Beijing: The ‘New’ Old City to Enjoy

While handing over the entire Philip Johnson Architect archive of diaries and drawings (six years’ worth of projects that I had worked on with Johnson as principal designer to Tsinghua University School of Architecture), I had a week of rare uninterrupted time to really see how Beijing had changed.

And changed it had from my first visit working there some 12 years ago on the most exclusive private club near The Forbidden City.

The food was even MORE excellent than I’d remembered from my first visit and I ended up buying 6 cookbooks on Beijing and Northern Chinese cooking as a consequence.

Traffic had become more like in LA. The wide boulevards were now packed, but the subway was extraordinary; with full 3G connectivity.

The entire city (which is about the size of Manhattan) seemed to have been rebuilt in the last 12 years, and because if that now rivals anything in our seemingly connected small planet. The buildings have detailing, fun, and use materials that I can dream of in New York, for instance. It also has an art district where art and energetic people abound. Walking around the Olympic Stadium, even the concrete seemed to have qualities of marble with fine craftsmanship. And just like in New York, real Green approach is still a misnomer, instead like most architects it is about image for its own sake.

Local architects have grown into their own, and thus having their own impact on the future of the world of architecture. The only wish is that enough ‘seemingly old Beijing’ is left in order to keep pedestrian richness within the city proper.

The real delight each morning was to walk through different gardens and palace grounds. This is where the hundreds of years of culture are apparent, and like anywhere else with similar history, soothes our minds by being able to touch base with our past artistic minds.

If Beijing transforms itself at an equal pace in next 12 years to be Green, we have a true 9th wonder in the world.

In the University known for its high reputation in China and abroad, the students’ work indeed was fabulous in its rigor and execution. Focus was on real programs and real buildings that are buildable within budget, unlike too many of our students in our universities in the US.

But at the same time, real zero energy buildings were equally lacking in consideration as much as in the other Universities around the world. This is truly sad as it seems that only in the 70’s did we address and tackle what I consider most normal issues like energy, comfort and ‘low mileage’ buildings.

As students it is the only time in our lives when we really can do buildings that WORK in ideal way so far, as rest of the world with our clients, incentives by local and national governments is still struggling to ‘grow up’.

Tapani Talo, AIA