Feature: Chimney raises debate over Beijing's conservation

Source: Xinhua| 2017-08-17 20:59:08|Editor: Mengjie
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By Xinhua writers Yuan Quan, Wang Fei

BEIJING, Aug. 17 (Xinhua) -- The controversy has raged for nine years, but now it seems the fate of a landmark Beijing building is sealed.

The 180-meter-high chimney, dubbed "the most obtrusive building on the West Second Ring Road", will be transformed into a spacious observation deck - just 8 meters above the ground.

The chimney, in Xicheng district, was built in 1976 for Beijing No.2 thermal power plant, which was shut down and moved to the suburbs in 2009 to reduce air pollution.

Since then, the site has been redeveloped as a culture and art district, similar to the Beijing 798 Art Zone.

Wang Wu, director of the renovation project, says the plan to lower the chimney was drawn up by a team from the Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University and delivered to the city planning department in July.

"Once approved, the project will begin."

Before the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing cracked down on pollution and dismantled chimneys pouring noxious particles into the air. But the highest chimney in the downtown area remained, fueling a heated public debate over its fate.

Experts say the debate is a sign of great progress, indicating growing awareness of historic buildings, and the government is now more cautious in city planning.


Supporters of demolition argue the chimney is in "wrong place" and a blot on the surrounding cityscape and other iconic buildings.

Just 92 meters away is the Tianning Pagoda, built in Liao Dynasty 898 years ago, Beijing's oldest surviving religious building.

The 58-meter-high pagoda is located in Tianning Temple, which was destroyed in war about 700 years ago and was rebuilt in late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Famous for its beautiful chrysanthemum garden, the temple attracted crowds of worshippers and visitors before 1949.

"The chimney does not respect nearby cultural relics," argues Huo Chunlong, chief designer of the renovation plan.

"Cultural relics protection law prohibits higher facilities within a kilometer of historic sites, let alone within 100 meters."

The Beijing government implemented height restrictions of 30 meters in the 1980s to preserve the city's skyline.

"The factory was built during Cultural Revolution, when people had little awareness of cultural heritage," says Yang Zhenhua, a former city planning adviser.

The power plant was built in 1976 to supply heat and electricity to an area of 520,000 square meters in the city center, including Zhongnanhai, the Great Hall of the People, and Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, and is just 5 kilometers from Tian'anmen Square.

"In the 1970s, there were no homes around the temple, just cornfields. So, maybe the pagoda was the only thing that was not considered," says Shen Lanhai, 60, a senior engineer involved in building the plant.

A forest of chimneys was then regarded as a sign of modernization. More than 14,000 industrial chimneys were visible in Beijing in the 1980s, when industrial output reached 63.7 percent of capital's gross domestic product and air pollution was severe.


In 1983, the central government required Beijing, a capital for more than 850 years, to become "a political and cultural center" and "no longer develop heavy industry."

For this reason, some scholars suggest the chimney should be kept as a reminder of a bygone era.

"The chimney and the pagoda have coexisted for 40 years, and the two buildings together have become new historic relics," says Zhao Zhongshu, a senior engineer at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design.

"Understanding of architectural heritage is constantly developed and enriched. I don't agree the chimney should be dismantled. It should be protected as industrial heritage."

But opponents dispute the concept of "industrial heritage".

It is only 40 years old and has no special values or features compared with other chimneys, says Zhu Zuxi, vice director of the Beijing Geographic Society.

"It is a total failure of Beijing's cultural relics protection and of city planning. The nightmare of Tianning Pagoda should end," says Zhu.

Former power plant worker Chen Ying, 43, says the city should be proud of the chimney.

She says it was Beijing's first plant equipped with fuel-burning boilers, which were highly efficient and relatively clean for their time. "The chimney was built so high specifically to protect residents from the emissions."

She recalls how she and colleagues climbed on the 36-meter-high boiler houses every two hours in winter to make sure the machines were working well. "We worked hard, but we were very proud, because our job had made the city warm and bright."

It has been the only chimney in downtown Beijing since 2008. "Why not keep one chimney to mark the past?" Chen asks.

An online poll last year found more than 60 percent of 700 participants wanted to preserve it.

"That's why we plan to dismantle it down to 8 meters high. It will preserve the skyline and a piece of history," Huo says.


In March 2016, the plant and local government organized an architectural competition to redevelop the chimney. They received about 51 ideas in two months. The eldest competitor was 86 and the youngest was a middle school student.

Wang Wu was impressed by an idea to decorate the chimney with a huge LED screen broadcasting air quality in real-time.

"It would be very eye-catching, environment-friendly and affordable," says Wang.

Chen Ying hopes to see a "less industrial" use for the chimney and jokingly suggested a platform for skydiving or bungee jumping.

The protection of historic relics has been a key concern for central government since 2012. The local government has yet to issue a final decision, but the question of its possible demolition was included in a graduation test for local junior high school students last July.

Professor Ma Ying, of Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, says the debate illustrates how "city planning is not only a top-down decision-making process, but also needs advice and supervision from the bottom up."

The Tour Montparnasse in Paris, which was completed in 1973, was also criticized for destroying that capital's historic skyline, says Ma.

"Why not keep the chimney and let debate continue as a caution repeating the same mistake?"