Research No. 4 // Tiancun
“There is no construction without destruction” – Mao Zedong
Mao’s quote may seem brutal, but in many ways it is the reality of modernization in China. At each research site we have visited there has been sacrifice for the sake of the nation’s aspirations. Whether it is the destruction of the urban villages around Beijing, replacement of farmland, or the bulldozing of previous infrastructure projects, there is an acceptance in China that this destruction will lead to a better, more modernized future. Tiancun is no exception.
Through our scanning of Google Earth, we identified an area on the west side of Beijing that seemed to be somewhat of an “island” of urban village. Surrounded by new high-rise housing, we also identified that this village, Tiancun, had slowly been demolished piece by piece over the past decade leaving only a small portion of the village remaining. Why had the government not fully removed the village like so many others? Was there something about Tiancun that helped it survive this long? Thus we set off for the far west side of Beijing to explore in person.
Upon arrival it was clear that Tiancun was an interesting juxtaposition. We walked around the adjacent new auto-centric developments and saw a new streetscape of real estate offices and vacant storefronts. Upon entry into the village we noticed the internally oriented food stands and general stores. The new development clearly favored a more western exterior oriented commercial layout. As Westerners, we also garnered lots of stares. After five weeks on the northwest of Beijing, where residents are more accustomed to Westerners, it surprised us.
During a rainstorm, we took refuge at one of the [covered] outdoor pool halls. We managed to collect some spectators – mostly kids, but some older Chinese men who just laughed at our [lack of] talent.
We also found the village to have a thriving market where we witnessed people from both the village and new developments buying their fruits, vegetables, and meats.
From talking to three generations of village residents [above] who together have owned a toy store in the village for the past 30 years, we learned the village is slated for demolition in the next few years. We also learned that this last island of urban village remains as the Tiancun Elementary School has yet been rebuilt in the new development. Until the government builds a new school, the village will remain as this is the only school in the area and where ouryoungest interviewee currently goes to school. The women who have only known life in the village are excited at the prospect of moving to new the housing. They are pleased with their compensation and have been told they will be given storefront space in the new development. They also seemed excited about the infrastructure improvements that would come along with their move, including extension of the Beijing Subway System to this area.
For architects, we struggle with the fact that the new replacement housing for this village [above] is not what we would design ourselves and that the very unique, organically produced condition of the village will be completely forgotten. However, at the same time we have to accept this change and feel glad about the fact that people, like the women in the toy store, who deal with this change directly, are content with the progress.
At the same time, I keep wondering what the consequences are for the people living through this constant change. We have heard that Chinese society is built on this reality. There is a level of perpetual rebuilding that they have grown accustomed to through a history of successive dynasties and governments. There is not sentimentality in demolishing a historic structure, and most of the historic buildings we visit have been rebuilt throughout history. While I am thrilled to see the excitement in the toy store family’s faces about their new life, I can’t help but wonder about the actual impacts of this move. Maybe we are too nostalgic in the West, but I fear the side effects that may accompany the changes that result from moving from the community of a village to life in one of the many high-rises.