Posts Tagged ‘Beijing’

We live in a city quite totally dominated by the automobile. It has taken us 100 years to ruin what was once a beautiful and urbane metropolis, but by God, we’ve done it! These pages are littered with the evidence of that ruination, but in case you needed a bit more proof:

Albert Stone shows us West Main and Brown, in 1908. And I show you West Main and Brown, today:

It’s the American way, really. Our city is certainly not the only city that has paid an inestimable price for what we think of as mobility and freedom.

But guess what? We have imported the madness! You knew this, didn’t you? But we have just spent a couple of months as witnesses, looking up close at what’s happened, and will happen, in far away places, thanks to our unending infatuation with the car. It’s ugly out there, and will get worse than anything we can imagine. Just a couple of examples should suffice.

I grew up with images of China that were filled with bicycles – millions and millions of bicycles.

Even in the 1980s, 80% of all Beijingers used a bicycle as their means of transportation.

Today: bicycle ridership is down to 19.7% of the population, and cars, added to the streets at the rate of about 10,000 a week, are king.

Beijing – 22 lanes of traffic.

Beijing – 18 lanes of traffic.

All the older urban forms are being destroyed – I encourage readers to find a copy of an extraordinary and very sad work by Michael Meyer: “The Last Days of Old Beijing” – and the city, now of over 22,000,000, is on its 10th ring road. Wrecked.

And then there’s Bangkok. Traffic in Bangkok is worse than anything we have ever witnessed. Breathtaking, literally and otherwise.

Some places have passed tax laws to try to slow the auto-growth – Hong Kong has a 100% tax on auto purchases, and in Vietnam it’s 200%. The results of the tax are pretty predictable, though: two-wheeled mayhem, as here, at the Cho Dam market in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Right behind these examples are Shanghai and Singapore, and yes, Sydney and Auckland.

And then when one begins to contemplate India, with its almost non-existent highway infrastructure, and one speculates about what’s to come, the possibilities are truly nightmarish.

Not one city we visited has any hope of keeping the car, and high velocity mobility, from doing radical, limitless damage. In Beijing, the state is doing what it can to increase bicycle ridership back into the high 20% range. But it’s really way too little, and way too late.

We saw so much that was extraordinary, beautiful, proud, alive, and wonderful. But the underlying theme of death-by-auto was everywhere we went. Faster comes the destruction. Faster, Faster.

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Hong Kong – a subway extension.

Tianjin, two hours from Beijing, before and later, after.

The arrow on the drawing, below, indicates the building, a ship terminal, above.

Singapore – a subway extension.

And Phuket – phooey.

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Nightfall in the Qianmen hutong, Beijing. Image by Ruth Fremson, New York Times.

I was reminded again the other day of the muddle-headed New York Times article I have complained about here on several occasions. In that piece (the June 8th NYT Magazine), “The New, New City,” writer Nicolai Ouroussoff says, of exploding city development in China or the Middle East: “Yet the notion of finding “authenticity” in a sprawling metropolitan area that is barely 30 years old seems absurd. How do you breathe life into a project at such scale? How do you instill the fine-grained texture of a healthy community into one that rose overnight?” Could there be a more wrong-headed statement about making/remaking cities, especially great cities like Beijing?

I hope that someone will give Mr. Ouroussoff a copy of the July issue of Architectural Record. In it, Michael Sorkin, a contributing editor of the magazine and Professor of Architecture and Director of the graduate urban design program at New York’s City College (CUNY), has written a truly wonderful essay about learning from the hutong (traditional alleys and streets, lined with siheyuan, one story courtyard houses) of Beijing, and what they might teach those who are remaking that city, badly, at the speed of light. Here are some excerpts. Access the full article below.

“The Chinese have a longstanding genius for domestic architecture, and a visit to the hutong of Beijing – the fast disappearing neighborhoods of courtyard houses, laced with small lanes and commerce, sanctuaries of both intimacy and variety in the midst of a city too rapidly doing away with the best of its public character – affirms the singularity and brilliance of their historic achievement. Such places offer an alternative to the Modernist constructs that shape the city today and provide an irreplaceable element in the urban repertoire that demands not simply to be conserved but extended.”

“Although the architectural types that make up the hutong of Beijing differ from the lilong of Shanghai, the genius of their organization is similar. Low, tight, and intimate, they are wonderful neighborhoods, tractable on foot, intimate, and diverse. Indeed, so singular, delightful, and increasingly rare are these places, that many are enjoying (or suffering) the fate of gentrification. On my recent visit, I went house shopping with a Chinese colleague who hoped to find a congenial situation in one of the better hutong, but the prices were at Manhattan levels. The market may be cruel, but it’s not stupid.”

A siheyuan in Beijing. Image from Flickr.

“To lament the disappearance of these tight-grained communities has become something of a bromide, and the issue of saving such endangered places is hardly foreign to the Chinese. The mistake, however, is to reduce the question simply to one of preservation, to see these forms as an unrepeatable historic condition. As we all confront the need to create radically more sustainable forms of urbanism and restore the morphological basis for communities worldwide, we have a lot to learn from the lilong and hutong of China.”

Excellently said. For the whole article, go to:


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Linked Hybrid,  Beijing

Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid in Beijing. Image from flickr.

Stephanie Busari of CNN in London wrote today to offer a link to the CNN International article she wrote about Beijing. Take a look. It’s nice to have been able to give her our perspective.


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After writing about the New York Times articles of June 8th in the last two posts, I was contacted by a young woman in London who writes for CNN. She is doing a piece on Steven Holl’s ‘Linked Hybrid’ (LH) development in Beijing, shown below. She wanted me to chat with her about the project.

During our exchange of emails, she asked me for some additional thoughts about the development, which I was happy to offer. And then came the punchline – she had contacted Mr. Holl, and asked him if he thought his LH had “isolationist overtones.” Mr Holl replied that LH was “no more isolationist than Greenwich Village.”


This reply was a bit astonishing to me. Now I will let you be the judge. Take a look at this (taken at almost precisely the same altitude) thanks to Google Earth:


Beijing Aerial - Linked Hybrid

Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid in construction, Beijing. Image from Google Earth.


Greenwich Village aerial

 Greenwich Village. Image from Google Earth.

Interesting, yes?


I looked at these images and found myself recalling a wonderful quote from Alain de Botton’s “The Architecture of Happiness.”  


“The great modern houses are happy to admit to their youth and honestly to benefit from the advances of contemporary materials, but they also know how to respond to the appealing themes of their ancestry and can thereby heal the traumas generated by an era of brutally rapid change. Without patronizing the history they profess to love, they show us how we, too, might carry the valuable parts of the past and the local into a restless global future.”


Well said. Worth keeping in mind as Beijing, and all other next cities, unfold with breathtaking speed.


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