Beijing At Warp Speed
In a pair of essays, two RECORD editors look at the city's rapid transformation, try to make sense of the current boom, and ponder its future.
Has any place changed so much, so quickly? In our age of instant gratification, new cities coalesce at the touch of a button: Dubai has shot up out of the desert sands beside the Arabian Gulf like a digital dreamscape, but it has built its towers on a blank slate (or shifting sand) as an investment for an international population yet to come. Beijing, by contrast, has reinvented itself, from a beehive of neighborhoods and aging infrastructure to emerge from the chrysalis of the past as the capital of 21st-century China, a revitalized heart beating with more than 17 million pulses.
Spreading out into the high plain for 385 square miles, limited by mountains to the north and west, the contemporary metropolis occupies strategic ground called by a roster of names throughout time, including Nanjing (confusedly) and Zhongdu (Jin dynasty, 1115–1234), Khanbaliq or Dadu (under Kublai Khan and the Mongolian hegemony, or Yuan dynasty, 1271–1368), and Beijing. The axial city, encircled by walls and centered on the Forbidden City palace compound, owes its essential form to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).
In the name of progress, the Communists tore down the Ming walls in the 1950s and ’60s and built the Second Ring Road, which follows the walls’ original circumference and imprints their memory on the city. Additional concentric rings now encircle the original city core. The Third Ring Road, connected with expressways, touches valuable developments, including the burgeoning CBD. Today, China’s political and arts capital extends out to a Sixth Ring Road, creating a sluggish dynamo, in which automobiles circle slowly, then peel off onto the city’s clogged streets.
From a map, the order seems clear enough. Mighty Chang An Boulevard runs east-west across Tiananmen Square, past the Bank of China and the international post office for 24 miles, bisected by an imaginary line that extends from the Temple of Heaven north to the palace compound and then the Olympic site. Yet a sense of direction quickly becomes occluded. Skies clouded with a smoky haze diffuse direct sunlight; the ring roads leave the visitor directionally bamboozled. Despite frequent visits, you don’t get a true sense of bearing until you tour the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall and stare at the massive relief map of the city. That’s where my hotel is!
Instead, you remain in a state of heightened awe, proceeding along the major roadways past bombastic glass-fronted mega-buildings, stunned by a rhythmic processional of heft and size that rings in the mind like the physical embodiment of enormous bronze bells. The massive scale—of buildings and avenues and public and private spaces (the most voluminous hotel lobbies!)—dominates contemporary experience and the visual field. St. Petersburg under the czars, Speer’s Berlin, Imperial Rome—the ordered processional evokes inevitable comparisons, and all fall short of accurate analogy. Nowhere have power and immensity converged so completely.
Two construction sites within Beijing, one recently completed and one ongoing, illustrate the pace of change most pointedly. To anyone flying into the city a decade ago, arrival at the airport meant a mind-numbing scramble through the cacophonous hoards teeming in and around Terminal 1, a tiny (by international standards) structure choking on its own success. By contrast, today’s visitor whisks through the sleek confines of newly opened Terminal 3, one of the world’s largest buildings, designed by Foster + Partners working with Arup, in which passengers find baggage areas on a direct egress path from the arrival gate. Unlike the past, no one yells.
Headed in from the airport, the city morphs. Parkland adjacent to the road now brings greenery and walkways to thoroughfares that had been clogged with thousands of bicycles. Mature-looking trees, planted just two or three years ago, screen industrial areas and high-rise housing. Across the city, peering up like giant giraffes along the motorways, high above the trees, construction cranes lumber and turn, lifting a new generation of towers higher and higher in a multibillion-yuan construction frenzy. International brands loft above the foggy night like sails.