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Reinventing Beijing

Tourists gather in the Forbidden City, which is now being extensively restored.
Launch Slideshow
Photo: Dean Kaufman

The highlight of a visit to the new Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall is the extraordinarily detailed scale model of the city that projects what China’s capital will look like in the year 2020. English-speaking guides dressed in scarlet-and-black silk tunics offer assistance to foreign visitors as pulsating lights flash over the exuberant mock skyline. The government-operated urban planning museum is housed in a four-story building the size of a major U.S. department store, and the model—a testament to the city’s current explosive growth—covers some 3,200 square feet.

Just outside the museum, which is located in the heart of the capital near Tiananmen Square, construction proceeds at breakneck speed. Beijing’s latest transformation, driven by the turbocharged expansion of the Chinese economy and the city’s intense desire to present a new face for the 2008 Olympics, is producing a resounding clash between the past and the future. Although wall text in the museum proclaims a "perfect fusion" of the two, the rampant destruction of narrow lanes lined with courtyard houses dating back six centuries alarms many Beijingers who fear their heritage is on the auction block.

Yet amid the wide-scale demolition and new construction, some of the city’s most prominent historic landmarks—the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven—are undergoing their most comprehensive restorations ever. These, too, have sparked controversy, with criticism coming from the UN agency that oversees world cultural heritage, concerned the makeovers will leave these centuries-old structures looking freshly minted.

In the same way that they have invited leading foreign architects to build skyscrapers and stadiums, Chinese authorities are now seeking assistance from foreign experts in restoring the Forbidden City. The World Monuments Fund, a nonprofit group based in New York, is guiding the renovation of some of the interiors in the 999-room former imperial residence, and Italian conservationists are bringing their experience to bear on retooling the palace exterior.

"In China, the idea of preservation is quite new," says Wei Wei Shannon, a spiky-haired Chinese architecture critic who intermittently text-messages on a red-and-white cell phone as we talk over dinner. "Walk through Rome, and the city is like a museum where you can see the passage of time. But history in China has been rewritten over and over again. There’s a constant pushing forward."

This is not the first time Beijing has undergone reinvention: Successive dynasties have remade the city to their liking. Built on flat terrain in a grid pattern that gives it the feel of a checkerboard, with the emperor’s palace set in the middle, Beijing was made the imperial capital in the 15th century, during the Ming Dynasty. Until the 20th century, the city was surrounded by a massive wall with fortified tower gates. "Not one of our European capitals has been conceived and laid out with such unity and audacity," a French naval officer observed after visiting imperial Beijing at the conclusion of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, it ignored the pleas of Chinese architectural experts to create a new administrative center outside the historic core of Beijing, and tore down the city wall to make way for a major road ringing the metropolis. Chairman Mao himself is said to have surveyed Beijing from atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace and announced he wanted "the sky to be filled with smokestacks." A master plan for redeveloping Beijing as a socialist city was adopted along guidelines provided by comrades from the Soviet Union. Factories arose all over town, rapidly supplanting temples, gardens, and teahouses.

Axial streets were widened into mammoth boulevards lined with bulky modern buildings. Still more national treasures were lost in the Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966 under the slogan "Destroy the old to establish the new." The Forbidden City itself barely escaped assault by the Red Guards before Prime Minister Chou En-lai ordered the palace gates sealed to thwart their rampages.

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