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Seeking proper way to protect old city
( 2003-08-20 16:40) (China Daily)

The pilot renovation project at Beijing's Nanchizi, a centuries-old residential community just outside the red walls of the Forbidden City, has been getting extensive media coverage over the past week.

After nearly two years of work involving the relocation of residents and reconstruction, it is being touted as a model for the renovation and upgrading of another 29 old hutong areas in Beijing.

However, after visiting the renovated project, people may feel disappointed with the final results.

They may even worry what they should tell their children and grandchildren when they take them to Nanchizi for a visit: Is it a historic heritage site or a real estate project?

Historically a part of the Forbidden City, Nanchizi was home to major royal depositories in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), including the royal storehouses for silk, meat and grain.

After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the common people began to move into the area. As a result, by the time the renovation of the area began in 2001, Nanchizi was filled with many old and newly-added structures beside or inside the ancient siheyuan, the traditional Beijing quadrangle residences.

People feel disappointed because, although the ugly built huts and structures are gone, the old siheyuan have also disappeared.

The 10,000-odd square metres of old siheyuan in the Nanchizi area have been replaced by brand new two-storey houses surrounding some courtyards. They are called sihelou, and some officials argue that with the mock-tiled roofs - made of cement - and grey walls, the buildings follow the style of traditional siheyuan.

However, these new buildings pay little if any attention to the traditional ambience and precious architectural fabric of ancient Beijing siheyuan and hutong.

What is alarming is that the area of newly built sihelou already accounts for 52 per cent of the total area of Nanchizi, designated by the Beijing municipal government as a historic and cultural preservation site.

Over the past few years, people have heard and read many reports from the local Beijing municipal government and remarks from top Beijing municipal officials about the city's increased efforts to preserve the old quadrangle homes and historical hutong.

Two years ago, the city planning commission designated 25 old streets as historic and cultural zones, 27 per cent of the city's old urban areas. So far, the protected zones have been increased to 42.

Early this year, the Beijing Cultural Heritage Bureau also unveiled a protection plan for Beijing's old imperial area.

According to the plan, a downtown area covering 6.8 square kilometres of palaces, gardens and temples with the Forbidden City at the centre, will be placed under full protection.

The old imperial area included in the protection plan encompasses the zone stretching from Chang'an Avenue in the south to Ping'an Avenue in the north, and from East Huangchenggen Road in the east to West Huangchenggen Road in the west.

The detailed measures include conserving six key cultural heritage building groups and improving the living conditions in some residential compounds of historic importance.

Liu Qi, Party secretary of Beijing, was also quoted by local Beijing media as saying in late April, that in principle, no more old urban areas should be demolished and that all new developments should be constructed outside the second ring road, which is built where the old wall of Beijing once stood.

Echoing Liu's concerns, many people have stated that the renovation project at Nanchizi, which does not accord with the traditional architectural and courtyard style of old Beijing, does not follow the government's preservation principles and pledges.

As Zheng Xiaoxie, a renowned architect and ancient construction consultant to the Ministry of Construction commented earlier, "You cannot replace the centuries-old houses with shoddy ancient-style housing."

But the officials seem to think otherwise. Some officials with the local bureau of cultural heritage have called the Nanchizi renovation project a successful renovation and said that the sihelou will serve as an exemplary model for their future work in what he termed the "preservation" of old Beijing.

When asked why the renovation has not preserved some of the old courtyards and houses, he argued that the old siheyuan there were not listed by authorities as historic cultural heritage sites.

If that argument stands, then people should really worry about whether historical Beijing will disappear altogether, because in China, only those things of historical significance get historical cultural heritage listing, while most traditional hutong do not enjoy such legal protection.

However, if most hutong or historical streets disappear, the buildings left that do get protected heritage listing will be meaningless, for our offspring will never know about the historical and cultural environment of the protected buildings.

Already people have seen 300 of Beijing's 2,000 traditional hutong disappear, according to the estimate of Xie Chensheng, former director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

On August 1, in Xicheng District, the well-preserved courtyard that belonged to famous literature professor Ye Jiaying was bulldozed, despite the fact that Ye's house was listed last year by the Beijing Cultural Heritage Bureau as one of the 1,261 courtyards worthy of protection.

Although the principle of cultural relic preservation dictates that the old houses should not be replaced, a great number of them are still facing the fate of being torn down and replaced by such new structures as the ones at Nanchizi.

If the much applauded Nanchizi model is going to be popularized in the government's efforts to renovate the city's old urban areas, Beijing is in danger of ultimately losing its glamour as an ancient historical and cultural city.

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