LAST WEEK I went walkabout seeking beautiful architecture and a slice of the ‘real’ Beijing by breaking my journey at Beijing West Station with time to kill before my next meeting; only to be disappointed to find that the vast majority of the station concourse is only accessible to actual passengers.
Beijing Railway Station (in the east of the city) is a slightly different story. Directly to the east are several global hotel chains. The architecture, at least on the outside, is majestic. In contrast to the government offices surrounding Beijing West, Beijing Station, in the Chongwenmen district, is surrounded with shopping malls, hostels, bars and restaurants, both budget and upscale. The area is bustling, well into the night. Many of the buildings look generally clean and modern on the inside, but on the outside, the utilitarian box architecture endures; neither the drab Communist-era or utilitarian architecture nor the svelte ultra-modern skyscraper, but somewhere in between.
It seems that Chongwenmen and the area surrounding Beijing station developed at just that right time during the Reform and Opening Up. Creativity was not yet blossoming, but it was sure liberated from sheer and brutal utilitarianism. There were certainly signs of colour – but it is nowhere near its full potential – yet. It’s somewhere in between.
One of the great and unique things about Beijing that could well be under threat from China’s skyrocketing growth is how the diversity of architecture reflects the eons of Beijing’s history. The hutong in the city centre are preserved. Within the next ring of development come the first wave of utilitarianism. Further out, the opening of China is evident in the new colours and lines that architects begin to experiment with. But will these collective relics survive this next wave of rapid economic growth?