This piece was written in the summer of 2008 for a magazine in Beijing.
It was a surreal moment, strolling along the empty avenue on an autumn night in Beijing’s CBD. Not only for the fact that the five-lane wide road was car-less, nor for the symphony of light shimmering from the ultramodern surrounding buildings, but for perhaps a rare occasion that in this rapidly filled-in area I could see the full bright moon overhead, sprinkling silver dusts onto the dama who’s walking her dog, the daye who’s toying in one hand with his well-oiled walnuts while keeping an eye on his grandson who was at that moment racing like an Olympic athlete on his roller blades. There were also the moon-bathing expats, the photo-shooting tourists, and the squatting migrant workers who were having their hard-earned break before being herded back to more banging and hammering.
In this city of great walls and heavy fences where traditional architecture is epitomised by boxed-up courtyards, the introduction of open plan public spaces like this one comes as a breath of fresh air. Not that the city has never seen grand-scale public spaces before – the Tiananmen Square being the largest public square in the world. It used to be the city’s social centre, when there were fewer cars and the place was more accessible. My local friend still remembers the time when she was a kid, the square was a place for citizens to carry out all sorts of activities: playing cards, flying kites, practising tai chi, or just, squatting while meditating. But the square has become more political and touristy. It is all fenced up now, allowing access only through florescent-lit underpasses flanked with souvenir hawkers. Cars rush by, and squat-meditation is highly suspicious.
That’s why I thought it was a great design. I mean The Place (not the Square), and the Central Park that extends from the famous LCD-canopied avenue (not the Chang’an Avenue). Beijing is ready, I thought. But even though its arms are flung wide open to welcome its international friends, the city’s public buildings do not appear to be sharing the generous sentiment.
With this question in mind I ran about seeking professional answer. No matter where I looked, the response didn’t seem encouraging. ‘Beijing would have been so much more open had it not been deeply influenced by the dayuan culture.’ Zhang Wenhe used to be the editor-in-chief of an architecture and design magazine before becoming a resident architect with a major local firm. He took me to his office which is situated within a typical dayuan, or compound, on the western side of the city. It’s a quaint, quiet compound lined with trees and bushes; its crisscross roads and brick factories carefully laid out. ‘One thing about dayuan is that they are often very pleasant inside, but they aren’t friendly to outsiders.’ He was right. Even though the guards at the gate were almost blind to the pedestrians, they undeniably stopped the passers-by from wandering in.
Most of the dayuans are products of the socialist idea of community that celebrates collectivism and solidarity. Such a social fabric has experienced drastic changes in recent years, and of course, it has the economic reform to thank for that. Over the past few years, the city has seen more new shopping mall openings than ever before. Compared to its economic progress, however, the change in public space design is lagging behind.
Perhaps Beijing is the last city to ask for open plan public spaces. It is the heart of the Middle Kingdom after all; it is where all the vital organs of the country sit; and it is a city steep in the tradition of partition, of enclosure, and of narrow brick-lined hutongs. ‘Traditionally in China the entire society was built with rigid blocks of families and clans.’ Ning Xiaozhou explained with his childhood experience of living in a siheyuan. ‘Family members interacted with each other in their own courtyard, which served as a social centre of the family. Never was it open to the outsider. Even when you’re a close family friend, you’re still shut out of it.’
But a harmonious society cannot stand partition, so the city walls that once parted the Manchurians from others must fall. Similarly, when the country opens up to the outside world, the feudal-style siheyuans must open up too. What comes next is the inevitable re-fabrication of urban texture, which, for better or worse, means the disappearance of hutongs and the emergence of new concepts about space.
Ning is optimistic about the change. ‘At least people are beginning to talk about public space in China.’ But he is also aware of the challenge facing Beijing. ‘It’s always a bit different here,’ he cautioned, ‘public gathering is a delicate matter.’ And so are the spaces crafted out to promote it.
Few as there are, the city will be increasingly blessed with more open public spaces. The Place is a good example. Not only has it transformed itself into a social centre of the neighbourhood, it also proves to be a commercial success. With more public buildings due to open in the coming months, the city’s residents certainly have a lot to look forward to.
What is public space to them?
