Restoration tragedy

More bad news for heritage lovers in Beijing

Restoration tragedy

For the last 700 years residents of a neighbourhood in central Beijing have relied on a pair of huge bell towers north of the Forbidden City to keep track of time. Then, in 2010, the government ordered that the neighbourhood be redeveloped into a tourist area. Heritage commentators were worried, knowing that respect for architectural preservation often runs thin among city officialdom (see previous story). But at least they could comfort themselves with the news that the firm heading the redevelopment project was Boston International Design Group (BIDG). The hope was that an international contractor would turn out to be more respectful of the city’s past than a domestic one might be.

Not in this case, as it turns out – although clearly the premise that foreign architects care more about local heritage than Chinese ones is widely believed.

That’s because Southern Weekend has discovered that the only thing genuinely international about the firm selected for the Beijing project is its name. Boston International Design Group doesn’t even have an office at the US address listed on its website. When reporters investigated they found only a patch of green field.

It also turns out that other heritage experts have long been concerned about BIDG’s track record in renovating Beijing’s historic buildings and districts, including the important Nanluoguxiang. BIDG’s proposal was to replace the hutongs in Nanluoguxiang with two-story buildings resplendent with glass roofs and French windows. Needless to say, local residents were unimpressed and managed to block the proposed changes.

Southern Weekend says BIDG has been commissioned to redevelop historical sites in Ninbgo, Beijing and Chongqing over the last six years but almost all the projects have ended in disaster. “They were destroying the old architecture, and changing cultural sites into flashy shopping malls,” says one preservation expert.

The Global Times has also been researching the firm, reporting that the company was registered in the US but that none of its staff is a certified planner there, according to the American Planning Association (APA). Fortunately for company bosses, most of BIDG’s projects have been in China.

An industry observer says it is an open secret that Chinese design firms often use foreign-sounding names to try to pass off as international companies. “Usually the company is registered overseas while almost all their business is done in China. And whenever they go to pitches they will drag a few foreigners along just for show,” he says.

Since BIDG’s background was exposed, the city government has terminated all existing projects with the firm. He Shuzhong, chairman of Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, hopes it is a sign that bureaucrats are finally starting to grasp the importance of protecting historical sites. But others say that there needs to be greater oversight of design firms like BIDG, and that local governments must focus more on the preservation of historical architecture instead of simply calling for the redevelopment of older sites.

The problem is that many cities see a partial or even full reconstruction of old buildings as a way of protecting them. “In my opinion, however, the rebuilding work has instead turned into a new method for destroying relics,” says He.

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