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Restoring Beijing's ancient style
( 2003-11-18 13:38) (China Daily HK Edition)

The Beijing Administration of Land Resources and Housing announced last week that all the flat roofs of residential buildings along the streets within the city's Third Ring Road will be changed into sloping ones. Such a plan offers much food for thought.

According to the administration, besides practical reasons like renovation for heat insulation, this project is aimed at giving back a traditional view of the ancient capital, as old Beijing dwellings feature caesious sloping tile roofs.

Beijing's sense of history has a lot to do with the architectural legacies of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911) ranging from the well-preserved Forbidden City and remaining siheyuan, the typical traditional civilian structures.

Huge commercial value associated with historical heritage buildings has driven the municipal bureaucracy to reconsider its excessive push of new architectural landmarks as symbols of modernity over the last few years.

Numerous examples of traditional residential architecture, mostly in the form of siheyuan, have disappeared as a result of the government's eagerness for a modern look. Like it or not, most roofs of residential buildings in Beijing today are flat.

Speed and economy, not aesthetics, were the major considerations when building houses in the early 1980s. Many flat-roof buildings in the old city area were set up at that time.

But the large-scale disappearance of hutong and siheyuan, the most distinctive alleys and quadrangles of Beijing, began in the 1990s when the municipal government adopted the housing renovation policy that allowed developers to replace old and sometimes derelict homes with new highrises.

As a result of the massive renovation projects, tens of thousands of ancient hutong and siheyuan have been demolished and the style of the ancient city was destroyed in many areas.

Such a massive overhaul impaired Beijing's attempt to apply for World Heritage Site listing in 2000 and 2001.

The frustration has also been coupled with some positive results. In 2001 and 2002, Beijing listed 40 protected historical zones, which account for 42 per cent of the old city. The municipal government has also increased its efforts to restore some key relics and older streets in the city.

Regulations have been set on the height, style and colour of buildings in the inner city to maintain Beijing's overall ancient appearance. And now, the roofs of residential buildings have been considered.

Thinking about all of the trouble and cost all of this will take, we can only hope that this project will achieve its goal of beautifying the city's skylines a bit.

More importantly, it pushes us to pay greater attention to urban planning and making policies in the future. Had there been better planning and more thorough policies, there would be no need for such remedial projects.

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