As the capital of imperial China, the layout of Beijing could be seen as a holistic work. Its urban logic was of a concentric structure formed around a centre that reigned supreme. This schema of an ideal city was described in the traditional engineering book Kaogongji, which dictated that the imperial palace should be placed in this centre, becoming the point of origin from which the space of the city is generated. Beijing was an exemplar in this regard with the Forbidden City bounded by the Imperial City, the Inner City, and the Outer City, each with its own wall one after another.
The urban space that was rapidly produced after 1949 struggled to obey the historical logic. An urban planning committee was established to discuss the Beijing plan; Liang Sicheng, a professor of architecture at Tsinghua University, was appointed the vice director. During the civil war, Liang had marked up a map of the historic relics of Beijing for the Communists, so that they would avoid destroying them when bombing the city. While many scholars left for Taiwan with the Nationalists after the civil war, Liang and his family decided to stay on. Liang believed that communism and its collective management of public property would be efficient for the implementation of urban planning. At the very least, their willingness to protect the city's history from the devastation of war seemed to confirm this.
Liang argued that the wall and the historic city be preserved as a whole. 'Its top can be planted with grass, flowers and trees, and be placed with some chairs and seats. Along with the moat, the wall would be a unique three-dimensional park. It would serve the city [with] an outstanding urban space.'
However Liang's disappointment soon came. The city walls were considered a barrier to future traffic movement. Liang argued that the wall and the historic city be preserved as a whole. 'Its top can be planted with grass, flowers and trees, and be placed with some chairs and seats. Along with the moat, the wall would be a unique three-dimensional park. It would serve the city [with] an outstanding urban space.' Liang's ideas were influenced by his architectural education at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s when Beaux-Arts philosophies prevailed. But by the 1950s, automobiles had begun reshaping cities around the world. Mao criticised Liang for respecting the 'old' too much, and the wall was torn down
Reconstructing the centre
At the same time, the concentric order was being reconstructed in other ways. Liang together with Chen Zhanxiang, another adviser, proposed that the Central Government be placed west of the old city on a new site. In this way, the historic centre would be preserved while the new city could better fulfil its modern functions. Their scheme was influenced by the Greater London Plan of the 1940s, which tended to disperse overcrowded areas to better preserve the historical city. Chen had been the student of Sir Patrick Abercrombie, creator of the Greater London Plan, during his doctoral study at University College London in 1944.
Yet visiting Soviet experts insisted that the Central Government be located in the urban centre for several reasons. The existing infrastructure of the old city could be used, saving costs in a country devastated by civil war. As Jun Wang has described, they also argued that 'the old feudal city should be transformed into a socialistic capital centred on Tiananmen Square and based on new urban planning methods.' By this they meant the Soviet model of Moscow with its radial structure centred on the Cathedral Square. In addition, they advocated that the historic town itself be remodelled for the new society being built in China, instead of preserved.
Moscow's voice was very important at the time. There was a tradition that Soviet delegates would give opinions on Chinese issues, which would be treated as directives from the more senior and more experienced 'brother'. Since Moscow had its Kremlin next to the Cathedral Square, so would Beijing have its Central Government next to Tiananmen Square, available for parades and ceremonies, and accessible to huge numbers of citizens, demonstrating the equality of rights in communist society.
Mao himself indicated that the Central Government should be inside the old city while some subordinate institutions could be placed outside. The Central Government was placed in Zhongnanhai, a royal garden adjacent the Forbidden City. It was followed by administrative, commercial and other functions, along with their buildings and their traffic, and it was this that steadily wiped out the historic fabric of the old city and reinstated the concentric urban structure by default. The traditional small-scale courtyard buildings simply could not cater to the needs of modern institutions, nor could the hutong (alleyways) support automobile traffic. They were replaced, just as Liang and Chen had predicted in 1950.
...they also argued that 'the old feudal city should be transformed into a socialistic capital centred on Tiananmen Square and based on new urban planning methods.'
The reconstruction of this concentric system took place simultaneously with the demolition of the wall. The Second Ring Road was built largely on the original site of the inner city and outer city wall, with the Third, Fourth, Fifth and even the Sixth Ring Roads (built in 1994, 2001, 2003 and 2009 respectively) intensifying the concentric structure of the city ever since. These ring roads cause terrible congestion in the radial roads of the city, another problem foreseen by Liang and Chen.
The polycentric Beijing that wasn't
It was unfortunate that Liang and Chen's scheme was not adopted. Firstly, to introduce modern functions and traffic into the historic centre would inevitably contradict its original context. Modern institutions such as ministerial bureaucracies, university campuses, religious spaces and even public squares are spatial typologies that have been transplanted from the West. They had never emerged nor been designed into the old logic of the city, so that to build them, the old fabric had to be replaced.
Secondly, the monocentric structure operates poorly in the mega-city that Beijing has become. At the same time these decisions were being made, London and Paris had inaugurated plans to set up secondary centres to reduce overcrowding in older areas. Even Moscow started to adjust its plan in the 1960s. To me, the city should still seek to satisfy its modern requirements by starting a new city centre outside the historic one. The concentric structure of old Beijing reflected the society of the day, but did not have to be treated as a pattern to be preserved. The decisions that allowed this to occur may have been inevitable under the absolutism of Mao. But with one absolute power replacing another, it is seldom realised that, despite the changes to the image of the city, the effort to destroy the old to establish the new has made little difference to the imperial urban structure and the problems it creates today as predicted sixty years ago.