China World

PUBLISHING info: LOG 6: Observations on Architecture and the Contemporary City, Cynthia Davidson, ed., fall 2005

I arrived at Beijing airport from Shanghai at midday and took a 1.20-yuan red taxi to the China World Hotel. I had a street address, but no idea where the hotel was within the city. I did not contact anyone when I arrived. I did not read a guidebook, although I had two in my bag. I simply placed myself there anonymously and alone, to wake the next morning and walk the city.

At first I could not find the street. Once I did, I found no signs and my map proved useless. I knew four things: the city aligned itself to the cardinal grid, there were five ring roads, the innermost ring was considered the wall of the Forbidden City, and my hotel (which was circled on the map) was near the third ring road and the major east-west axis. I turned and began walking with the sun to my back. It was 9 a.m. I reached Ti’ananmen Square and the central gate to the Forbidden City at 10:30.

I turned right and walked along the north-south axis that runs through the Forbidden City. I reached the north wall at 11:40. I continued north through the narrow hutongs that comprise old Beijing. I lasted less than an hour because of the stench ,and took a 1.60-yuan blue-and-yellow taxi back to the China World. I arrived at 1 p.m., filthy from the pollution and heat.

The thoughts below were recorded during these first hours.

- Ti’ananmen Square is not public and is not a square.
- All public spaces in New York are privately owned. All public spaces in Beijing are government-owned. They were not designed as places for the people.
- The publicness of the old hutongs is merely a side effect of the Cultural Revolution.
- Qingyun Ma’s assertion that there is no public space must be reevaluated in terms of the Western paradigm on the basis of which the Chinese are remaking their cities.
- The Western nostalgia for the hutongs is misplaced.
- Insofar as the effacement of history is part of Beijing’s history, preservation is merely a false proposition of authenticity.
- Beijing is and always has been a modern city.
- Contemporary Beijing is an anamorphic city: the center, historically forbidden, is now visible in our peripheral vision, to the east.
- Beijing, despite the high rises, is still a horizontal city in which tallness does not matter.
- The horizontality of the city mirrors the horizontality of the courtyard house and contradicts the very notions of the free plan and universal space implicit in its top-down construction.
- Beijing is a city of downcast eyes: it is not a visual city.
- Beijing cannot be seen. It has no skyline.
- There are no streets in Beijing, only roads, lanes, and alleyways. The 19th-century flaneur and the 1960s society of the spectacle cannot be found here.
- The collage-bricolage-pastiche that defined the cubist vision of the early 20th century and continues in the current form of cut-and-paste does not apply.
- Urbanism takes on the sublime scale of nature where vastness resides in localness.
- Urbanism exists at the scale of the building. One finds the city inside the building.
- Richard Nixon was right: China is a great wall.
- The social politics of verticality are translated to the horizontality of the city by the use of walls and plinths, through which hierarchical structure becomes striated space.
- If the grid defines the urbanism of Manhattan, the wall is paradigmatic of Beijing.
- In the new city, white, looped-wire partitions four feet high line every road, control entry and exit, and limit streetcrossings to intersections, imposing linear movement on the pedestrian.
- The paradigm of the wall is translated into the construction of roads and sidewalks in which materials, patterning, sectional changes, curbs, and hedges all reinforce the edge.
- The Commune by the Great Wall – an elitist gated community – is emblematic of Beijing.
- The wall, like the plinth, denigrates the street.
- Saskia Sassen’s contention that city-ness resides in the intersection of difference must be reevaluated in light of the striated spatial syntax of Beijing.


  1. Beijing
Work: Writing