, the central patio area was ruined–not always irreparably–when the Communists, facing a housing shortage, pushed for them to be subdivided and filled in with new buildings. Ramshackle renovations and additions mar the original beauty and grandeur. Beyond aesthetics, residents have no running water. Open drains in the alleyways are clogged with decaying food and refuse, and residents share public toilets and baths. “Many houses are not fit for modern life,” Wu Xiaoshan, a 53-year-old walking his bulldog, tells me. “It’s inconvenient and uncomfortable.”

I meet later with Zhu Jiaguang, a leading official in the urban planning bureau. “Preserving culture is important, but so is improving quality of life–we must keep both in mind. The majority of people want to move,” he says, explaining that “during the development process there are always going to be displaced residents.” Still, many citizens are disoriented by their forced uprooting and disgruntled with both the compensation and the new housing developments–often well outside the city center–where they have been relocated. Rather than going quietly, some Beijingers are mobilizing public opinion and fomenting political activism. “The street has become a public space for common people to express views,” says Ou Ning, who has made a documentary film about the Dazhalan neighborhood. “This is a great advance for China. This is a new beginning of citizenship here.”

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the destruction, so far without success. “The heart of old Beijing is being wrecked,” says one such litigant, Hua Xinmin, who is trying to prevent development in the hutong where she was born. But although the government has gotten its way so far, the space for public discussion of the issue has become far broader in recent years. In 2003, the authorities granted official recognition to a nongovernmental organization known as the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, which is systematically documenting current conditions in the hutong.

A master plan adopted by the city in 2002 sets aside 25 historic-preservation districts, and the group wants to ensure that these areas survive development pressures. There are only 1,500 alleyways left in Beijing, half the number that existed in the 1950’s. And fewer than 600 of those remaining are in designated historic districts, whose protected status is far from clear. Still, whereas just a few years ago hutong preservation was seen primarily as a foreign media obsession, Chinese authorities are increasingly aware of their value. “The appearance and style of old Beijing is an important cultural resource and competitive advantage for the sustainable development of the modern city,” Liu Qi, general secretary of the Communist party of Beijing, said recently. And an editorial in the official paper China Daily commented, “With better-preserved hutong, Beijing could attract more visitors and win greater applause.”

I see how a hutong can be preserved and upgraded when I visit another area, north of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, near the 18th-century Bell Tower, where pedicabs ferry tourists on forays around the neighborhood. I am on foot, guided by Hu Xinyu, managing director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center.

We climb the tower to get a panoramic view of the labyrinthine passageways. Back at street level, Hu points out a pair of stone stubs astride the entryway to one of the many courtyard houses, explaining that these are remnants of carved lion heads vandalized in the Cultural Revolution. As a peddler cycles slowly past us, his wicker baskets full of persimmons and tangerines, we peer into courtyards at heaps of coal bricks still used for heat. Cabbage and scallions hang out to dry in the brisk winter air. Hu suggests stopping in at the local mah-jongg parlor, where amid the click-clack of gaming tiles, a friendly player takes us aside to show off an assortment of pet crickets kept in tiny jars.

We pass by several blackboards affixed to façades, each covered with colorful, meticulous chalk calligraphy that explains the origins of the Olympic movement to area residents. Nearby, Nanlouguxiang Street is one of the few hutong passageways to become almost fully gentrified–it’s now lined with bars and restaurants aimed primarily at Western travelers. In the narrow lanes spilling off to the sides there are many grand courtyard houses undergoing comprehensive restoration, and two have already become hotels.

Wealthy foreigners like media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the president of Airbus China are snapping up courtyard buildings of this type; high-end renovations are stoking fears that surviving hutong will become enclaves for the very rich or be degraded into tourist-only zones devoid of the close-knit communal life that made them so distinctive. “People long for what is being swept away physically,” Julius Song, a retired professor of sociology, says. “But even more there is longing for the intimate feeling of people who lived there for generations. They shared so much.”

In China’s booming economy, the market for expensive living quarters is white-hot. While old courtyard houses are being razed, new high-rise developments are going up all over town. Some of the most architecturally distinctive have names like SoHo and MOMA, contrived to evoke Manhattan glamour in the minds of potential buyers. I visited the showroom for an eight-tower complex drawn up by American architect Steven Holl, billed as an environmentally path-breaking design featuring geothermal heating and cooling. “People are getting rich overnight, and they want to live in a very good apartment,” Jiang Peng, deputy manager of the project, says as we walk through a model apartment designed to attract what the Chinese call golden-collar workers.

During this fevered spate of private-sector development, Chinese state authorities are overseeing construction for the 2008 Olympics and the restoration of key landmarks like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven. The Olympic deadline is heavily influencing both the preservation of old buildings and the construction of new ones. The city government has ordained that all new structures must be finished by the end of 2007, well before the Games begin.

The huge new stadium is nearing completion ahead of time, as is the so-called Water Cube, a stunning new facility where the swimming competitions will be held. Even the International Olympic Committee, which agonized about the snail’s pace of Athens’ preparation for the 2004 games, has urged the Chinese to slow down, for fear the finished venues will sit empty for too long. The main stadium by Herzog and de Meuron already stands as a striking addition to the skyline, with its steel and concrete ribbing arrayed like a huge bird’s nest, or delicate basket-weaving writ large.

