Ways of seeing: a Beijing case study

I was watching BTV (Beijing Television) when the station’s catch phrase: “getting closer, seeing farther,” caught my attention. Beijing’s lack of vistas in the context with this tagline got me thinking about how one sees in this city. In Beijing’s topography is pretty boring. Mountains to the north and west ring the city, but the city center, for the most part, is flat. There’s a slight northwest to south-east grade that results in drainage issues in the south-east, for more on that see Yomi Braster’s Painting the City Red. This flatness makes for nice bike riding especially since most bikes here are single gears.

Beijing’s flatness not only makes biking easier, but it also alters how one sees in the city.  Vistas of a skyline like the one from London’s Primrose Hill are rare.  Coal Hill (JingShan), a man-made hill to the north of the Forbidden City, does allow for some birds-eye views, but pollution often veils the city making the distance one can see limited.

These ideas of looking have been swirling around my head since moving back to the city for the spring 2011 semester.  I decided this time to live near Tsinghua where I am an exchange student. I am also living high on the 19th floor.  Looking out my windows I can see towards the east and south.  The fourth ring road and buildings I know are on the third ring road are visible when its clear.  And when it’s really clear, I can see the replica of the Hong Kong International Financial Center (IFC) tower growing in the Central Business District (CBD).

The IFC tower will be the tallest building in Beijing when it is finished and I am hoping they will let visitors go up the way they do in Hong Kong.  If they do I’ll be up there trying to see what Beijing looks like.  I will also be thinking of Michel de Certeau’s famous chapter about walking in the city.  He opens with an image of a man looking out from the World Trade towers, visually controlling all of Manhattan in one glance.

While the view from IFC will be a major altering my viewpoint of Beijing, there are other daily changes that I am working on in the context of my dissertation.  Mainly these shifts are due to the infrastructure built for cars.  Jaywalking at any place other than an intersection is impossible.  While this increases the speed and arguably the smoothness of driving in the city, it indelibly changes how pedestrians see the city.  Every time you want to cross a main street you have to climb up and over a ‘sky-bridge’ (tianqiao) as you go up, over, and down at each moment how you see the city changes.  The same in reverse happens when there are underpasses (di xia dao) the city disappears as you go under the road and reappears as you emerge on the other side.  As a walker in Beijing you are constantly doing this dosie-do, up, down, up down, across.  And in a city as flat as Beijing, these punctuations in how you see the city become more interesting.

I think that these shifts have caught my attention because of their similarities to Chinese paintings and the theories of seeing literati used in discussing techniques of rendering space and distance in two dimensions.  Scholar-painters used three interlocking ways of seeing to convey the mental journey one was to undertake when looking at a painting: the close foreground, the mid-distance, and the deep receding distance. The distances could alternately beckon the viewer in or deny him entry to the image.  The street infrastructure of Beijing functions similarly: the sky-bridge giving you an elevated and distance view, while the underpass strictly delimits your visual field.

Not only street infrastructure has changed how Beijingers see, but where Beijingers live has altered what one sees in the city.  Most housing during the 1950-1990s was allocated through a person’s work unit.  The housing from this era was usually no more than five or six stories high.

This meant that even living on the sixth floor, most people didn’t have a sweeping vista.  The real estate boom, rising housing costs, and the belief that status is shown through apartments (again, especially on the top floors) has also altered how people see their city.  Beijing now has many 20 floor plus apartment developments.  Inhabitants can peer down at the city from their individual aeries, taking in the emerging skyline of Beijing.

But just what is the skyline of Beijing? There’s no concentrated area that incorporates the whole of the city.  It doesn’t have a view like Hong Kong where the density of the individual buildings makes up the skyline.  Instead Beijing has two axes where main buildings have been placed.  A billboard from 2010 lumps all the distinctive buildings from these two axes into one horizontal scroll the Bird’s Nest, National Opera House, the CCTV building are all there, but they don’t exist next to each other in this way.  Part of the reason for this comes from Beijing’s city plans and how they have changed over the last 60 years.  In order to ‘protect’ the hutongs within the second ring road (and more importantly the privacy of the government leaders living in Zhonghainan) no buildings more than 6 floors were built. This makes the center of Beijing a ‘donut hole,’ an empty space of mostly one-storey buildings.  The CBD in the east and the Financial Street in the west have this vast flat emptiness that stretches between them.

So what then, does Beijing’s flatness do to its visual experience?

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