I spent two weeks in Beijing five years ago and loved it. At that point the hutong neighborhoods had already experienced a campaign of progressive annihilation for five or ten years, but there were still large swathes of them remaining, and there was a groundswell of opinion among Chinese architects that they ought to be preserved. Also, the city had put some brilliant young urban planners in high positions for the plans for the 2008 Olympics. It looked like a new generation of better-educated young urban planners and designers with international perspectives might mean a more sophisticated approach to the future of the city that preserved some of its heritage and texture.
That doesn’t seem to have happened. In fact, the Beijing neighborhood I found most appealing, the one hutong area that looked likely to persevere because it had become a hipster, arts and bougie tourist mecca, looks to be slated for one of those dismal Disneyfied “renovation” projects.
Much of the problem here is the lack of widespread appreciation for the genuine feel of the historical in these late-modernizing East Asian societies. Only a few, mainly older, educated members of the elite care about such things. But I think there may be another factor at work besides (lack of) aesthetics. Over the past couple of years, as I’ve watched many of the nicest houses in the Hanoi lakeside village where I live getting demolished for larger, nondescript modern houses and small apartment buildings, I’ve come to feel that much of the problem may be the dramatic income differentials that are appearing in third-world countries successfully leaping into development and modernization. The construction workers who build new houses in our neighborhood come from desperately poor areas of the countryside where nominal per capita income may still be under $300/year. Rent for a house in our neighborhood is averaging at least $2000 per month; a six-floor apartment building would bring in over $5000/month. The disparity between the daily wage of a construction worker and the price his labor can bring (in the form of new rents) is simply too large; it’s sweeping away entire neighborhoods. Much of the classic French colonial architecture of downtown Hanoi has already been annihilated. Because officials know they’re supposed to preserve the aesthetic feel of such areas, they commission multi-story blocks with pseudo-French detailing, huge mansard roofs and window shutters, but the clumsy postmodern imitation only exacerbates the ugliness. But I can’t quite believe that the reason Paris has remained Paris, while Hanoi is turning into some cut-rate Singapore, is solely due to the aesthetic superiority of the French themselves. I think it’s possible that the vast economic gap between what it costs to employ a day-laborer and the worth of an urban building simply never opened quite so wide in Paris in the 19th century, when the country was making its leap to modernity.
Overall, obviously, economic development is a good thing. But I have a feeling that within 25 years there’ll be very little reason to visit China or Vietnam. They’ll look more or less like Tysons Corners, Virginia, but with less nature. And the fast-food restaurants in the strip malls will serve pho. Though I understand you can get a mean bowl of pho in Tysons Corners, too.
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