Postcard from Beijing – City of Contrasts

My travels to Asia over the past few weeks included Seoul, Beijing and Hong Kong, intense experiences, leaving me with reflection on the people, the culture, and our work.  I’m always trying to develop a deeper sense about what is meaningful to the people we are working with and ultimately designing for. 

When I asked a young Chinese colleague about her hopes and dreams for her life and her community, her answer was, I do hope I could leverage my knowledge to beautify our city by building better spaces for better living, working, making more money to help out more poor people, reestablishing China’s image by building a good image of  myself and gradually influencing the people that have a bias toward Chinese people. I wish my country could be clean like Switzerland, sophisticated like France, polite like Japan, open like America.”

In this city of energy, where a grand choreography of bicycles, carts, motorcycles, cars, buses and taxis mix with 17 million people, somehow a grandfather and child make their way, weaving through an intersection of thousands.  

These ancient places of Beijing are not small, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, even the names are big, yet the details are intricate, carved, gilded, and richly painted.   
On a cold, sunny, and slightly hazy morning, I walk through the gate to the Temple of Heaven. The scale of the compound stretches out and on, the grounds full of tai chi and dance groups, badminton players, and a gathering of singers at the temple gate.


 Beijing is city where the most modern international architecture sits next to ancient ruins, where newly sprung highrise residences tower next to dwindling hutongs. The few remaining traditional neighborhoods give a snapshot of life from another century.  This is progress, and it is fast. I noted in a previous post that more than half of the construction in the world during the next five to 10 years will be in China.

China presents us  with the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge for progress in sustainable design – to create socially, environmentally and economically relevant built environments. In the past 5 years since I have been working on projects here, there has been a great transformation.  It is overwhelming to see the pace and scale, and witness the realization of the vision of developers and architects who concurrently wrestle with the demands for faster, cheaper, bigger.   



The construction site for this new luxury retail and residential development that I toured is marketed to be the first LEED Platinum certified mixed use development in China. Another leading retail developer tells me that sustainable design is not that critical, that efficiency in energy consumption is just good basic design, and the government requirements are enough. 

Beijing’s old warehouse district 798 has been converted to art galleries, shops and cafes, where the young and fashionable of Beijing stroll. It’s an early and successful example of adaptive re-use, along with a few of the restored hutong districts, now full with small designer boutiques and popular clubs.  A new challenge of the day is to re-purpose the Olympic site for economic and social relevance beyond the events of last year.

 Here the people of this city tell a powerful story of great contrast, as the designer-label clad couples pass by new immigrants, their large woven-plastic duffle bags holding all the hopes and dreams of their families back home in the country.