Long, 26, architecture designer @ M.A.D
My ideal public space is one that accommodates whatever functions that are given to it, and serves all peoples equally. It should be a place where everyone can use and interpret its meaning according to his or her own needs and understanding.
Chloe Hu, 26, analyst @ World Bank
I think it’s a place where I can be alone and at the same time with the crowd, something more urban, with a strong cosmopolitan feel. That’s why I don’t like New York’s Central Park. I think The Place is great ‘cos it tells me I’m in a city of people.
Andrew Hu, 27, finance consultant @ China Everbright Bank
Public Space? I don’t think there’s any in Beijing.
Mr Shen, 68, retired @ Chaoyang
The Place is good because there’s a roof so I can come every day with my family. My grandson loves the LED show and my wife finds it very convenient to shop in the mall. Sometimes I go to Ritan Park to do morning exercises. I don’t like the [Central] Park because there are only trees and pebbles.
Where are the best places to hang out for a day on an empty pocket?
What other place in Beijing can you find free entertainment, free entrance, and superb air ventilation?The Place does not only boast the world’s second biggest LCD screen, attracting people from the vicinity and afar, its canopied outdoor boulevard makes it perfect for all sorts of leisure activities – in all weathers.What’s good: weather-proof, free LCD shows and road shows, plenty of shops and eateries around when bored, plenty of seatingWhat’s bad: no metro access, nearest station is Yongan Li, road shows can be annoyingFrequent goers: shoppers, roller bladders, gossipers, babies and their sitters, migrant workers
CBD Central Park
Right next to The Place across the road is the park that, rarely in Beijing, is open to visitors for free. Situated among hotels, residences, shopping malls and offices, the park serves various functions at different times of the day. Early in the morning joggers and tai chi practitioners can be spotted while during lunch hours, one can find expats from nearby offices munching sarnies in the tree shades. On a sunny day the green lawns are dotted with sun-bathers who defy Beijing’s scorching heat, and when they pack with the sunset, dog owners begin to emerge with their puppies.What’s good: quiet, green, multifunctionalWhat’s bad: not weather-proof, lacks seatingFrequent goers: dogs and their walkers, sun bathers, avid readers, meditators, lovers, sunbathers
The National Centre for Performing Arts
Although you have to be a ticket holder to go past the ticket office (and the security check) to enter the real lobby, you can always subject yourself to the mesmerising effect of the luminous egg shell and its reflection glistening in the surrounding water – for free.As a public building the NCPA may be serving only a small portion of the public, but its vast surrounding area makes a perfect venue for everybody’s twilight stroll. With its geographical proximity to some of the most important architectures of the country, a pilgrimage to the theatre promises a stately shock.What’s good: good public transport access, spacious, security guaranteedWhat’s bad: no shelter from bad weather, lacks seatingFrequent goers: lovers, theatre-goers, ticket dealers
Financial Street Central Park
The huge civic plaza features a computer-animated fountain and light show. When the weather is good (and fountain is jetting water), you can see people gathered around the lake to enjoy the show.The plaza is said to be a modern interpretation of Chinese landscaping. Be it true or not, the local residents certainly like spending their mid-summer evenings here.What’s good: plenty of space, plenty of seating, free fountain and light showsWhat’s bad: too much landscaping and perhaps not too functionalFrequent goers: dogs and their walkers, bankers, shoppers, babies and their sitters
What are the places to look forward to?
The Village at Sanlitun
With the first villagers recently moved in, the (semi) open-plan complex looks rather promising in providing a new leisure space for visiting drinkers and local residents alike. It only remains whether the property management would decide to fend off the drunkards in times to come.
Steven Holl’s design pledges to ‘create a twenty-first century porous urban space, inviting and open to the public from every side’. Apart from the open plan ground level there will also be rooftop gardens open to the public. What’s really exciting is the prospect that the project will fulfil its architect’s dream of turning into a space of random relationships that weaves into an organic urban fabric.
Along the axial extension of the CBD Central Park, in the shadow of the twisted angular loop and its sister building the eccentric crinkled mirror will be a landscaped park of entertainment and events. There will also be a public path inside the loop that is supposedly dedicated to the public. If the openness on the plan can really be carried through, its symbolic significance will be greater than its actual spatial importance.