UNDERSTANDING BEIJING ARCHITECTURE
Beijing is a “small” city. This could seem a nonsense, but I am sure about it: Beijing is a “small” city! I understood this, after a few steps on Chinese ground, the first time I was there. Despite of its millions of inhabitants and its oceanic surface, I felt like being in a comfortable place, a city that would have never overwhelmed me. This is a great quality of Beijing: even if it is one of the biggest cities in the world, every-where you are you fell like being in a small place, a place that has been made in the right dimensions and proportions with human being. Even now. Even during its contemporary crazy growth, this city is maintaining its human character, its correct dimension in every single part, its friendly feeling towards the people living within its spaces.
Right now it is impossible to review Beijing architecture: just because it is under such an extremely fast evolution that would make everything we say today different from what we would say tomorrow. But looking at this permanent artwork I am sure that this is a great moment for Beijing. Today this city looks like an extraordinary architecture workshop in which the newest expressions of contemporary architecture and art are finding their best expression. But nevertheless it is giving the world a great proof of its strength and wisdom showing us that, even under this strong international pressure, it is perfectly able to pre-serve its own characters, history, traditions and space concept. It is still able to remain a “small” city. In such an incredible place, huge and cosy at the same time, it is not so useful to look for the ugliest and the best building you can visit: they are all parts of a great plot in which every single construction plays its own role. Much more interesting is to understand why Beijing is able to give this impressive feeling and to understand the main characters of it’s architecture and spaces.
We can read its architecture going through three couples of elements that I believe repre-sent the main concept of Beijing contemporary, and probably future, architecture. Using these categories we can have a deep comprehension of it:
• Private spaces and the search for height
• Ground and earth
• Urban landscape versus detail
The first one explains exactly the main character: the capability of this city to make you feel comfortable and protected even though you are in a huge city. This is possible be-cause the whole city is an incredible and continuous addiction of small “private” places. Of course the word “private” is not in a “legal” language, but it is related to the human sphere, to the human perception of space. Living in Beijing gives you the perfect feeling that all the places inside and outside the buildings, the meeting rooms, the private rooms, the houses, the interior spaces but even the open spaces of the city, the markets, the streets, the shops, (except for the spaces used for representative functions that have different aims), are built around the human being, in a small dimension, in a correct proportion. This is the same for the “big” buildings, those buildings that search for the height, the skyscrapers: they are designed as a sum of “private” small spaces. And the great contrast that arises from these two categories – the search for the height and the small human space – generates such a complexity of emotions that is really impressive and unforgettable.
To build in Beijing without having a deep awareness of this, without having this character clear in mind would lead to a complete disaster, to buildings totally detached from the style and the reality of the city.
But there is something else that has almost the same importance: the relationship between architecture and the ground, the second point. To an European visitor like me, this is something new, something unexpected and beautiful. Beijing people (and I am not talking about homeless people) uses the ground not only to step on or to drive on, but they use it for a number of other functions. Sometime the ground is a table to play cards with friends, sometime it is a chair to sit on to have lunch, sometime is a bed to rest. This tells us an important story: a story of a place in the world that has a deep contact with the earth, the soil. A place that has a deep feeling of the most concrete of the four natural elements and that is not scared from it. A feeling that western countries have definitely lost. But what’s the link with architecture? There is a deep link, because this concept influences very much the style of the city: the open spaces have a great importance in the city landscape, and not only the ones that are waiting to be built, but the public ones, old and news, the ones that have been floored in stones or in other precious materials, the ones on top of which people walk, plays, rest. But the ground itself has some other qualities regarding to constructions: it is something that can be transformed in a strong basement for buildings and that can become part of the building itself as in the ancient constructions. In a city that is famous all over the world for the speed of its growth it is incredible how the open spaces and the ground itself are important for its life and its survival. Maintaining alive this deep connection with the earth is an incredible value, that must be kept in mind in contemporary ad future architecture.
And exactly the speed of this incredible growth take us to the third category to understand Beijing architecture: urban landscape versus detail. These are two opposite concepts that are connected by the speed itself. The city has no time to work too much on details. In this area of the world the word “detail” has not the common architectural meaning of research for the complexity of the small parts. Here details are something that has to be solved af-terwards, maybe during the construction. “It’s just a detail”… Spending too much time on details can slow down the designing process and the realization of the building. That’s the way it is, and nobody can help it. Much more important is to care about the urban landscape, to locate the building in the right way, to relate the complex properly to the rest of the city, to work on the concept drawing. The most important part of the design projects is the work on the general idea and the concept, in order to understand the characters of the part of the city where the building will be constructed and create something that resembles these characters. This means to work on spaces, on surfaces, on proportions, to understand the relationships to the ground and the search for height, to create big huge buildings made of small, well proportioned spaces, to link them to the ground as if they were always been there. In one word to understand Beijing architecture.