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?