It is said that on the night before Beijing’s imperial walls were due to be torn down in 1951, architect Liang Sicheng climbed up astride them and wept.
Liang had battled in vain with China’s new communist leaders to preserve the walls. Their destruction was the first step in the wholesale transformation of the ancient capital that still continues today.
Liang, the leading architect of his generation died in 1972, but last week his name was once again at the centre of a nationwide debate on historical conservation.
As Beijing emptied out for the long New Year holiday, Fuheng Real Estate, a subsidiary of state-owned China Resources, quietly sent a team of workers into Liang’s former residence at 24 Bei Zong Bu Hutong in the centre of the city and reduced it to rubble.
Neighbours told WiC that the demolition team was made of around 20 men with sledgehammers and spades. Even so, it took a few days for the nearby homeowners to realise that the listed building – a modified Qing Dynasty courtyard house – was being demolished. The Beijing News reported that the city’s authorities, who were on holiday at the time, also had no idea what was going on, though they later received a message from Fuheng that the structure had been torn down “as part of maintenance work” and “to protect it from New Year’s fireworks”.
Both reasons sound more than improbable and Chinese netizens were soon expressing their fury on news of the building’s demise.
For once their feelings were echoed by state media outlets such as Xinhua and The People’s Daily. “The demolition of the Liang house reflects the tyranny of capitalism over the weakness of the cultural preservation department,” Xinhua wrote in an editorial entitled “House demolished, Culture wounded.” It went on to say: “If we allow an old building to disappear under a roaring bulldozer we have failed both ancestors and future generations.”
The People’s Daily also poured scorn on the idea that a building could be preserved by knocking it down and rebuilding it.
It then went further in urging for a wider vision to protect the remaining areas of the city where older buildings do still stand. “It is too late to do anything about the Liang residence now. What really needs to be built, or rebuilt, is a concept of preservation. Not only do we need to protect cultural relics but also their environment… otherwise historical buildings will be surrounded by office block and wide roads – that is not a cultural city,” the newspaper lamented.
Liang and his wife Lin Huiyin lived at the house between 1930 and 1937 when Liang is thought to have researched much of his seminal work, The History of Chinese Architecture.
Despite the communist government rejecting his plan in 1949 to build a new political capital to the west of Beijing in order to preserve the imperial city’s unique architecture, Liang remained a supporter of the Party and went on to help design the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the centre of Tiananmen Square.
At the government’s request Liang also developed a new style of Chinese architecture that married traditional motifs with a more imposing Soviet style of construction earning him a reputation as the father of modern Chinese architecture.
All somewhat ironic, given his efforts to protect the nation’s architectural heritage.
Now, all that remains of Liang’s former house is a pair of red-lacquered gate columns and a corner room with traditional Chinese windows and a grey tiled roof.
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