Lest the major monuments of China’s glorious past be overshadowed by these contemporary landmarks, Deputy Prime Minister Li Lanqing issued a call three years ago for the Forbidden City to be thoroughly restored. “The ideas of party members are influencing the palace museum, but they are not educated in these matters,” says a Beijing conservation specialist who asked not to be named. Fang Zhiyuan, a professor at the China Academy of Arts who is descended from the Qing imperial line, voices similar criticism of the overall official approach to preservation. “The government doesn’t consider historical value–decisions are made by political need,” he says. “Historic sites are being sectioned off for commercial purposes. Many people in Beijing are upset about this.”

Unesco recently issued a statement expressing concern that restoration works at the palace and other major sites were being carried out “in a hasty manner” and without “clearly formulated principles.” When I raise these objections with the deputy director of the Palace Museum, Jin Hongkui, he responds, “The renovation being carried out right now is based upon careful study and discussions, rather than catering to the comment of a leader.”

The current restoration of the Forbidden City is the largest undertaken in generations and the most comprehensive ever. With assistance from conservators provided by Italy’s Cultural Ministry, the exterior of the Hall of Supreme Harmony is being overhauled, many of the palace’s extensive yellow-glazed roofs are being retiled, and new wooden pillars are being erected in place of rotting supports.

At the northeast corner of the former imperial palace, away from the tourist hordes who swarm through the vast complex (there were 8 million visitors last year alone), the World Monuments Fund is helping to restore a secluded area known as the Qianlong Garden. The garden, which includes two dozen pavilions, was created as a retirement retreat by Emperor Qianlong, a patron of the arts and prolific poet who reigned from 1735 to 1799. Under his rule, the empire reached new heights in terms of power, geographic expanse, wealth, and influence.

The lavish pavilion interiors, designed with an extraordinary refinement reflecting Chinese supremacy during Qianlong’s reign, have never been open to the public, and most have remained shuttered since the abdication of the last emperor early in the 20th century. Qianlong invited the Italian painter and Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione to help decorate the rooms with colorful trompe l’oeil silk murals that unite Western techniques with Asian themes. Set among intricately embroidered panels, they are juxtaposed with walls covered in bamboo-thread marquetry, carvings in red sandalwood and rare zitan rosewood, and jade ornamentation.

Much of the Forbidden City comprises vast open spaces that were the scene of imperial court ceremonies. But the Qianlong Garden is “one of the few places where you get a sense of the emperor’s private life,” Henry Tzu Ng, the WMF’s executive vice president, says as museum watchmen open rusting padlocks to permit us entry into the long cloistered realm.

Once inside, we see how the retreat has suffered from neglect over decades of Communist rule, when haphazard alterations and slipshod repairs were made. Museum staff, inexperienced in working with delicate interiors, installed fire alarms with little thought given to their placement, often hammering nails through the delicate, 18th-century wallpaper. Strips of tattered wall coverings dangle in the dimly lit chambers, cracks cover the exposed wood beams, and layers of lacquer are peeling away. A thick coat of dust mutes the original precision of brocaded, carved, and inlaid details.

One of the chief obstacles to restoring these opulent quarters is that many of the requisite craftsmen are no longer alive. But the Palace Museum has begun seeking out skilled artisans capable of replicating the fine kesi embroidery and reproducing the unusual lamps used to illuminate the rooms. “It’s a great challenge, because a lot of the techniques have been lost completely. We’ve had to investigate how to bring them back,” Cao Jinglou, former head of the conservation department, says.

After a yearlong search, the museum located workers who could produce a durable, traditional mulberry-bark backing for the fragile silk paintings, locating them in the southeastern Anhui province. Another craftsman, who had special training in transforming dried goats’ horns into globular lamps such as those found in the imperial palace, was discovered near Nanjing. The 74-year-old man, the third generation of his family to make the lamps–first for the palace and later for the museum established in the former imperial residence–was forced to abandon his craft in the 1960’s, during the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards destroyed his tools. In subsequent decades, he worked in a cannery.

The Palace Museum has pledged to help him recreate those tools and revive his craft, which dates to the seventh-century Tang Dynasty. “There are millions of people like him who had their lives destroyed,” says Ng, who traveled from Beijing with conservators to meet the Nanjing master. “This might help redeem not only his craft but also his dignity.”

In recent years, a broader reevaluation of the importance of China’s imperial heritage has brought about a new esteem for these incredible, long neglected rooms. Chinese landmark authorities recognize that their isolation from foreign influence under Mao prevented them from acquiring outside expertise. “They were in the refrigerator for many years, and they’re desperate to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of conservation,” says John Stubbs, WMF vice president for field projects. Through the WMF, Western experts are now helping the Chinese learn modern conservation techniques, and a new conservation studio has been created within the Forbidden City. The Qianlong Garden paintings are being repaired here, and when I visit, I see a central silk panel that has been restored to stunning effect. It shows a life-size red-crowned crane–a symbol of longevity in Chinese tradition–peering out amid clusters of pink and white peonies. Here is a vivid result of importing Western conservation practices and awareness, and I consider whether this might also spur China to restore not just key relics and landmarks but also save a greater part of the capital’s historic fabric. I hope so.