Monday, September 29, 2008

The Commune

The commune exists silently in the shadow of the rising titans. This particular instance of the commune, for there are many around Beijing that look almost exactly like it, is situated footsteps away from both the tallest and most massive additions to Beijing’s emerging skyline. The adjacency of the two urban systems represents the antagonism between China’s one party, two ideology system: communism’s provision of welfare and housing, and capitalism’s neo-liberalism’s free market, laissez-faire form of urbanization.

The commune is under siege. Dislocation, dismemberment, and extradition are but a few of the possible dangers that confront the commune. The crystallization process overtaking large portions of the CBD threatens to transform the commune into steel and glass monoliths. Urbanization without qualities; this is the horrifying potential future of the commune.

The commune faces its destroyer on a daily basis. The commune acts and feels like an enclave, a safe haven separated from the rest of the CBD. A quick glance up is all it takes to remind you of the threat of displacement and the erasure of the space of your life memories.

The commune is the black sheep of the family. The story of preservation in Beijing is similar to those in the rest of the world: buildings considered of extreme cultural and/or historical significance are given the exalted status of preserved by the government. These are the temples, palaces, and important Communist-era buildings in Beijing. Grassroots organizations and citizen activists have fought long and hard for the recognition of the hutong communities. There have been some minor acknowledgements on the part of the government with small areas achieving conservation status. The commune, as far as I know, is notoriously absent from these discussions.

The commune is a framework. The architecture of the commune is quiet, sits in the background, and creates a poetic frame for the quotidian activities of the daily lives of its inhabitants. The buildings are relentlessly parallel and repetitive. This develops into an obscurity which transforms the open space into the urban protagonist. The open spaces are differentiated through various programming, intensities of vegetation, and the inclusion of smaller structures that act as storage, retail, or office space.

The commune is malleable. It is a simple, flexible system—its spaces adaptable and easily regenerated. The architecture is simple and easily renovated. It is not so tightly woven that the introduction of new infrastructure is impossible or even destructive. When thinking about preservation there is always the question of what to preserve and how much to preserve—should these places be frozen in time? In the case of the commune total preservation would be a death sentence—its structure should be preserved but the physical objects can be allowed to change, upgrade, renovate, and regenerate as needed.

The commune is familiar. The scale of the buildings, the spaces in between, and the road networks are fine-grained and most importantly, comfortable. The commune is filled with people playing, people eating, people commuting, but it is not crowded. There is a feeling of community and of shared values among the people here. It feels like home.

The commune's geotagged location.

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