China's Big Bang

A building boom is transforming the country -- and trampling the past

| July / August 2004

Author and activist Feng Jicai must feel lonely these days. The Chinese government and architects from all over the world are racing to modernize the world's most populous country and fill its cities with skyscrapers that literally erase China's heritage, both physically and psychologically. Already well known in China for criticizing the Cultural Revolution in his oral history Ten Years of Madness, Feng is now trying in vain to slow the cranes before they bury the past forever.

In his hometown of Tianjin, Feng led protests over the demolition of old buildings. He also wrote Rescuing the Old Street, a book detailing his grassroots attempt to halt the destruction of traditional architecture. 'I want to let people know that these are not merely old houses,' he told Mike Meyer in an article for WorldView (Spring 2003), the quarterly of the National Peace Corps Association. 'They're vehicles for traditional culture. If you regard a city as having a spirit, you will respect it, safeguard it, and cherish it. If you regard it as only matter, you will use it excessively, transform it at will, and damage it without regret.'

Feng may be speaking eloquently, but China isn't listening. Beijing is in the midst of a sort of architectural big bang, as enormous construction projects pop up all over the city and the metropolis spirals chaotically outward in all directions. A third, fourth, fifth, and even a sixth ring road have followed the second, which marked Beijing's outer limits until the 1980s. 'Cars move sclerotically around disconnected clumps of newly completed towers that leave the center as empty as Detroit's,' observes architecture critic Deyan Sudjic in the British current affairs magazine Prospect (Nov. 2003).

Much of this is the result of China's overheated economy, but a major focus is the 2008 Olympics, which the country's leaders hope will prove that China has, in Sudjic's words, 'moved beyond its sweatshop economy' into superpower status. The Chinese government ordered two square miles cleared for the construction of the Olympic stadium. Residents of what Sudjic characterizes as a 'busy residential area . . . with little gray-walled houses, workshops, and stores' have been relocated to distant suburbs. Some relocatees have become so despondent that they have committed suicide.

In the middle of all this change, of course, is the authoritarian central government, which turned Beijing into a partly modern city with the help of the Soviets, taking advantage of the fact that, as Sudjic puts it, 'China had no urban tradition in the Western sense.'

But now the city is becoming a showplace of international architecture. Well-known architects such as Rem Koolhaas are jumping at the chance to play a role in China's urban expansion.