Imagine a two-center Beijing, with the central Forbidden City and city walls intact, and high rises and skyscrapers flourishing at the western part of Beijing. This vision may be unimaginable for many people, yet once it nearly became reality.
In 1949 when the new People’s Public of China was established, how to redesign the capital Beijing—the city of “lingering splendor” according to the British writer John Blofeld—became a momentous issue. Having served for 850 years as the national capital, Beijing had the best-preserved imperial city in the world at that time, with four layers of urban fabric intact: the Forbidden City (now the Palace Museum) at the center, the Imperial City surrounding it, and the inner city and outer city outside, which include courtyards and Hutongs. Where should the new administrative center be placed? Is it necessary to preserve the old structure of Beijing? To solve these questions, the Beijing City Planning Conference was held at the city hall in December 1949.
At the meeting, a group of Soviet experts brought up their proposal, which eventually determined the present Beijing. They argued that “Beijing should be built not only as the center of culture, art and politics, but also as the center of industry”, and referring to Red Square in Moscow, suggested that the new central city square should be built at the Tian Anmen area, the entrance of the Imperial City.
However, two Chinese architects at the meeting had completely different ideas. They are Liang Sicheng and Chen Zhanxiang.
Son of a respected Chinese scholar and reformer, Liang Sicheng had studied architecture with Paul Cret at the University of Pennsylvania, and was later recognized as the “Father of Modern Chinese Architecture”.
Another planner, Chen Zhanxiang, was an architecture graduate and urban planning master from the University of Liverpool. Learning a lot from his adviser, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, the noted planner who put forward the Greater London Plan, Chen later applied Abercrombie’s ideas to his proposal of Beijing.
In 1950, they brought up The Suggestion of the Location for the Administrative Center of Central Government (《关于中央人民政府行政中心区位置的建议》), in which the main idea was to put the administrative center to the west of the existing old city to prevent large scale demolition and provide more space for future development. This idea of separation and spreading out was the lesson Chen acquired from his adviser’s the Greater London Plan, in which a few satellite towns with all essential functions would be built outside of the edge of London. Designed to reduce the urban social pressures by transferring parts of urban functions to these satellite towns, the Greater London Plan solved some severe problems that London faced after WWII. Same here, Chen concluded that “a city could not be considered a container, in which we could place everything inside the city wall. The 1944 London project taught us that some urban functions had to move out and seek new places for accommodation.”
Meanwhile, they raised some principles regarding city planning in this proposal, such as planning space for future development, creating districts of varied functions close to each other, and preserving not only the architecture, but also the structure of a city.
Nonetheless the fate of this proposal shared that of many ancient architectural structures in Beijing. Too eager to make progress and change Beijing completely with socialist goals, the central government failed to appreciate Liang and Chen’s suggestions.
Sixty years after the conference, the present Beijing is facing plenty of urban problems: an over-crowded central area, severe air pollution, imbalanced development within the city, and outdated urban infrastructure. However, the dynamic of cities is highly complicated and always evolving, and therefore it’s naïve to conclude that the Liang-Chen Proposal would have solved all these problems. Yet what never becomes obsolete in this proposal are those principles for city planning that Liang and Chen brought up, and their sincere appreciation of the history, the tradition, and the people of a city. The two-center Peking in their vision is sealed, yet their spirit should be reconsidered when planning for the modern Beijing.