With the release of the Dark Knight (which isn’t being launched in Beijing, by the way), I thought about Gotham City and its interpretation of a futuristic metropolis. With each new Batman film, there is a new take on what a futuristic city should look like. Regardless of the style or direction taken by the director and production staff, Gotham always manages to awe us and keep our imaginations running on what New York, London, Tokyo and the like could transform into in the distant future. For our parents: what did you imagine the Manhattan skyline would look like in the year 2000?
I believe that Beijing could be the next Gotham: between its architecture and stark contradictions, there is so much to this city that makes it unique and modern. Its architecture and history have no rivals, and their co-existence yields a capital city unlike any other in the world.
Living in the Central Business district, I get to look out my window at the harbingers of Beijing’s architectural future: the CCTV tower, Shin Kong Place and the Mandarin Oriental. Of these three, the CCTV tower, along with the National Theater for the Performing Arts and several of the Olympic venues, mark the start of a new era for China’s capital. No longer will it play the second city to Shanghai and Hong Kong’s dazzling skylines. Instead, Beijing is forging a name for itself by intertwining its historic architecture with modern icons that are only imaginable by some of today’s most prolific architects. With an excess of human labor and a seemingly limitless amount of funds, no project or idea is too outlandish for the Beijing government. Right now, Beijing is essentially the breeding ground for tomorrow’s architecture.
Take, for example, the CCTV Tower, the new T3 Terminal and the National Center for the Performing Arts. They all have astronomical budgets and incorporate technology that would make anyone’s head spin, but they are there to serve the public just as any other similar venue in the States. However, China pulls out all the stops, and each of Beijing’s new icons are full of symbolism that justifies investing in the largest pieces of public art in the world.
When Olympic spectators land in Beijing’s Terminal 3, they descend into the world’s largest terminal: When arriving off an international flight, it would take about half an hour to walk from the arrivals hall to the baggage claim. (Luckily it’s only a six-minute walk to a tram that takes you to the baggage hall.) The terminal itself is as long as downtown Manhattan is wide (about 2 miles).
700 years ago
On the other hand, what also makes Beijing unique is its unrivaled architectural history: from the Forbidden City to the Hutongs (alleyways), China’s capital is distinguished by its ancient layout that dates back to the 1300s. The city itself is set on a series of North/South/East/West meridians, and most major roadways radiate from the Forbidden City – the literal heart of Beijing. The very nature of this city carries imperial and celestial implications. Walking through the Hutongs or spending an afternoon at the Summer Palace, you are transported back to another world of emperors and eunuchs.
Although the major monuments have been preserved to their former glory, the Hutongs themselves are an endangered treasure. Hutongs are a complex system of alleyways and courtyard homes that surrounded the Forbidden City and radiate out around the rest of Beijing. The ones that still exist today are a confusing maze of alleys that are hard to navigate.
What makes them so special is that these alleys are where regular Beijingers used to live, and their way of life was unique and extremely communal because of the Hutong structure. One courtyard would house four familiy units that all looked out onto an outdoor area. Confines were, of course, very small and close, so people lived their lives outdoors and, more notably, together. Your neighbors were your family, and everyone knew what everyone else was doing.
Walking through what is left of the Hutongs, you feel that you are in the real Beijing. For the few remaining Beijingers left living in their courtyard homes, they’re the final Chinese holding onto to a way of life that dates back 700 plus years.
For expats and Chinese alike who know Beijing and appreciate it for its history, they despair at the way the government and developers have torn down these historical Hutongs to build modern complexes that will definitely fail the test of time and usual wear and tear. Beijing is a forerunner in modern architecture, but many of its new structures lack the quality of Western nations’. That’s not to say the buildings are one day going to collapse, but new buildings here age extremely quickly and will need to undergo refurbishment much more frequently than in the West.
Additionally, the remaining preserved courtyard homes are going to high bidders that renovate these units into luxury homes that only house one family versus four, and life has become quiet and private. This is not Chinese at all – instead they enjoy loud and energetic surroundings. (Go to any major restaurant here and you’ll understand.)
Others turn Hutong streets into shopping streets that look like old Hutongs, but have lost that true Beijing feeling that can only be brought about by close communal living. Some consider Hutong development the “Disneyfication” of historic Beijing, a watered-down version of the real thing.
Dark and light
Finally, Beijing is like Gotham in that there are clear forces of good and bad, rich and poor, the strong and the defenseless. This city is chock-full of contradictions that tourists can pick up on their first day in this city. They can see the wealth and glamour of the Chaoyang District, but drive 20 minutes out of the city center and you see that rundown apartment blocks grossly outnumber the master-planned compounds and dingy side streets that betray the glamour and modernity this city is striving to achieve. Or go to the 798 art district, where peasant workers renovate art galleries while wealthy clients drive past in Range Rovers. One could also go to any one of the bar streets and see beggars sitting outside new mega bars.
But unlike Gotham, there is no one to save the day. Instead, this city blazes forward trying to find its identity and solve economic, social and political problems on a truly grand scale. I do not envy the Beijing government – its job is not easy and its ambitions are out of this world.
After the Olympics, what Beijing will become is anyone’s guess, but for now it is the city of tomorrow. Beijing really does defy the conventions of a mega city, and with its debut to the world this year, it is not such a bad place to be. Many expats agree that after living here a while, Beijing imbues you with a strong sense of cynicism: life here is full of challenges that keep life interesting and frustrating. But this city grows on you, and finally seeing the product of years of headaches for everyone is a rewarding experience.
Olympics around the corner, a nice slideshow from the Boston Globe.