The Changing Skyline of Beijing

<p>A new building by Rem Koolhaas in Beijing is part of a wave of modern construction that is changing the tightly-planned urban fabric of the Chinese capital.</p>
June 23, 2008, 12pm PDT | Tim Halbur
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"The city planner Edmund Bacon once described Beijing as "possibly the greatest single work of man on the face of the earth." When he was there, in the nineteen-thirties, you could still see that the city, from the walls surrounding it to the emperor's Forbidden City at its heart, was conceived as a totality-a work of monumental geometry, symmetrical and precise. Even the hutongs, the warrenlike neighborhoods of small courtyard houses set along alleyways, which made up the bulk of the city's urban fabric, were as essential to Beijing as the temples and the imperial compound, which has the same intricate mixture of courtyards and lanes. Bejing was all of a piece.

It couldn't last forever, and it didn't. Mao Zedong tried to change Beijing into an industrial and governmental center, putting up factories and ponderous administrative buildings. But now Mao's Beijing is nearly as much a part of the past as the Forbidden City. The factories are being pushed to the outskirts, and in their place the city has developed a skyline. It isn't like the height-obsessed skyline of Shanghai, or the tight, congested skyline of Hong Kong. In Beijing, the towers are sprinkled all over the place. Most of them are mediocre, and some are ridiculous-a few have pagodalike crowns, to satisfy a former mayor who insisted that new buildings appear Chinese-but a handful are among the most compelling buildings going up anywhere in the world. In Beijing, the latest trend is architecture that will force the world to pay attention, and the result is a striking, unmistakably twenty-first-century city, combining explosive, relentless development with a fondness for the avant-garde."

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Published on Sunday, June 22, 2008 in The New Yorker
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