“Kidnapped” in Tiananmen Square!
By Miguel Escobar, International Real Estate and Economic Development Strategist
The story behind our winning design to redevelop Wangfujing, the commercial downtown district of Beijing, China.
During a Sunday lunch in June of 2002, upon my return from a morning visit to the Great Wall of China, I was “kidnapped” in Tiananmen Square. Two slender young men in black and dark sun glasses tapped me on the shoulder just as I was about to have my dessert and, according to my translator, strongly suggested that I accompany them to two black cars waiting just outside the Tiananmen Museum cafeteria.
They escorted me and my translator to the second car and soon we were dashing North East across the square under the watchful eye of the freshly painted portrait of Mao Tse Tung, perched over the main gate of the Forbidden City.
We soon passed the recently restored Hutong village district East of the Forbidden City and turned North up the boulevard passing the famous Beijing Hotel and into a meander of secondary streets and contemporary office buildings.
We stopped in front of one of these buildings and were hurried up three flights of stairs, still not knowing where we were being taken. We were then lightly nudged and gestured to make our way down to the end of a dimly lit corridor where there were several people lingering and smoking outside an open door.
When we finally made it to the room, I hesitated at the opening and leaned in to see who was inside. It was packed with more smokers and others sipping tea.
And through the haze, I could just make him out, as he was getting out of his seat, raising his arms towards me. He gestured for me to sit across from him at the long wooden conference table. There he was, the mayor of the downtown Dongcheng District of Beijing, Mr. Chen Ping.
A couple of days earlier, in a serendipitous moment, upon my arrival to Beijing, I had inadvertently crashed a breakfast meeting and found myself sitting face to face with mayor Chen Ping at another long table. On either side of him were several Chinese dignitaries and on either side of me, were the chief representatives from cities and downtown associations from around the globe that had just arrived to attend an international summit on downtown centres (Montreal, London, Sydney, Vienna, Madrid, New York, etc.)
Although I was one of the representatives of Montreal, I was by no means the chief representative of Montreal. I was not supposed to be there! A few moments before, I was making my way down to the lobby from my room at the Wangfujing Hotel in downtown Beijing, when I was pushed out by a small crowd in the elevator that got off at the mezzanine level. Before I could make it back into the elevator, I was grabbed by the arm and politely ushered into a long dining room and escorted to a chair in the middle of the table facing another empty chair across from me.
As everyone settled down, I started to make acquaintances with my neighbours who introduced themselves as representatives from major cities around the world. Then, when I realized that I really was not meant to be there, everyone gets up to greet a gentleman who I later learned to be, the mayor of Dong Cheng, the downtown District of Beijing, Mr. Chen Ping, who then sat right across from me. I was pinned down.
Everyone was asked to introduce themselves and when it was my turn, I could see that the mayor was perplexed because, unbeknownst to me, the chief Montreal representative had arrived a day before me and had already had breakfast with the mayor and another group of international city chief representative. There was a lot of whispering into ears and glances directed at me from the other side of the table. However, I was stuck and backing away was not an option! It would have been rude and an insult on my part if I had suddenly gotten up and left!
The show must go on, as they say, and soon the mayor ignored me as he got up and gave a very heart-warming reception speech to everyone who had travelled from far and wide, thanking them for honouring him with our presence. Everyone clapped and murmured gratefully. When the applause died down however, everyone on my side of the table began looking at each other searching for the one who would, as etiquette required, reply and thank the mayor for hosting the event. Of course, all heads gravitated to the centre, and that was exactly where I was sitting!
Muffled resistance on my part was greeted with helpless raised shoulders and eyebrows from my comrades.
So, there I was, getting up to give a speech that I had not prepared for in a place that I was not invited to, in front of people who did not know who I was!
Whatever I said seemed to have pleased the guests as they eagerly applauded and put the mayor at ease, somewhat, as he politely but hesitantly applauded as well.
