Ubiquitous, pervasive, the night air seems palpable, like a surreal force blanketing the city. While generated in part by coal-fired power plants, and in part by other industries (including the dust kicked up by construction sites), the haze brings a gloomy quality to most days that masks its real impact on health. The World Health Organization reports that Beijing’s air sometimes reaches five times above the agency’s safety standards. Adding to the brew, the wind sometimes brings a choking, silica-based dust from the Mongolian desert plains, which locals call shachenbao, or “dust cloud tempest.” Still the towers rise.
If high-rise towers alternate with open spaces along major highways, and neighborhoods lack the cheek-by-jowl quality of Hong Kong or Shenzhen, density in one precinct approaches Manhattan levels. The CBD, set in the Chaoyang district east of Tiananmen Square, has witnessed the majority of the tallest and biggest structures of recent years. CCTV’s massive headquarters, designed by the Dutch firm OMA and the China World Trade Center, by SOM, now join earlier complexes like the award-winning Jian Wai SOHO complex by Riken Yamamoto and the Yintai Center, originally designed by John Portman.
Those towers, the Olympic site, and Terminal 3 all required land. For Beijing, whose urban DNA had consisted of an interlinked aggregation of small-scale neighborhoods called hutong, progress has meant deconstruction of existing buildings, in many cases people’s homes. In a city that counted over 4,000 hutong at one point, up to 70 percent have been destroyed, according to China’s own news service, Xinhua. The past has been literally erased in a generation. Again, a visit to the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall tells the tale more graphically than words. A massive bronze relief sculpture of the old city, frozen at a scale of 1:1,000 from the year 1949, exhibits a city of two- and three-story buildings, still dominated by the Imperial structures of earlier centuries. No skyscrapers punctuate the skyline.
Contemporary Chinese architects and planners and other cognoscenti have rediscovered the hutong, where today’s visitor can find crowds mingling from a variety of backgrounds, taking in the evening air arm in arm. The hip might dip into an alleyway to a contemporary hotel or restaurant, renovated from the historic fabric of a courtyard building, while ordinary citizens go about their routines of haircuts and shopping. Architects like Ma Yansong and his partner, Dang Qun, who both trained in the United States, occupy the top floor of a building down such a street, a locale that flavors each workday with a taste of an earlier, more authentic Beijing.
The architects’ offices raise the question of authenticity in modern Beijing. What does the term mean in a city so rapidly reinventing itself? And does the question of authenticity have relevance, when posited through our Western eyes? Beijing has long seemed the most Chinese of cities, with its historic precincts, its palaces and lakes, its narrow lanes where smoke curls up past 16th-century buildings. Now mandarin-collared mannequins from the 1950s in shop windows confront posters touting Euromodels wearing skimpy Gucci and Calvin Klein while everyone clings to a cell phone. Restaurants circling Hohai Lake, near Beihai Park, fill older pleasure houses now outlined in neon. Shopping malls bring capitalism to the Communist capital. Squint, and the world elides.
The disjuncture between modernity and history has provoked a vibrant art scene that has found a home in districts like Dashanzi, whose galleries and hip restaurants are housed in former factories away from the center of the city. Artists, dealers, tourists, and the curious throng here to Factory 798, housed in the vaulted halls of a former industrial facility designed by Bauhaus-trained architects. Robert Bernell, an American, founded Timezone 8 bookstore and café, which serves as a locus for the architectural community at Factory 798. Nearby, workers still disassemble small engines and break for noodles during the noon hour.
Pervaded by the ironic, by cultural confrontation, Beijing overwhelms our intellectual gamesmanship with its power and ubiquity. Today’s architects are finding a clear field that allows them to realize urban dreamscapes that a lifetime’s apprenticeship in the conservative workhouses of Europe or America might never fulfill. The results arrive mixed: The best show the increasing sophistication of both clients and designers, while the vast majority, the middle-of-the-road buildings that stretch to the end of sight, continue to meet the need for shelter without detail or planning finesse. Beijing, like China, is growing up. The city has bypassed adolescence, jumping into a big, newfound maturity at once awkward and thrilling. Where, we must ask, will this gangling, energetic phenomenon go?