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After the Chinese Communist Party took over mainland China in 1949, Chinese modern architecture underwent a significant change both in practice and education. Before 1949, Chinese modern architecture had been well-characterized as a Western construct. Most architects and architectural educators haad obtained their degrees from the US, France, Britain and Japan. A small group of outstanding architects was considered the backbone of Chinese architecture--men such as Liang Sicheng, Chen Zhi, and Yang Tingbao, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where Philip Crete applied his Beaux-Arts concepts in architectural teaching. When they returned to China, these architects tried to combine the Beaux-Arts design principles with the traditional Chinese language of architecture. Some of them, like Liang Sicheng and Liu Dunzhen, engaged in research on traditional architecture and the preservation of traditional buildings and structures. Their contributions established the framework of Chinese architectural history and promoted the concept that old buildings were symbols of a previous civilization that needed to be preserved.
After the Communist Party took control of Beijing in January 1949, these architects’ efforts encountered great challenges from the new government. The Communist Party considered old buildings to be icons of a previous corrupt society, and the old houses were the physical indicators of a ruling classes’ ideological demands and will. Additionally, the Communist government also wanted to establish new spatial icons for their new era. Destroying old houses and building new cities was a critical priority for the Communist leaders. Therefore, a considerable conflict emerged between the professional architects and the Communist leaders during the early 1950s. From 1952, the Communist Party planned to transform Beijing, the ancient Chinese cultural and political center, into an industrial and bureaucratic city with an extended immigrant population. According to this plan, thousands of old houses, gateway structures, and traditional streets were to be demolished. Worst of all, what was considered the best remaining old city-wall in the world, the Beijing city-wall was scheduled to be removed. Some outstanding architects strongly objected to this plan. Liang and other scholars even provided alternative design solutions for preserving these old buildings while promoting economic development.
This paper explores the architectural conflict between Chinese architects and the Communist Party on the issue of preserving old Beijing in early 1950s. One of its primary goals is to investigate the factors that produced this conflict and the solutions proposed on each side to resolve it. Another primary goal is to examine the basic characteristics of Chinese policy-making process through the example of this conflict. This paper provides a historical lesson for current Chinese architects, who are facing similar problems now when dealing with local government officials on issues of historical preservation.