China’s capital is home to a vast array of architectural styles.
By China Report ASEAN
Contrary to the popular opinion of Beijing being a city of indistinguishabe tower blocks, China’s sprawling capital city is a veritable smorgasbord of architectural styles. One just has to know where to find them.
Perhaps Beijing’s most famous architecture is found in the city’s courtyard homes – the hutongs. The history of the hutongs can be traced as far back as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when nobles were awarded land upon which the built these homes, neatly arranged along the wells.
These streets of courtyard homes crisscrossed the city and really took over in the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911). They are characterised by narrow lanes (although some are much wider than others) lined with siheyuan – four homes cetered around a single quadrangle courtyard. Many hutongs are popular with foreign tourists as well as locals as places to spend free time in their many cafes, bars and restaurants. Visitors just have to be careful to jump out of the way of rickshaws hurtling down the narrow lanes.
The buildings themselves have an even longer history, dating back to the Han Dynasty (200 BC – 300 AD). Long curtain walls hide the quadrangle courtyards and homes from the gaze of passers-by, with often elaborately decorated doorways offering just a glimpse inside. Larger courtyards and homes were originally reserved for more wealthy and powerful families. The siheyuan generally face south for better light, which is way many hutongs run east to west, with north-south passages that cutacross them for easy access. Of course the buildings have been built many times, meaning that often the designs we see today date from the 19th century or later. Even though both the roof tiles and bricks are grey, the hutongs are anything but drab, brimming with character through their history, especially juxtapositioned with to the red-painted doorways and colourful shopfronts that adorn them.
The numbers of hutongs kept increasing until reaching about 6,000 in 1949. But with Beijing’s rapid urbanization in the second half of the 20th century and start of the 21st century, there are now only about 1,300 of these ancient streets left.
So what has taken their place?
Much of the hutong neighbourhoods that have made way in the name of progress have been replaced by high-rise apartment blocks to house Beijing’s rapidly expanding population.
Towers of concrete stretch from the furthest suburbs right into the city’s heart like a vast forest. They vary in age and style, some being very modern and housing large apartments complete with the latest mod-cons and astronomical rents, while others are look dated and well-lived in, and accomodate lower-cost flats. Seen from a vantage point the rows upon rows of tower blocks seem endless.
Often visitors and inhabitants of Beijing alike write off all of these buildings as ugly, or lacking character. However, with a closer look, these utilitarian blocks each have their own unique charm.
Some of the older, low or mid-rise residential blocks that dot the map of Beijing have a different aesthetic appeal. Built in the Soviet style by the government in the 1950’s and 1970’s to house Beijing’s expanding population, they can be regarded as the first example of large modern living complexes in Beijing (link in Chinese).
Apart from the many residential architectural styles that can be found across Beijing, there are notable examples of architectural triumphs and some more controversial designs in the capital. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder…
The Peking Hotel
The first wing of the Peking Hotel was completed in 1915, and a second wing, now known as Block B, was finished in 1917, making it one of the oldest hotels in Beijing. It has had an eventful history, being occupied by Japanese forces in 1937 and the Kuomingtang government after that. Later, the banquet hall hosted Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai at the founding of the People’s Republic.
The Beijing Hotel now has four separate buildings, operating under four different names. It is located at the end of Wangfujing Street, at the junction with the impressive East Chang’An Avenue, which leads to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
The walk down East Chang’an Avenue from Wangfujing Street to Tiananmen Square is worth taking for the many grand buildings along its length. The huge Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China that enclose the square itself are also very impressive.
The Beijing Exhibition Center
The Beijing Exhibition Center was built in the Sino-Soviet architectural style popular in the 1950’s. Seen from dongwuyuanlu to the south, it really stands out as the only building of any significant size in the vicinity. A visitor seeing it for the first time could be forgiven for thinking they were in Moscow rather than Beijing.
The new headquartrs of the state television channel CCTV building was completed in 2012. Standing in the city’s gleaming CBD, it has a lot of fans and of course some detractors. It is one of several headline-grabbing new buildings to be built in the area in recent years, after the government decided to speed-up construction in the area, located in Chaoyang District, between the third and fourth ring roads.
At 400,000 square metres, Beijing’s largest shopping mall, Galaxy SOHO, has been accussed by some of destroying Beijing’s heritage while others say it is a modern architectural marvel. Designed by Zaha Hadid architects, it looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. However you look at it, it is certainly noticeable.
There are many more architectures to take in in Beijing, that can’t be showcased in one article. You’ll have to come to Beijing to explore them for yourself!