So during the course of the meal, and after some awkward stares from across the table, the mayor engaged me in some conversation which soon led to Montreal. He told me that he had previously visited our city and was particularly intrigued with the underground or interior city which I knew quite well. As an architect, I had been very active in it’s transformation. I was also a student of the physical, aesthetics and real property issues related to its evolution.
The breakfast was soon over, and the mayor politely shook my hand and wished me a pleasant time at the conference. I then made my way to the day’s scheduled events feeling relief that I had not been escorted out of the room by security!
Fast forward to Sunday. Here I was, in front of Mr Chen Ping again, across another long table, surrounded by many more men in black and with no clue what I had been brought there for. Was Mr. Chen upset that I had crashed his breakfast meeting? That I had high-jacked the guests’ seat of honour? It was Sunday and only the police work on Sundays, I thought!
Mr. Chen then began questioning me about Montreal and its interior city. As time went on, my anxiousness began to subside and after a two-hour long conversation, Mr. Chen told me that he was very impressed with my thoughts on interior cities and invited me to an international design ideas competition to transform Wangfuging, the downtown commercial district of Beijing.
Three months later, I returned to Beijing with models, presentation boards and booklets. I presented my project to a 20-member jury representing a wide range of professionals and dignitaries from Beijing.
While still in Beijing, I learned that we had won the competition. Obviously, I was thrilled and was expecting a call from Charlie Rose in New York the next day for an interview on how I had won a competition to redesign the oldest downtown centre on the planet. However, my expectations were quickly deflated when I was told that we were to be awarded second prize and second prize money. There was no first prize awarded. And to top it off, I was not allowed to publicise our win.
You see, Wangfujing is just a block away from the Forbidden City, kitty-corner from Tianamen Square and adjacent to the old preserved Hutongs (ancient neighbourhoods). Wangujing itself however, with exception of a few buildings that we conserved in our proposal was now a mish mash of mid-20th Century, badly aging modern style buildings.
I was kicking and screaming of joy, to myself, because I was told to keep the project a secret. The proverbial tree in the forest that does NOT make a sound, because no one was there to witness it!
Master plan for the 200 acre redevelopment project for Wangfuging, Dongcheng, Beijing. While many firms were touting their 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize wins in the “architectural award rush” to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, I was asked to keep quiet about our 1st Prize award. To make matters worse, we were told that since the site was so sensitive and that our ideas could generate uncontrolled speculation, we were “offered” 2nd prize and the corresponding, and rather symbolic monetary award in exchange for our discretion.
The award did not even cover our expenses but, I complied. Mr. Chen expressed his regret and nevertheless allowed us to show it to our potential clients in China and abroad. Fifteen years later, I think that I have met my obligations and I am sure that Mr. Chen would not object to me telling the story.
During a congratulatory lunch, Mr. Chen asked me how Montreal was successful in convincing the individual private property owners to collaborate in the development of the interior city. They seemed to have hit an impasse with the Hong Kong shopping centre developers that had invested a great deal of money in the development of the Wangfujing commercial core and even though all of them had a lower level retail space, none of the developments were interconnected.
I was surprised by this question. Although in France and Spain, the constitution does not allow for the alienation of public property, in North America, this is not the case and in China, the government has the prerogative to change rules overnight.
I then realized that the obvious was staring at them in the face. “Mr. Chen” I replied, “in Montreal, we came up with a solution that you may already be very familiar with.” “Yes?”, Mr. Chen asked with anticipation. “Well Mr. Chen, in Montreal, we forced them!” I exclaimed.
With that, Mr. Chen paused for a moment of reflection and then roared with laughter. “Noted!” he replied as he chuckled while reclining back in his chair with delight and deep thought.
The project opened the doors for us in China and between 2002 and 2008, the sun never set on our 10 person, Montreal-Beijing empire!
Alas, as the Beijing Olympic torch was extinguished in 2008 and brought an end to the games, so was our presence in China.
China is now facing a new real estate challenge and we hope to return with new ideas for challenging times.
I was not “kidnapped” in Beijing, but the warmth of its people and its cultural and architectural heritage captured my heart.
