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In Beijing’s building frenzy, even an ‘immovable cultural relic’ is not safe

BEIJING » Even in its prime, the house at 24 Beizongbu Hutong was no architectural jewel, just one of countless brick-and-timber courtyard homes that clogged the labyrinthine heart of this ancient imperial capital.

But for seven years in the 1930s, it sheltered one of modern China’s most fabled couples, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, Ivy League-educated architects who had returned home to champion the notion that a great nation should hold dear its historic patrimony. It was Liang, the debonair son from an illustrious family of intellectuals, who urged the victorious Communists to preserve Beijing’s Yuan dynasty grid and its hulking city walls. Mao, the country’s unsentimental leader, thought otherwise.

So when architectural preservationists awoke last weekend to find that the couple’s house had been reduced to rubble, there was a predictable wave of outrage, but also a sense of helplessness that an official “immovable cultural relic” could be so easily dispatched by a government-affiliated real estate company.

The cultural bureaucrats who oversee the preservation of historic sites in the Dongcheng district neighborhood were not particularly moved by the building’s demise, which took place furtively during the Lunar New Year holiday, a time when much of the country shuts down.

“A replica will be built,” one official unapologetically told the state news media.

In a city that has watched its centuries-old, low-rise fabric steadily be supplanted by soulless glass towers or, in some cases, pastiche recreations of the past, the destruction of 24 Beizongbu Hutong was a cruel irony given the passions of its former occupants. In a flurry of articles and editorials last week, the national news media denounced the demolition as a wanton violation of the country’s laws and an affront to Chinese history.

Even the normally stolid state news service, Xinhua, was sharp in its criticism. “House Demolished, Culture Wounded” was the main headline on its home page on Thursday. In one of several articles and editorials, Xinhua attacked the municipal government’s complacency.

“A cultural relic is destroyed and a new phrase is born,” said one commentary, a sarcastic reference to the city official who had described the destruction as “renovation through demolition.” The editorial noted that of 533,000 landmarks documented by the National Bureau of Cultural Relics last year, 44,000 had already disappeared. “Behind such cold figures, hundreds and thousands of pages of historical information have vanished alongside these buildings,” it said.

Even if distraught by the loss of a house he had tried so hard to save, He Shuzhong, one of the city’s best-known preservation advocates, said he had found some solace in the unusually vociferous public uproar. The outrage, he said, was tied not only to the realization that Beijing had lost too much of its past, but also to a sense that the city’s frenetic pursuit of modernization and material excess had left many citizens feeling adrift.

“Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, after all, promoted the ideal that intellectuals and experts should commit themselves to improving society and the nation,” said He, whose nonprofit group, the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, successfully fought to have the house designated a historic landmark in 2009. “I think people find that modern China lacks that sense of devotion, which is why the loss of this building means so much.”

The lives of Liang and Lin, typified, in some ways, the experience of many Western-educated Chinese who were determined to help build the new China — but were often rewarded with great hardship.

After studying at the University of Pennsylvania, they returned in 1928 and carried out the first exhaustive study of China’s architectural history, scrambling across the tiled roofs of millennium-old temples to decipher long-lost building practices.

They established an architecture school in the northeastern city of Shenyang and turned their Beijing home into a salon for the city’s leading philosophers, poets and artists. Liang represented China on the team that designed the U.N. headquarters in New York.

Like many intellectuals, his fortunes faded during the upheavals of the 1950s, and more profoundly during Mao’s decade-long Cultural Revolution. Hounded for his Western education and affinity for Chinese antiquities, he was attacked as a counterrevolutionary and died in 1972. (Lin succumbed to tuberculosis in 1955. Her great-niece, the American architect Maya Lin, designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.)

It is tempting to imagine the demise of 24 Beizongbu Hutong as Beijing’s Pennsylvania Station moment, when outrage over the demolition of the iconic rail terminus in New York City catalyzed the preservation movement in the United States.

But judging by the pessimism of the architecture students, history buffs and ordinary Beijingers who made a pilgrimage to the rubble-strewn site last week, there is little reason to expect any change in the status quo.

The visitors, though, were nothing if not determined as they tried to maneuver around a scrum of young guards in their quest to photograph a skeletal wood entryway, the only remains of the house.

An old man silently watched the hubbub, but once prompted, he eagerly dispensed details about the house and the neighborhood in which he was born.

“This hutong used to be filled with famous people,” said the man, 76, a retired postal worker who gave only his surname, Ma.

He gestured behind him to a stretch of debris and then in front of him, to his home, also marked with the Chinese character for demolish. Not far away thrummed the Second Ring Road — the highway that replaced Liang’s beloved city wall.

“Everyone is gone,” Ma said with a wave of his hand. “When the government says it’s time to go, you go.”

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