Beijing Diary

Beijing is a monumental city, not just because of its immense size but because of the symbolism so strongly stamped on and by its most prominent buildings.

While its history is longer and more complex than any simple schema, three different layers or kinds of symbolism seem very evident.

First there is the remarkable set of ancient buildings and complexes that have survived a tumultuous history. The Forbidden City - technically the Palace Museum - is a sprawling but highly-ordered complex of buildings and spaces that assert the power of its ruler by strong statements of control over access. For those few who entered, a seemingly endless succession of gates, courts and pavilions reflected and reinforced the gradations of knowledge and power.

The nearby Temple of Heaven complex is of similar age but presents a more subtle interaction of the powers of heaven and earth. Its own walled spaces and pavilions are more clearly interdependent for their significance with the surrounding park and the sky itself, and seem to invite the natural elements into a dialogue with rulers and people.

Visitors and more distant onlookers have long been familiar with the statements made by a second set of buildings and spaces, the great Tiananmen Square and the related structures which reflect the period since the revolution and the leadership of Mao Zedong. These are somewhat ambiguous for westerners since the events of 1989, if not otherwise.

Tiananmen Square is named for the great southern gate of the Forbidden City which it faces, and is the largest such space in the world. Its vast expanse is framed with the imposing but still somewhat uninspiring Great Hall of the People and by Mao's mausoleum, among other massive institutional statements in stone. These reflect another kind of order and power, literally adjunct to the Forbidden City and which refer to it, but which intriguingly left the old palace complex to continue to make its own mute historic statements.

The third layer is that of the new China, so energetically displayed during the 2008 Olympics. In fact the first and most potent expression seen by many visitors is the new Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital Airport, a stunning statement in glass and steel. This has a counterpoint close to Tiananmen in the new Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts, known (not necessarily fondly) as "The Egg". The Theatre is the work of French architect Paul Andreu. Although its low curves are intended to work with the similar heights of the ancient gate and modern halls nearby, it has drawn criticism for the contrasting form of its design, and its western origin.

The better-known images of the Olympic Stadium and Water Sports Centre also belong with these icons of China's contemporary quest for openness and economic development.

Like successive layers, these architectural statements add to one another, each modifying but not erasing the earlier. Each speaks unmistakeably of power, as well as of its respective quest for engagement with the wider world, conveying the changing and expanding aspirations of the Chinese people.

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