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letter from china

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Celebrating co-operation with a Beijing experience

How do you convey, architecturally, the idea of national, regional or civic identity? The question arose in different forms during a recent cultural exchange in Beijing, organised by the Royal Academy and he British Council. The occasion was the opening of the New Urban Environments exhibition at the China Natural History Museum overlooking Tiananmen Square; designed by Mike Stiff of Stiff & Trevillion, the exhibition (which had already appeared in Hong Kong and Tokyo) was a spectacular success.

The long room in which it sat had been painted blue, apparently the first time it had been anything other than Beijing beige, providing a spectacular backdrop for the photographs, drawings and models of recent and current British architecture. First conceived nearly two years ago, the show is a more accurate picture of the British scene than it was when it first opened, since a good proportion of the work has been abandoned, rejected or put on hold for one reason or another.

The show already has the patina of history, but nevertheless was an excellent advertisement (funded by Royal & Sun Alliance) for the bespoke arts-and- crafts-tradition product of leading uk and uk-based architects and designers. The opening, by the British ambassador, attracted an enthusiastic audience of students, who were to play a key role in the events that surrounded the opening.

On the afternoon following the opening, a joint symposium took place with the Architects Society of China in the delightful Zheng Yi Ci theatre, a centuries-old Chinese tea-house which somehow managed to escape the demolition of thousands of Beijing's listed buildings, and now serves as a permanent home for the Beijing Opera Company. Chaired by the head of the asc, Professor Dou Yide, the British speakers were Piers Gough, Alex Lifschutz of Lifschutz Davidson, Iain Tuckett of Coin Street Community Builders, and your correspondent.

The British speakers dealt with subjects ranging from the current concerns in relation to the architecture and environments of London, to the ways in which local communities could be saved from the otherwise inevitable disruption of new land uses, and from how you could make the most out of old buildings to the way in which colour and form could be used to make new architectural marks on old cities and enhance both.

Complementary Chinese speakers described some of the problems facing Beijing in relation to growth of car use, how to relate huge new buildings to any idea of a cultural tradition, and how it might be possible (and whether it was desirable) to avoid the movement of communities from hu- tongs to high-rise developments. The overall impression was that China faces, on a much bigger scale, the dilemmas which uk cities faced in the great post-war building boom. The decisions we took (privilege the car, break up communities, go for system-built mass estates, many of them high- rise) are being replicated in China now, or at least in the Beijing we were able to see. The traffic is dreadful, the high-rises undistinguished, and the commercial buildings largely unmemorable.

Is it possible to reconcile old and new? This was the task given to eight groups of Chinese architectural students, each with a uk student attached, to work on in a three-week project before the visiting uk group joined crits and a judging panel the day after the symposium. The site given was the 'White Pagoda' neighbourhood hu-tong, where once again a historic building, the pagoda, had managed to survive demolition. These areas are reminiscent of market streets but where the buyers and sellers all live above the shop or place of work. They would be condemned as unfit were they to exist in the uk now, but would not have been not so long ago. They have a life and character which they wish to keep, but you can see the attractions of moving to a modern flat.

The students, working at Quinghua University, were largely respectful towards the communities they were addressing, though all anticipated some change. The eight projects, beautifully presented and with excellent models, would have graced the walls of any uk school show with credit. A joint uk-Chinese jury gave a second prize of books to a scheme which created a wall along half of the hu-tong, separating it from traffic and creating new residential and retail, but including openings and views connecting the community to the busy world outside. First prize (a ten-day expenses- paid visit to the uk) went to a beautifully presented scheme which in some ways provided the least architectural intervention. It envisaged a slow process of change, helped by the provision of serviced boxes to provide facilities currently in short supply, and allowing for the adding of accommodation both upwards and outward over a long period.

More lectures were to follow, concluding a week that made one keen to return to understand more fully how the Chinese are coping with seemingly intractable problems of urban design and development. The opportunity will arise next year, when the uia holds its international congress there.

Paul Finch

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