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Liang Sicheng's vision for historic city can be revived

By Daniel Garst (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-12-06 07:44
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Liang Sicheng's vision for historic city can be revived

Liang Sicheng is one of China's greatest 20th century architects. The Beijing native was the son of Liang Qichao, an influential intellectual and key figure in the 100-Day Reform movement. However, Liang chose to study architecture, becoming the first Chinese person to do so overseas when he went to the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s.

After returning to China later that decade, Liang spent the next 20 years writing his monumental study, A History of Chinese Architecture.

The book provided a much-needed corrective to the then prevailing Western and Chinese wisdom, which held that the Middle Kingdom's cultural greatness was defined by its literature and fine arts, not its buildings.

Liang highlighted the remarkable craftsmanship and detail in old Chinese buildings. This can be seen in the fantastic curved eaves of their roofs, elaborate wooden window trellis carvings, and courtyard and home doorways.

This appreciation for traditional Chinese architecture made Liang an early and ardent voice for preserving old Beijing. Thus, in 1949, he helped broker the peaceful liberation of the capital, in order to spare the old city, which was almost entirely intact, from a war.

After Beijing was renamed the capital of New China in 1949, Liang laid out a vision for the city. In his view, it should be a political and cultural center, with lots of parks and green space.

Industry, Liang argued, had no place in Beijing. The same held true for buildings exceeding two stories, at least within the old walled city - inside the present-day Second Ring Road.

Thanks to his prestige, Liang did win some fights, including having the design of the Monument to People's Heroes in Tian'anmen Square conform to that of a traditional Chinese stele.

However, preserving older buildings was not, for understandable reasons, a high priority during the first two decades of New China.

Many of Beijing's old structures were, in fact, run down with age and neglect.

Hence, Beijing became a manufacturing center. Its factories and structures like the Great Hall of the People and the Museum of Chinese Revolution, built to commemorate the 10th anniversary of New China, served as symbols of the country's new-found modernity.

But all through these years and even during the late 1990s, when the capital underwent an extensive makeover driven by the economic stimulus, old Beijing stubbornly clung to life. Indeed, a surprising amount of it, especially in the Dongcheng and Xicheng districts, still remains intact.

This distinguishes Beijing from Chengdu and Kunming, whose lovely old cities full of wood buildings have given way to concrete and steel apartment blocks and office towers.

Moreover, before the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing's older and heavily-polluting factories were shut down or relocated to Hebei province. This shift and the rise of a Chinese equivalent to Silicon Valley in Haidian have given the capital a much greener economy.

It is possible, then, to revive at least an attenuated version of Liang Sicheng's vision for Beijing. Doing this above all involves protecting the capital's still substantial number of hutong neighborhoods so they do not suffer the fate of those in the Dashilar.

The recent decision of the newly-merged Dongcheng district government to put the Gulou Time Cultural City Redevelopment Plan on ice is an important step in this direction.

Beyond that, the number of cars in Beijing's historic center must be reduced. Congestion charges on drivers venturing inside the Second Ring Road would limit traffic congestion, lower noise, and improve air quality in the capital.

With fewer cars in central Beijing, some streets could be reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. And connecting the more than half-dozen parks lying within the Second Ring Road with bike/foot paths would further boost walking and cycling in the capital's core.

I've noted in earlier columns that Beijing is currently like a circus tent that houses two different cities. There is an outer city of high-rise buildings - many of them are actually innovative and interesting structures - towering above and surrounding the capital's still largely extant low-slung historic urban core.

These two cities can coexist and provide contemporary Beijing with a unique mix of architectural styles.

More importantly, while this "two Beijings, one city" formula does not exactly conform to Liang Sicheng's vision for the capital, it's a compromise he could probably live with.

Liang Sicheng's vision for historic city can be revived

(China Daily 12/06/2010)