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Instant Modernity

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The U.S.-educated dean of Beijing University's new faculty of architecture, Chang is also the son of architect Zhang Kaiji, designer of such Maoist monuments as the National Museum of Revolutionary History on the eastern edge of Tiananmen Square and the National Guest House where Nikita Khrushchev once enjoyed Chinese hospitality. But the thread is only sentimental.

The beautiful city of his youth has disappeared almost entirely, Chang laments. “Even 15 years ago, the city had integrity and dignity as well,” he says. “It was all grey, with green trees popping out — and that was it. That was the city that attracted my father from the south 60 years ago, and that's how I remember it.”

Now, he adds, the city's insensitive development and “really awful architecture” are ruining its appeal to visitors and business alike. The new monuments are impressive but meretricious, creating a city of “interesting objects” to demonstrate Chinese sophistication — “the best of architecture in a Gucci bag.”

But people don't live in a city like that, the architect says. “It's more like an exposition — maybe a park. That's a real problem.”

Recent reforms reflect some new awareness of the problem. The summary demolition of what remains of Beijing's ancient courtyard neighbourhoods is no longer permitted, according to Zhang Zugang, professor of architecture at Tianjin University and vice-president of the Architectural Society of China. He speaks hopefully of planned new green belts and promenades, but he admits that historical preservation is a novel proposition in the new China.

“There is still a strong opinion that the courtyard housing is dilapidated and not fit for people to live in,” he says. And there is, as always, an insatiable hunger for the new.

Many people evicted from the old city and resettled in distant high-rises are delighted with the upgrade, according to Joe Carter, a Canadian architect who has lived in China for almost 20 years, currently with his Chinese wife and family on the 14th floor of a 25-storey high-rise in the instant new city bordering the Third Ring Road in eastern Beijing.

Reports of the rampant demolition of old Beijing are exaggerated, Carter says, although he admits that the pressure for change remains intense. And the preservation of old hutong (laneway neighbourhoods) by gentrification, with pop stars and foreigners now beginning to renovate beneath the trees, is a mixed blessing.

“Gentrification scours the inner and makes the shell a kind of status symbol, this beautiful thing that belongs to the past,” Carter says. The multigenerational social life that gave meaning to the ancient city structure is gone forever.

Today's Beijingers live in a high-rise city where the typical street is six lanes wide, almost permanently gridlocked, with a fence down the middle. They can cross on foot only at widely spaced overpasses. Walls two metres high and as long as 500 metres, the typical length of a Beijing superblock, line the sidewalks. The old work-unit compounds inside may have given way to dozens of high-rise condominiums, but the forbidding walls remain.

Modern Beijing appears especially disastrous viewed from Shanghai, a city that was originally built by Westerners to be a globe-spanning entrepôt and has assumed the identity of 21st-century globalism with greater ease than the capital — if only because it was built with conventional streets and blocks.

“You have to criticize the Beijing mentality,” says Shanghai architect Paul L. Chen, a partner in HPA (Haipo Architects), the city's leading Chinese-led private practice. “Everything there is political. They are looking for a political façade, a quick fix for a new image of Beijing. They want to do something that will just blow you away. And they are neglecting the urban fabric — nice neighbourhoods, community, things that are tough to do.”

Shanghai wasn't much different as recently as two years ago, when local authorities routinely informed laneway residents of imminent demolitions simply by posting notices on their doors ordering them to clear out. But protests throughout urban China induced a central-government clampdown, followed by a purge of local officials charged with profiting from the sale of government-owned land. Unprecedented limitations on heights and densities appeared at the same time.

One result, Chen complains, is that a lot of his projects have been reduced in scale or stalled as public officials undertake the novel and time-consuming process of negotiating compensation for families evicted from neighbourhoods of crumbling shikumen, Shanghai's distinctive Westernized version of the traditional Chinese courtyard house.

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