Darryl Chen, 21 07 08
Beijing is a north-south city – rational in its conception and linked to a fundamental cartesian logic. How can this clarity so evident in plan form – in its planning under a single eye – be so different to the experience of being on the ground? This is invariably an experience of not being on the surface of a geometric formation, but within a realm with extra-geometrical complexity – a spatial experience borne not out of a complex extrapolation of three-dimensional form, but a dense presence of phenomenonlogical factors.
One outworking of a strict cartesian adherence is the gird – a repeatable interweaving of north-south and east-west strips, forming a patchwork of endless variations – an array. But in Beijing, another outworking is the formation of concentric circles ever outward expanding, exponentially increasing its landtake. Orientation within this system is both north-south and east-west but also far more cinematic with defining routes being those massive ring roads which less encircle parts of the city as open up new territories for land speculation. Travelling along one is to lose one’s bearings such is the scale of the road and speed at which one travels on them. Solar orientation is useles under the thick atmosphere of summer dust or winter fog which seems to be always everywhere. The sun is revealed in the most unexpected places – like that experience of a hall of mirrors where a once recognizable figure is blown out of proportion, or better, a familiar figure for the first time seen on television, or the sound of your own voice recorded and played back to you. You once knew the sun…. The ring roads are indistinguishable from each other except for the first ring road which is not a ring road at all but a line of reference. It acts as the origin even though it bounds a space and has fixed dimensions. It is the outer edge of an inner sactum. a membrane?
Travelling on the ring road at speed one takes in ancient and modern monuments (and those that fall between being modernistically restorations of historic relics) – even temple gates stand in the middle of multi-level multi-lane intersections. We were stopped on the fourth – or was it the fifth – ring road. This is something not scripted within the circulatory logic of the city. But in the very human logic of our existence, imperfection has its fruits, and so, a blown tyre at 100kmh becomes a helpless couple negotiating a high speed offramp, traffic island and 6-foot high fence. the furniture of an inhuman environment. Pedestrians are not supposed to be here.
Sights, points, destinations are so strewn about the city that the only navigation possible is by car. taxis (and otherwise hired drivers) rule the city knowing its lanes and alleys, oneway systems and ring roads. One jumps in here and comes out there. There is always the choice – city grid or ring road. How would you like your congestion? fast or slow? Like in all great cities, it affords the native a chance to display specialist knowledge. Don’t take the fifth ring road after 4 o’clock. Take sidesteets until the main boulevard. And for the visitor these denizens of the rings act as reminders that there are many to whom this city makes much sense.