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The New Xisi Bei Project International Invitation Exhibition: The Path to Preservation or Destruction?

xisiThis past summer, an exhibition held at an official institution in Beijing attracted a lot of attention. The “New Xisi Bei Project International Invitation Exhibition”, jointly sponsored by an investment company and the Housing and Land Management Center of the Xicheng District Government, was introduced as a “Regeneration Strategy.” The exhibition was divided into two sections – the first exploring the concept of “regenerating” Xisi Bei, and the second introducing conceptual designs for the nine blocks. The first part was carried out by OMA/Rem Koolhaas with GSD/Harvard Design School and ASA Studio Albanese from Italy. The second part was done by nine well-known domestic and international architectural design firms, namely ODBC from France, Studio Pei-Zhu from China, Studio Archea from Italy, Atelier Bow-Wow from Japan, Plasma from U.K., Nred Architects from Spain, Spacework Architects from China, MADA s.p.a.m. from China, and NAP Architects from Japan.

The objective of the exhibition was described in the introduction to the exhibition by its curator, Mr. Shi Jian:

The renovation of historical districts has become a global trend in recent years… One trend in recent years is for well-known architects to implement new design concepts in spaces such as the flagship stores of top-grade commercial brands, often in traditional historical areas, and some of these have become successful examples of innovative and forward-looking architectural renovation. … As a result of these previous difficulties, there are no existing successful examples for the renovation of Beijing Old City, and this exhibition is committed to exploring new possibilities for this matter… The conceptual design for this project is not only seen to be architectural design or block planning rather the idea is to create a conceptual design for New Xisi Bei Street itself, which is divided into nine sections, with the Hutongs marking the north and south extent of each section. Each architect will produce a concept design for one of these pieces, and also a concept for the Xisi Bei area as a whole.

The New Xisi Bei Project covers exactly the Historical and Cultural Preservation Area of Xisi Bei Tou Tiao to Ba Tiao, which is located in the northwest section of Beijing’s old town. It is one of the first 25 such conservation areas designated by the Beijing Municipal Government. With the support of the Beijing Municipal Government, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning and the Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design formulated a detailed preservation plan for the Xisi Bei Tou Tiao to Ba Tiao Historical and Cultural Preservation Area as part of its Conservation Plan of 25 Historic Areas in Beijing Old City. The Plan was adopted with the force of law by the Beijing Municipal Government in 2002.

According to the Conservation Plan for the Xisi Bei Tou Tiao to Ba Tiao area, most of the existing properties within the preservation area have a residential use, while others are occupied by local educational institutions. Commercial properties, mainly serving local residents, the majority of whom are blue collar workers (many now unemployed or retired), are located along Xisi Bei Avenue and Zhaodengyu Road. The courtyard houses in this area date primarily to the late Qing Dynasty or early Republican era and although most houses suffer various degrees of deterioration, the core structures are largely sound. However, makeshift structures erected inside the courtyards over the past decades now account for approximately half of the total area occupied by the permanent buildings, thereby destroying the layout of the courtyards and reducing the quality of life inside them. Not only have the basic municipal facilities inside the preservation area remained relatively poor, but the residential density in about a third of the courtyards is also too high. Nevertheless, the Conservation Plan stresses that most of the houses inside the preservation area are traditional-style courtyard houses and the area is one of the few inside the old city of Beijing where many fairly well-preserved courtyard houses are concentrated. Courtyards and hutongs are the main features that characterize this preservation area.

To preserve the historical and cultural characteristics of the Xisi Bei Tou Tiao to Ba Tiao area, the Conservation Plan explicitly stipulates that land usage should remain essentially residential, but population density needs to be lowered. Buildings in the area are to be protected, restored, renovated or demolished. This work is to be done in a gradual manner, in accordance with the categorization of each building, whether “protected,” “to-be-improved,” “to-be-preserved,” “to-be-renovated,” or “street-side facelift.” Renovated buildings must remain consistent with traditional architecture in terms of scale, size, spatial layout, style and colors. The Plan also calls for the gradual improvement of infrastructure facilities and the adoption of electricity as the main source of energy, but does not see any need to add or widen roads inside the preservation area.

We believe that the Conservation Plan for the Xisi Bei Tou Tiao to Ba Tiao Historical and Cultural Preservation Area is appropriate and consistent with Chinese historical and cultural preservation practices and laws. If property ownership can be further clarified and efforts renewed over the coming years, this area could become a model for the preservation of other areas in Beijing’s old town. Implementing the Conservation Plan for the Xisi Bei Tou Tiao to Ba Tiao area will require ongoing commitment by stakeholders and investment by the local government. Over the long term, it will result in a city centre of extraordinary economic (and cultural) value, as has happened in historic districts in other major international cities which have handled historical conservation well.

xsbnerdAfter viewing the exhibition and reading through the information provided, we are concerned that the “New Xisi Bei Street” revitalization concept as presented is not in keeping with the existing Conservation Plan and, as such, is strictly speaking illegal. The Conservation Plan has the force of law, and municipal and local officials have a responsibility to implement its provisions, including renovating the area in a way that is sympathetic to historical authenticity and leaves original structures standing. By contrast, the XiSi Bei revitalization strategy is premised on re-designating the area for commercial use, notably as a luxury goods shopping district, with existing structures substantially altered in line with this new vision. In these designs remaining traces of old Beijing’s courtyard houses are gone, and the accompanying hutongs are reborn as pedestrian malls linking luxury stores. In short, the designs have little or nothing in common with the historical and cultural preservation areas and what is being advertised as a “revitalization of historical districts” is not so different from the other development projects seen elsewhere in Beijing.

We support the Conservation Plan and oppose projects which would result in the further degradation or destruction of Beijing’s historic conservation districts. As a first step in better understanding the XiSi Bei Street project and attempting to open a dialogue, we organized a seminar in late August to discuss the content of the exhibition, as well as the various questions it raised. Invitees to the workshop included Mr. Wang Jun, the author of Chengji (City Record); Mr. Shi Jian, the curator for “Regeneration Strategy”; and other cultural heritage experts and architects with an interest in this topic. Mr. Shi Jian presented information on the exhibition and expressed his concern about the current state of and future prospect for the preservation of Beijing’s old town. He stressed that the steps taken towards protecting Beijing’s old town should be pragmatic and, in defense of the exhibition and the regeneration strategy on which it was based, also pointed out that the exhibition was not only held at the National Library of China (affiliated with the Ministry of Culture) but had received official approval to be held at other sites such as the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Hall (affiliated with the Beijing Municipal Government), thereby suggesting that it has been officially supported. In fact Mr. Shi’s involvement in this project has been surprising to us in view of his previous work on heritage protection issues, including his book The Reconstruction of the Charming Hometown, a study of great academic merit which describes the protection of historical districts in Japan and his documentation of the demolition of Meishi Street in Dashilan two years ago. Mr. Wang Jun, on the other hand, strongly criticized the guiding philosophy behind the exhibition, expressing the belief that if the so-called ‘revitalization’ concepts explored by the exhibition are realized, they would bring about the utter destruction of what remains of old town Beijing.

The preservation of the Xisi Bei Tou Tiao to Ba Tiao Historical and Cultural Preservation Area touches upon the interests of many, therefore fairness and openness in developing any project affecting it is essential. It is our position that there is a Conservation Plan, which has the force of law, and that we must fully rely on the power of law to ensure that its provisions are upheld. The historic areas in Beijing’s old city protected under the terms of Conservation Plan of 25 Historic Areas in Beijing Old City are a precious resource that we must work to preserve.

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