The beijing posts

7 08 2009

Sometimes it was confusing, sometimes it was revolting, but always interesting.

Part 1 –Architecture and Human space
(the first of a series about a few of the things that were particularly compelling to me.)

For a good overview, have a look at this group of articles from last year on beijing’s recent architectural leaps of faith.
•    The architecture was overwhelming and the division of human space is, at turns, alarming and comforting.  The amount of contemporary, grand scale architecture is unlike anything since turn-of-the-century New York.  High rise apartment and office buildings stretch for miles in every direction.  Imagine the sprawl of los angeles but the majority of buildings are 15-20 stories tall.

•    Last year’s olympics had a huge impact on the face of Beijing.  And according to all I’ve read, “face” is everything for the Chinese.  How things look to outsiders is incredibly important. So on the surface at least, it has been critical for Beijing to appear the most innovative, the most progressive in it’s architecture.
The bicycles that used to take up so much space on beijing’s streets are far less than they used to be, although they are still in use for everything.

hutong 1

The heavy traffic congestion is now mostly taken up by all new cars so one is left with the sense that everything in Beijing is either less than 10 years old or more than a thousand years old with little that is notable in between.

Temple of Heaven with the National Performing Arts Center in the background

At the street level, however, things appeared quite differently. Interior space is at a premium in a city where the population has exploded.  In one tourist/night life area we passed by a men’s dormitory.  The space was approximately 14’x16’ and was packed with about 10 bunks beds stacked 4 beds high.  Most of the men who lived there were sitting outside watching the tourists go by and catching a breeze from the lake that was next to their living quarters. Inside, if you didn’t have air-conditioning (few older houses do), you were doomed to a very sweaty night.
Older neighborhoods also seem to have no indoor plumbing and people rely heavily on public bathrooms for both laundry and personal hygiene. In the neighborhood where we stayed, these public bathrooms were set along a green-space route that separated the noisy main street from the hutong (essentially, mandarin for barrio or neighborhood).  In the evenings, people would meet in this narrow, long green space, take their passagiata, do their bathroom duties, play music and dance, play checkers and let their little ones pee in the grass.

hutong 2

Old woman dancing with fan and scarf surrounded by musicians in hutong.

•    I have to say, in terms of architectural achievement, the Great Wall is, in fact, quite great.  We hiked 10 kilometers of the wall, which at some points had an 85% grade, more like climbing a crumbling ladder.  (i didn’t lose consciousness once) But the views of the wall conjoined to the landscape were really spectacular.

great wall 1
Sprawling more than 4000 miles built stone by stone in the middle nowhere.

Most interesting was how the wall faithfully follows the form of the landscape.  The Chinese point out the way the wall looks like the spine of a dragon as it moves over the hills.

In sections, workers in coolie hats were laboring (slowly in the heat) to restore portions of the wall as they have done for more than a thousand years.  Some 2 million Chinese are estimated to have died during the course of building the wall.  Watching old men hovering over the edge of the wall at a 15 ft. drop, it’s easy to see how.

It is the most dynamic piece of architecture I’ve ever seen.




4 responses

7 08 2009
Sonya Clay


7 08 2009
Diane Weimer

The descriptions seem to really capture the crowded city and the Great Wall. Thanks for giving us a peek into this ancient place.

14 02 2010
Douglas Close

The picture of the bicycle is very beautiful. Am trying to grasp what an 85% grade would be. What an adventure! The great wall.

16 04 2012
David Marrie

When visiting the Great Wall, Richard Nixon turned to Chairman Mao and, without an inkling of irony, said: “What a great wall!”

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