Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 15:05 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 15:05 | SYDNEY

Beijing scenes


Sam Roggeveen


25 April 2009 12:03

I have been in a state of orientational beffudlement since I arrived in Beijing on Wednesday. Partly it's the sheer scale of the place, which no amount of reading really prepares you for, but which a couple of hours stuck in traffic does bring home. The other reason I couldn't find my arse from my elbow is the smog, which makes it impossible to spot landmark buildings. I only realised the significance of that fact this morning, on the first truly clear day I have experienced here, when I noticed for the first time that the iconic CCTV Tower is located at the end of my hotel's front street.

This is in fact a pretty typical street scene in Beijing, except for the relative lack of traffic. Wide streets and pedestrian walkways, and a succession of office, retail and residential buildings which tend to range from ten to thirty storeys, with few really high towers. Almost all look like they've been built in the last fifteen years.

Many of these buildings are architecturally unexceptional and the majority are ugly, but it's not just the landmark buildings (such as the watercube, birds nest and CCTV HQ) with real verve. There are a number of second-order buildings displaying a playfulness and sense of adventure that is largely absent in Australia and reflects a self-confidence that I normally associate with European cities like Rotterdam.

Beijing is far from a pleasant place to walk around. Some concessions have been made to pedestrians and tourists — wide footpaths, underpasses for busy roads and some English signage — but the place is dominated by cars, and there's seemingly little thought given to the pedestrian 'experience'.

China's capital has very little in common with our own, but where they are similar is in the fact that, over the last decade or so, a large number of buildings have been plonked down on what were empty blocks. These buildings 'work' tolerably well internally, but they bear almost no relationship to the street. The assumption is that all significant daily experiences occur inside the building and that getting from one to the other — usually via an underground carpark; almost nobody goes in through the front door — is just something to be endured.