Writing in China Beat, James Carter talks about the unique architectural heritage of Harbin, and why it may soon be lost. A familiar story, being played out in cities across China:
When I first visited Harbin, in the early 1990s, the city’s architecture was shabby, but magnificent. Russian-designed onion domes and spires are Harbin’s signature, but they were just one element. Near my dormitory, the former Danish embassy—then a kindergarten—resembled a fairy-tale castle. The city’s mosque, built in the 1920s, seemed to combine Islamic and art nouveau influences. Unique to the city, in the Fujiadian district—Harbin’s “Chinatown”—was the “Chinese Baroque” style, found nowhere else. Developed when Harbin was truly cosmopolitan (because of the Trans-Siberian Railway, it was closer to Europe than any other Chinese city and boasted a sizable population of Russians), this style blended European and Chinese with a result that was neither Chinese nor European, yet both Chinese and European.
A June China Daily article discussing ongoing changes to Harbin’s streetscape shows that this idea of Chinese Baroque has taken a new turn. The city government, eager to spur development in this economically depressed metropolis, is razing millions of square meters in the city center and replacing the old with new buildings intended to recapture the architectural sensibility of the structures being torn down. The new development style, also named “Chinese Baroque,” is meant to be modern and efficient, while maintaining the city’s architectural richness. But in the process the very buildings that made up Harbin’s older diversity are being lost.
Chinese Baroque, the sequel, will certainly maintain a sense of Harbin’s unique identity. But it will do so in the soulless, too-perfect spirit of Shanghai’s Xintiandi or Nanjing’s 1912, Beijing’s Qianmen Dajie or any of the other dozens of projects that remodel China’s architectural past in user-friendly packages. Soon, China’s major cities may all be unique… in exactly the same way.
I can see the appeal in the clean new ‘ancient’ areas, for people who grew up in far shabbier circumstances. I’m afraid that in time, though, the Chinese may come to regret choosing to replace, instead of repair, their ancient architecture.