Old is the New New

Conservative is the new progressive, red the new black, yellow the new red, timber the new steel, fake the new real, Google the new Microsoft and staying in the new is going out. In Beijing, old is the new new, history the new future and, in case you didn’t know, highrises are the new courtyards.

Beijing Hutongs | Beijing, 2006

The transformation of the city during the past few years has given rise to a new type of psychological disease: hutong hypochondria. People with this disease suffer from an excessive preoccupation with the city’s history, usually becoming obsessed with little alleyways, and with stones that are strangely mixed with cardboard and wood structure. They organize themselves through self-help groups, find their way through the city on maps of at least half a century old and, most likely, roam through the hutongs at night to slash holes in the tires of hutong tour rickshaws. Because, after all, tourism kills tradition.

Recently these courtyard crusaders found a new helmsman in, of all people, Charles, Prince of Wales. The prince of preservation’s vision of architecture is rather particular, and to make a long story short, it seems that for Prince Charles the 17th century is the new 21st century. Being a prophet of the last days of Old Beijing isn’t that difficult; one just has to wander around the hutongs a bit, or perhaps just immerse one’s laptop in the Nanluogu Xiang Wi-Fi network.

Beijing Hutongs | Beijing, 2006

Prince Charles’ focus of attention is to preserve Dashilar, (a.k.a. Dazhalan), one of Beijing’s famous remaining hutong neighborhoods, located just south of Tian’anmen Square. One wonders what the Prince would think, were he to walk today through Dashila’r and see the traditional heritage in action. During the past years, various groups of architects and history hijackers have become part of the courtyard crew (Friends of Old Beijing, Rem Koolhaas’s Project on the City, the Xisi Bei Regeneration Project), proposing plans that could be described as “hutong hallucinations.” A tendency can be seen here – old is the new new. Once everything has disappeared, a concerned person – for whatever emotional, ideological, economical or simply backward reasons – frequently adopts an ambition to recreate some past. This recreation is demanding and exhausting. But what can’t be forgotten is that the angel of history has given Beijing amnesia, and this angel is actually benevolent. Losing your memory can be enlightening, but then, probably only when you forgot you lost your memory.

View from CCTV | Beijing, 2005

Some development looks forward, other development looks backward, some looks both backward and forward, and some just closes its eyes. Over the past decade, foreign architects have been equally praised and denounced for their contribution to the renewal and expansion of Beijing. Now that the Olympic era is over, new problems and challenges will arise. The city isn’t finished. A lot of progress is still possible; a lot of renewal still needs to happen. And the city still needs friends in order to be a better city with a better life. The future of Beijing will need to come from the people that believe that new is new, not the new old or the old new. So let’s become the Friends of New Beijing. Let’s get on Line 13 and hang out beyond the Fourth Ring Road, where so much of the city has gone, and see what’s going on there.

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“Old is the New New” by Bert de Muynck
Published in Urbane | August, 2008

Related Bert de Muynck | movingcities-publications;
A Letter from Beijing | MARK Magazine #09 (August-September, 2007)
Making minced meat of memory | MUDOT (May, 2008)
Residual vs Icon | POLAR INERTIA (February, 2008)
Mediocrity and the Metropolis | JongArsitek (May, 2008)

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