Our project respected all of the criteria for the development of the underground downtown Wangfujing street and explored new opportunities beyond the limits of the actual design area and program.
The original area of design was limited to the creation of an underground city beneath a 40m wide by a 1 kilometre long pedestrian section of Wangfujing street.
The organizers of the design ideas competition had come to Montreal and wanted to replicate concepts of our interior city. The goal was to apply sustainable practices in the development of higher density cities in the 21st Century.
I have worked extensively in the development and redevelopment of underground and interior public spaces in Montreal and have presented my ideas in conferences around the world.
The adjacent World Heritage site, The Forbidden City, and the traditional Hutongs, are sites of remarkable cultural and historical value that had to be respected. The height of buildings in the neighbouring Wangfujing District were therefore limited to 15 stories.
And although Wangfujing had lost most of its Hutong fabric, there were still many remnants of historical buildings such as the Children’s Theatre, The Capital Theatre, the Hospital complex, the Art Gallery, etc. which we integrated in our design proposal.
The District of Doncheng was now looking to modernize the Wangfujing district while respecting the adjacent heritage sites.
Progress and construction was moving so fast in Beijing that even the largest McDonald’s in the world, open for only a few years, was demolished to make way for the modern office and shopping mall complex, The Oriental Plaza.
The Wangfujing District measures approximately the same size, width and length as the Forbidden City Palace situated to the West, that is 200 acres (1km by 2kms). The front of the Palace is located across the main Chang’An East Boulevard from Tiananmen Square and the centre of the boulevard is the centre point from which the city grew its layers of ring roads.
I felt that the original program to create a single underground commercial space underneath Wangfujing street had not been carefully addressed and the opportunities of such an exercise, not explored.
The actual Wangfujing District is one kilometre wide (east-west) and sits one block East of the Forbidden City. It then stretches two kilometres North from the main Chang’An East Boulevard. Six more additional metro stations were being planned around the perimeter of the district for a total of eight subway stations. There were insufficient pedestrian walkways, open spaces and no destination activities to accommodate this additional future influx of pedestrians to the downtown core.
The district had lost most of its Hutongs in the 1950s and 60s to whitewashed modern style buildings. Only a few traditional buildings remained.
The design proposal for the redevelopment of the Wangfuing District in Downtown Beijing, was a culmination of several years of personal research into the development of cities in the future.
My proposal was not labelled “Green”, “LEED”, “SMART” or “Wired”. My approach to urban design has always been the development of just good progressive architecture based on existing values, cultures, infrastructure, economic, administrative and political municipal structures.
The Three Network City concept for the 21st Century developed by Miguel Escobar, architect
The project proposed a Three Network City that combined a network of exterior parks, squares and pedestrian streets with a second network of skylit gallerias connecting buildings on the same blocks and a third network of underground spaces connecting subway stations with all of the building in the district.
The exterior spaces equal to approximately 10% of the total area of the project not only served to provide increased quality of life to an area void of public spaces, they also contributed to creating addresses to the new real estate. The interior on block galleria network offered multiple access to buildings and pooled connections to the underground and interior city and the subway. The Interior network included the buildings themselves, the underground retail and commercial spaces, the underground corridors between blocks and the metro stations.
This concept of the “City evolving into one unique Building” is one I had begun developing since the concept of the downtown of Gatineau in Quebec, Canada, in 1985 where I proposed uniting several blocks into a single pedestrian commercial core with underground parking serving several owners and properties.
At night, the Wangfujing network of interior sky-lit gallerias would be lit up, thus the name of the project, “The City of Lights of the Orient”.
Our objective at Future Cities®, is to build upon the fabric of existing physical and human infrastructures and transform them into 21st Century metropolises that reduce the impact on our natural resources, enhance the vitality of our cultures and improve the quality of life of our citizens.
For more information, I invite you to contact us at: Miguel Escobar, architect, Future Cities Group Inc., 1-514-876-9797 firstname.lastname@example.org https://www.linkedin.com/in/miguel-escobar-662b211/