The Cultural Legacy of All Mankind
15 June 2011 |
There are some 56 Chinese central cities with more than a million residents; most of us can’t even name the top five (Shanghai, Beijing, Guongzhou, Shenzhen, Tianjin). Despite our ignorance, Chinese urbanization is one of the great human stories of our time, of course, with much recent discussion centering on the nearly complete evisceration of ancient Beijing in favor of high density high rises and “Chinese” decorated big box retail (particularly along the once deeply textured Qianmen Street). The city’s famous Huntongs—impossibly dense, ancient alleys and courtyards—are all but completely gone.
The change has meant massive displacement of the poor, as Thomas Campanella writes in The Concrete Dragon (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011), “This is human upheaval on a scale seen previously only in time of war or extreme natural catastrophe.”
Campanella’s book is one of six discussed in a terrific essay, “The High Price of the New Beijing,” by Ian Johnson in the New York Review of Books. Johnson seeks a moment of clarity on the subject of urban planning in China. “On some days,” he writes, “it seems that all people talk about is housing and the problems of living in Chinese cities.” Beijing is particularly beguiling for all that has been lost. Massive destruction of the traditional city began in 1949 with the Communist defeat of the republican government and the wholesale abandonment of the past.
Like nothing else, Beijing exemplified this vilified past. The entire city—all twenty-four square miles of it, from its layout based on geomancy and mythology to its tens of thousands of tree-shaded courtyard homes—was China’s traditional belief system incarnate.
So it had to go. Johnson notes the attempts by Liang Sicheng, a Penn-trained architect (who must have been a friend and colleague of Ed Bacon’s), to protect the ancient city from Communist planners who sought a Soviet-inspired monumental form. Liang was badly harassed, but even Mao didn’t wipe the slate totally clean. The rest of the job was left to contemporary real estate developers and Beijing Olympic planners, who erected more monumental, symbolic architecture. Gone were the last layers and with it “the cultural legacy of all mankind” (Simon Leys, “Chinese Shadows, NYRB, May 26, 1977).