Beijing (1949-1954) / V. Public Ownership of Land: A Utopia of Urban Planning?

Despite previous disagreements between Liang Sicheng and Soviet experts over Beijing’s urban planning, he highly appreciated how the urban construction of the Soviet Union reflected the superiority of the socialist system after his visit. He had been working hard to call on the government to emphasize the Soviet Union’s construction experience. He argued that urban planning was a continuation of national economic planning that should be carried out in conjunction with the socialist development of production and improvement of people’s life. To achieve this goal, it was necessary to eliminate the class oppression and exploitation, as well as the private ownership of land, which made it possible for cities to be “planned, built and managed as a whole” [1]. In Liang’s imagination, the public ownership of land under the socialist system would be a utopia for holistic, rational and systematic urban planning, which was unimaginable for capitalist nations. Yet in real urban constructions, the utopia was somewhat different from the beautiful vision of Liang.

One important attempt in urban planning under the public ownership of land was the location of the new administrative center in Liang-Chen Proposal. As mentioned earlier, they put the center between the new town proposed by the Japanese and the old city (Yuetan-Gongzhufen area). Except for creating a stronger bond between the new administrative center and the old city, another dominant factor was that after land reform, a large amount of suburban land was transformed into public ownership. To planners and architects, this area became a blank paper to start planning without limitations or transactions on private land, which had a very utopian appeal. Although this site and its subsequent design scheme highly echoed Liang’s vision of centralized urban planning under a socialist system, the economic cost and the divergence in the spatial ideology of socialist capital caused the failure of Liang-Chen Proposal.  

Nevertheless, it didn’t mean that the government applied the Soviet Union Proposal entirely. In fact, due to the independent construction by each institution, the actual location, layout and scale of the administrative zone was constantly altered and differed from the master plan. This was mainly a result of the fact that the various institutions didn’t follow the unified framework of urban planning and worked separately at their own wish [2]. Liang discovered the chaotic phenomenon as early as the eve of the founding of the country in 1949 and wrote to Nie Rongzhen, the mayor of Beijing then, requiring all agencies to consult the Urban Planning Committee before any new constructions or allocation of urban land [3]. Yet the chaos continued since the administrative agencies were in urgent demand of office space to maintain the normal operation of the capital. 

Worse still, due to the high density of the old city, the institutions tried hard to find a vacancy and then mark the ownership of the limited land with fencing walls, which created many compounds (机关大院) in the urban fabric. In 1952, Liang criticized the chaos of staking a claimed territory by quoting the Soviet Union expert: “Urban planning requires the integrity of architecture…Now there are many buildings that still maintain a semi-feudal and semi-colonial system: each institution encloses itself with a fence, forming an urban enclave of its own”[4]. These enclosed compounds that were disorderly distributed in the old city reshaped the urban tissue by enlarging urban blocks and reducing the “void” space that was crucial to the traffic efficiency. Additionally, as the government managed the population by their working unit (单位) in the 1950s, each compound was supposed to support not just working, but also living and studying, which enlarged the scale of the communities and further densified the old city [5].

From a primitive view of an architect and urban planner, the public ownership under the socialist system was so attractive to Liang Sicheng that he spared no effort to assist the government in urban planning. However, the context for urban planning was a complex and sensitive vortex instead of a utopia of theories and paperwork. Due to Liang’s lack of political sensitivity in the location of the new administrative center, as well as the autonomous and unorganized planning by different institutions, his vision for the perfect and unified urban system and order became unattainable since Beijing gradually grew into a single-center city with the decentralized administrative zones.      

 

[1] Sicheng Liang, “Learning from Soviet Union’s Experience in Urban Construction and Architecture Design,” People’s Daily, November 14, 1957, p. 7.

[2] Jun Wang, “Big Compounds Developed into Enclaves,” in Beijing Record: A Physical and Political History of Planning Modern Beijing (Singapore, Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd, 2011), pp. 256-264, 256.

[3] Sicheng Liang, “A Letter from Liang Sicheng to Nie Rongzhen,” in Liang-Chen Proposal and Beijing (Shenyang, Liangning: Liaoning Education Press, 2005), pp. 63-69, 66.

[4] Sicheng Liang, “Soviet Experts Helped Us to Correct the Thinking of Architectural Design,” People’s Daily, December 22, 1952, p. 3.

[5] Xiaogang Lian. “Danwei Unit: on Residential Space in Modern And Contemporary Beijing.” Thesis, Tsinghua University, 2015.

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3 Comments on “Beijing (1949-1954) / V. Public Ownership of Land: A Utopia of Urban Planning?

  1. One’s design may not always be used as anticipated. One reason would be the lack of consideration of the end users’ requirements. As mentioned in your narrative, “various institutions didn’t follow the unified framework of urban planning and worked separately at their own wish”. It reminds me of our visit to Kwun Tong, the government decided to improve the environment of the district. Although they have consulted the local residents of what type of design would be more favorable to them, the issue of the rise of land prices and problems of affordability were neglected. Therefore, it is very important to always consider the context in the process of design.

  2. This question of land ownership is indeed an important discourse in the history of the city. I would echo Tsz Chiu’s comment about how a municipal government exercises its capacity to sense the needs of the people it serves. Both Kwun Tong in Hong Kong and Beijing are faced with the fact that economic resources are limited, and the government has to make the best decision on behalf of the people. It remains astounding that there is an element of discourse, where an architect and public intellectual Liang was able to write the Mayor of Beijing, in pursuit of a strong public interest. Perhaps in the same way, and having learned from the mistakes of strong-handed urban decisions, the public consultation undertaken by the Hong Kong government was designed to better serve the district residents and stakeholders. But clearly, there are still gaps that need to be plugged?

    For further exploration of this Beijing narrative, would it have been possible for Liang and Chen to take the debate further? Which other stakeholders could have been drawn into this debate, even in the tense political climate of that period? Apart from foreign experts, what about the more “neutral” university researchers, or local leaders who represent the citizens? To be fair, some of the academic journals from that period were temporary closed down, possibly to give time for political views to be aligned and made coherent.

  3. Like what I commented on Jessy’s post, I am very intrigued by the similarity between my case study of Yerevan and yours of Beijing for the similar context of a reconstruction of a capital city under the influence of Soviet Union and socialism. Especially for Beijing and Yerevan, with similar conflicts between Socialism and historical preservation, the city planning of both cities were at first proposed by a heroic architect, like Liang for Modern China, with an utopian concept, but eventually and unfortunately the ideal was not carried out by the barriers created administratively, such as the urban structure of land and territory.

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