Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ten Cities 4) Beijing

Cambridge, December 20, 2012

It's not as if European cities didn't have absolutist rulers or segregated social hierarchies, but it would be hard to find a city at the scale of Beijing whose map so precisely delineates power and class in its axes and boundaries.

Lets go from inside out.  First, the rectangle of the Forbidden City, the palace compound of emperors and their households.  Around it, the Imperial City, with its temples and lakes, reserved for high officials and imperial servants, also a buffer for the Forbidden City.  Around the Imperial City, the Inner City--a grid of avenues originating at the city gates--that housed the military and various civil government institutions.  And to the south the Outer City, the place of commerce with it's more  irregular fabric.

Each of these sections was surrounded by walls, moats and other defensive structures.  Yes, walls within walls within walls.  And traversing all these layers right though the middle, a long axis crossing a sequence of city gates from Yongdingmen on the south wall of the Outer City, running between the walled compounds of the temples of Agriculture and of Heaven, entering the Inner City through Zhengyangmen, the Imperial City through Tiananmen and reaching the Forbidden City through Wumen (yes, "men" means gate in Chinese.)  Compositionally, the axis continues trough the Drum and Bell towers to the north, all the way to the Jingshan Park, an artificial hill beyond the northern wall of the city that allows for a view of the axis all the way back south ("jingshan" actually means prospect hill.)

This urban structure had consolidated by the 15th century.  At the beginning of the 19th century Beijing was the largest city in the world, with about a million people. 

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