Beijing (1950s) / Is Construction Greater than Preservation

In the other four posts, I was analyzing on politicians’ position of reconstruction out of ideological and work-performance concerns, engineers’ position of reconstruction out of occupational attachment to efficiency and Liang Sicheng’s position of preservation as a utopian architect. And the city wall was taken as a specific case to witness such inevitable conflict between construction and preservation.

In fact, to construct or to protect can hardly be a question because in most cases people are in need of both. In the circumstance of Beijing in 1950s, the balance between the two became even more difficult due to scarcity both materially and spiritually. On the one hand, some say that construction is greater than preservation because it follows the historic trend of globalization and modernization; on the other hand, what is demolished can never be brought back and the old Beijing would be gone forever once people choose not to preserve it – we can hardly restore the relics after its demolition for what is faked is always a fake.

Construction or preservation even becomes an ethical issue. If I am allowed to use metaphor, the old Beijing was an endangered creation at the risk of extinction like the giant panda. The panda is such vulnerable species that is likely to be obsolete through natural selection according to the theory of evolution. Likewise, the city wall of Beijing had fulfilled its historic task as military defense and faced dangers of demolition in the modern era, an era of construction. To preserve the city wall is like to preserve the panda, it is far from simply “no intentional destroying”, but needs financial and technical support as well as care and attention from the public, and the government might also set regulations to punish the people who endanger its intact existence. To preserve the panda in an era of plenty is of no doubt. But what if an era of serious scarcity? Use the money to preserve the panda or to develop economics and feed people? Perhaps I am being extreme but I am afraid of answering the question.

The price of preservation is not only the expenditure but also the possible loss of some opportunities of modern development. This reminds me of the famous philosophical dilemma of a train driver: on the one rail track there are five people and on the other track there is one person; if the driver stick to his original track the five people will be dead unfortunately but if he alters to another track he is intentionally murdering that one person. If Beijing were preserved as the ancient Beijing city, it might fall behind the trend of the modern history; however, if the decision maker acted to change it, people feel angry for the intentional murder of the old Beijing. I dare not compare the significance between construction and preservation since history allows no assumption – we could never imagine the other way around.

Is construction greater than preservation?

Is preservation more ethical than construction?

3 Comments on “Beijing (1950s) / Is Construction Greater than Preservation

  1. When TIANANMEN in 1945 was asked by a group of powerful military force to be demolished to build a new government centre, most of whom agreed except one ask a question: what can we leave to our children if even this is considered to be demolished?
    This question save our gate of Empire period.
    The conservation of history is always argued vigorously especially in China. Is it because China is so rich in tradition and history that they became free good? Or we are only measure the material if it is valuable or not? Or we are not able to find a more difficult, yet intelligent solution?

    • Thanks for your comment! I think people start to realize the importance of cultural relics only when they are adequately educated. And the interpretations of cultural relics also defers because of different knowledge basis. Some might think that we only keep the heritage as identity of the city for tourism, but we often think that the relics should be “alive” rather than vegetative because of the architectural education we received. Because material basis determines superstructure, when China was going through the wars and material scarcity, the public awareness may not be aroused for the protection of relics.

      Yet in the background like today when financial and technical basis are sufficient and the environment is relatively peaceful, if the destruction continues it is no longer a matter of restriction but a matter of ignorance.

  2. I have very much enjoyed this argumental piece because the research question to me is a familiar one; also familiar to many, many architects, politicians and builders in the world and very much worth debating about; to construct or to preserve, that is the question. As you have stated very well it is very hard to decide on either one of these two, and choosing any would inevitably means sacrificing either cultural heritage or economic progression, this also happens not only in Beijing but also in any first world city with a historical background.
    Yes it is difficult to choose, but as shown in reality often the only choice is to demolish and reconstruct, because of the forces of the market and global economic pressure a city will not stagnate its development for the old. That is the sad truth. However the way to perhaps to attempt to achieve both perhaps would be to construct on top of the memory of the old. I cannot think of a city that has successfully achieved that in a large scale at the top of my head at the moment but I would say the Central Police Station Revitalisation Project has stepped out in that direction for Hong Kong.

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