Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Changing Face of Beijing

When you visit Beijing you can’t help but notice that it is a city on the move. This cannot only be seen with its increasingly fast paced traffic and numerous multi-level ring roads, but also with its immense urban reconstruction. Building cranes seemed to be everywhere, with an urban overhaul that began in preparation for the 2008 Olympics simply continuing. With a booming economy and a newly discovered capitalist mentality, there appears to be no stopping the city’s headlong charge toward modernization. With many shiny new office towers beginning to dominate the skyline of the business district, it was clear to us that a major transformation had certainly begun. This has already resulted in some brave new architectural forms that seem to be in sharp contrast to the more traditional buildings of old Beijing and the austere party assembly halls of a post-revolutionary era.

Fortunately Jules and I had the opportunity to catch a glimpse at what the old Beijing cityscape must have been like when we visited one of the ‘Hutong districts’ that remained close to the Forbidden City. While many of these traditional low-rise residential areas were bulldozed during the initial rush toward high rise development, we were told by our guide that there were now much greater efforts being made to preserve many of the remaining traditional neighborhoods. Here the courtyard dwellings were extremely small, but there still seemed to be a real sense of local community, with tiny shops and eating places spilling into to the streets. Riding around in a rickshaw through the narrow laneways was certainly in stark contrast to most of the other city areas we had seen and we could not help but wonder whether without such places the identity of the city might be totally lost amidst all of the new development.

To see the latest architectural directions of modern Beijing you needn’t go much further than the CCTV building in the heart of the city. This highly identifiable structure was designed by Rem Koolaas and Ole Scheeren and consists of two slanting towers that are joined by two horizontal sections at the top to create a bold continuous form. It is certainly an adventurous architectural design that in many ways reflects much about the aspirations of the city as it sat on the verge of the 2008 Olympic Games. However, the modernity of this building isn’t quite projected by its nickname… ‘The Giant Underpants’! The name was applied to it by the Beijing people soon after its completion and while competitions have since been held to select a more noble tag, it seems that the mantle has stuck, much to the annoyance of many local officials.

A much more gracious title has been applied to Beijing’s most famous building of the modern era … ‘The Bird’s Nest’. This building, which is now known worldwide, is of course the stadium for the 2008 Olympic games. Designed by leading Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, it remains a wonderful example of post-modernist architecture and has quickly become an icon for the new face of China. While all of the ‘hoopla’ of the games is now over, the stadium and surrounding area remains very popular with locals and tourists alike. When Jules and I visited there was plenty of activity along the main promenade. There were many stall holders selling the usual range of souvenirs and plenty of annoying kite sellers, holding a string of tiny kites trailing into the sky in one hand, while trying to sell you a packaged one with the other. They are a persistent lot and keen to make a buck, although we were reliably informed that despite appearances, if we had bought one it would more than likely fail to fly when we tried it at home. These were of course just minor distractions from the stadium itself, which looked simply stunning as its ‘basket-like’ structure gleamed in the afternoon sun. Alongside the stadium is the National Aquatic Centre, which has also been given its own colloquial name … ‘The Water Cube’. This was of course the venue for all of the swimming and diving competitions during the Olympics and is also a very interesting building, although I suspect that it really comes into its own when it is lit up at night and its bubble like cladding takes on shades of electric blue.

As we looked around at the faces of Chinese tourists, we wondered what they might be thinking about the new Beijing. For many of the elderly visitors who had traveled from remote areas of the country, this was probably their first visit to the nation’s capital and it must have seemed quite an overwhelming experience, as it was for us. The sheer scale of the city, with its many new developments are certainly a  long way from the country’s recent rural past. Certainly the modern architectural changes that have occurred here are the most tangible evidence of its current economic growth and developing status within the global community. While there is still a long way to go and you sense that the city still has many problems to solve, there appears to be no stopping Beijing in writing yet another chapter to its long and colourful history.

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