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LETTER FROM BEIJING

CONCRETE QUARTERLY -

Someone asked me if I thought Beijing was a concrete jungle, writes Fay Chan. I'd say that it's more like a savanna. There are lots of high-rise buildings, a few skyscrapers but also many low-rise buildings intermingled and around the periphery.Beijing is such a transitional space now - lots of the old is being pulled down to be replaced with the new and modern.

Large boulevards criss-cross the city in a manner of which Baron Haussmann would have been proud. Certainly it is not as green or as pretty as Paris, though I think Beijing is trying hard.

I don't believe there is a main road in Beijing without some kind of construction going on along it, whether in the form of a building site or of workers fixing pavements. And the skyline is filled with cranes.

Construction is a much more visible process than it is in the UK.

When the external cladding is being added, all the scaffolding (which is actually steel not bamboo) and protective green net-like covering is removed, revealing the bare structure. From ground level you can watch the construction workers fixing on the cladding and the materials being hoisted up - a view that is not possible in the UK because of health and safety regulations.

From a pedestrian footbridge in a main Wang Fu Jing shopping district in central Beijing, for example, I could see a huge hole full of reinforcement bars and formwork with steel pipes fixed across holding up basement walls ready for the pour.The pipes, I am told, will be removed later .

In China, construction on internal works also seems to go on late into the night, and on weekends on some sites.

All the roads run basically either north-south or east-west even in the traditional areas, so despite a lack of detailed up-to-date maps you cannot really get lost. Beijing works well because of its four ring roads (acually there are five, but the first one, which runs around the Forbidden City, doesn't count), wrapped around the city at almost equal distances from each other starting from the edge of the downtown area.

Beijing is getting bigger by the day, and the ring roads make getting from one side of the city to another very negotiable. In fact, it is possible to 'do' the sites - the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven - in a day, and squash in a visit to a market before it closes.My friend did this with the help of a hire car!

The environmental cost of the ring roads is that there are huge concrete flyovers in many parts of the city, even next to some historic buildings, but I guess development has to take priority here.And to be honest, most buildings are built for function rather than for style or content.

There may be an urban development plan but an overview of how one building stands next to another does not seem to be considered, so in a way the mass of flying concrete roads everywhere is just part of the jigsaw.

On the east and south side of Beijing, where most of the newest developments are concentrated, old is merely replaced by taller, bigger and shinier shopping centres, offices and luxury residential blocks, whose colourful appearance has yet to suffer the impact of sandstorms and pollution.

Historic sites do stand out here as they are well looked after (despite the inches of dust on their brightly painted exteriors), but everything else is rather grey and murky due to the pollution and the preference for fair-faced concrete and tiling.

My impression is that good workmanship doesn't seem to be appreciated here.Getting the job done quickly seems to be valued more highly, and labour is cheap.

Fay Chan is an architect working in Beijing

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