Beijing's Buildings Reflect Hierarchy Of Power

Beijing's architecture too often feels like a dissonant, incoherent hodgepodge of architectural styles — traditional Chinese, Stalinist Soviet and post-modern Western.

If it suggests a lack of planning, perhaps that's because of the capital's special status. The municipal government ranks lower than the various central government ministries, which build their own enclaves with little regard for the city's overall appearance.

This is especially evident on the eastern end of Chang'an Avenue. Cabbies rolling down the main east-west thoroughfare point at the ministry buildings and tick off their derisive nicknames — the big underpants, the belly button and the "Yin-Yang Face."

The shapes of Beijing's buildings reflect a hierarchy of power. The rule used to be that no building could be higher than the Forbidden City. As a result, buildings tend to be squat, hulking and imposing, limited in height, but with a big footprint.

Before it was renamed Beijing, or northern capital, in 1949, the city was called Beiping, the "placid north." The scale was more intimate, the feeling almost provincial. It was dominated by the gray walls and tiled roofs of hundreds of hutongs, or alleyways where ordinary folks lived.

Since then the city has exploded in all directions, sprawling to roughly 10 times its original size. Getting across town can take longer than getting to Tianjin, the big port city to the east. The whole place sometimes feels unsustainable, as if the city were ready to buckle and sink under the weight of its 17 million inhabitants and 3 million cars.

Before 1949, the area outside the city walls was largely farmland or barren wasteland. Now it accounts for most of the city. The walls are long gone, and the new areas are mostly made up of drab apartment blocks devoid of any recognizably Chinese architecture.

Beijing has undergone other periods of intensive building that created new urban landmarks. In the 1950s, Beijing got a slew of Soviet-style buildings, including the Beijing Train Station and the Military Museum. Today, most of these remain as archaic- and alien-looking relics.

Of course, construction is not even finished. And it's too early to tell how the current crop of Olympic and modern architecture — the Bird's Nest, the National Theater, the Aquatic Center, the new airport and the CCTV building, to name a few — will stand the test of time.

For now, they'll remain controversial — to some, tributes to rising national power, glittering wealth and soaring ambition, and to others, monstrous monuments to mindless vanity.

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