Walls and doors

The main function of most official buildings is to symbolically structure space. Distinguish an inside from an outside, or establish a cosmic centre point.

The main point of focus for tourists in Beijing is a door – Tian An Men, the door of Heavenly Peace – which leads into the – walled in – Forbidden city, under the auspices of late President Mao.

The structure of the Chinese capital is clearly centered on the Forbidden city, the real and symbolic centre of imperial power. Yet, in imperial times, the religious centre of the country was slightly further South, at the Temple of Heaven. Also the forbidden city itself does not have a clear centre point – godly statue, tomb, or the emptiness of an inner shrine. Visiting it is more like a pilgrimage inside a maze, walking by a succession of temples and houses, along courtyards and through doorways, without ever reaching a clear destination, or feeling ‘that’s where it is’.

The Chinese word for China means ‘the Middle Country’. Accordingly (?) the main symbol of the country is not a centre point, but a great wall, marking the limit of that ‘middle ground. That wall, itself, may have served a symbolic function, as much as one of defence: it runs along mountain tops, underlining the natural landscape surrounding China.

The Great Wall is not one continuous piece of masonry, but a scattering of constructions, built at different periods in different places, which make sense as a defence mechanism, but only roughly connect. Even in the core sections, in the Northern section of Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, the wall is not continuous. Sometimes a moutain was high enough to be deemed inpassable, and the wall stops half-way down its slopes.

Walls and doors may the ultimate symbolic monuments of continental cities. Along the coast, in seaports, people are more likely to build up – a lighthouse or a Colossus, to serve as a beacon indicating the safe harbour for incoming ships. The Pearl of the Orient, in Shanghai, may have that symbolic function. And we may monitor the shift of China from a continental to a sea power – if it happens – by following the dominant imagery: walls and temples on a mountain top, or beacons and skyscrapers along waterways.

Or, maybe, the maze like quality of the Forbidden city and the Great Wall will combine with the intricacies of the Chinese natural and artificial river system, and give rise to a specific Chinese space symbolism, adapted to the information age and in line with a a certain national tradition, with no central point of focus – but a network at the core.

Images of a time to come

Tianjin, like many Chinese cities, is in the middle of a massive urban renewal. Cranes in the skyline and construction sites on the streets are lifting up not only more office, retail and residential space, but new landmark buildings, right in the centre of the city.

There is a joke about Tianjin that goes like this. It’s the Second World War, and the Japanese want to bomb down a Chinese city. So they go out on a mission to find a target. First they go to Shanghai, but eventaully decide against bombing it – it’s too beautiful. Then they go to Beijing, but decide against bombing it again – it’s too beautiful. Finally, they go to Tianjin, but they also decide against bombing it – someone else has already bombed it.

Tianjiners like to play modest, and repeat the joke to visitors. But maybe not for long. The central government has announced that Tianjin would be ‘the new Shanghai’, imitating the success of the southern seaport. In line with that slogan, the city is reinventing itself through architecture, as the main metropolis on the Bohai rim, and a place of beauty, class and opulence.

Most of the development is happening in the harbour district of TangGu, but the historic centre is following pace. Riverfront, French concession, Museum district, Magnetic city: construction is happening all around central Tianjin.

I was actually proud to learn that many Melbourne architects are involved – urban planning is one of the biggest areas for cooperation between the two sister cities. While I was in Tianjin, my Melbourne friend Kenyen learnt he had won an international competition to landscape-design the entrance to the new Tianjin marina in Tanggu. Other Melburnians, I heard, were involved in the middle river-front development, which was inspired by South Bank – with its many bridges, and a contrast of neo-classic and modern architecture.

Interestingly, urban planners are putting up signs on the walls of the construction site, to reveal not only what a building under construction will look like, but show the new shape of a whole neighbourhood.

And – appropriately for such a theatrical city – the views also come in a night-time version, showing the new buildings lit up, and the pattern of light and shade on the streets.

So when you walk along the dirty footpath, amid the noises of construction machines, your imagination can wander into a brilliant future of neo-classical architecture and sparkling towers.

I can understand why architects – or the municipality – would want to display the shape of their future project – instruct, impress. But something, the pictures displayed have a less clear purpose, when they imitate what the place will be like, at street level.

This comes in a context where trompe l’oeil is very present. In the ‘Italian style street’, you can see photos of a Milan gallery, decorating the side wall of a little plaza. Are they plans for Tianjin’s future developments? Pure decoration? Or something in between, a vision of exoticism, somehow connected to the local – ‘Italian’ – architecture, conjuring up in the mind of the passer-by a future of quiet opulence, and immediate access, through the power imagination, to eurotic places of wealth and glamour?

Sometimes, the existential status of this trompe l’oeil is even more ambiguous, and you seriously wonder what these images are. Plans for future construction? Sheer decoration on a blank wall? Or a reassuring illusion that, indeed, that part of Tianjin is already part of Europe, sharing in its prosperity, peace, and international glamour.

Museum space – the space

As a result of the massive economic boom – and to assert its new super-central position on the world stage – China has built a number of museums in its big cities, showcasing the high achievements of Chinese culture to national and international visitors.

These museums are heavy with symbolic value. They are the nodal point of ideology turned aesthtics – power talking directly to the heart of people. They are deliberate symbols of the new China. As such, they could not be just a square shape with a few paintings and calligraphies hanging on the walls.

Designing a museum must be one of the most exciting assignments for an architect: shaping a building for pure display. The new Tianjin museum is built in the shape of a giant swan, winds open, taking off.

The front part is a futuristic atrium – flooded with light from the windows; at the back are the display rooms, with artificial light exclusively; a controlled environment for better preserving the fragile artifacts.

Even in a playful environment, architects have to think of everyone. In a corner of the Tianjin atrium, they had to carve in a little side room for the curators and Museum workers.

The new Capital Museum in Beijing is not such an obvious feast of architectural playfulness. From the outside, it is a large quadrangle with overhead roof and a bronze tube sticking out on the left.

But inside, the space is interestingly arranged around a large, building high atrium in two distinct areas: a wooden cube on the right has history, a metal cylinder, aslant on the left, has art.

These new Chinese museums are free, but you’re supposed to book a ticket on the internet. As a foreigner (read, ‘white person’), you can easily get away with a ‘Bu Dong, Bu dong’, and simply get in. But there are remarkably few white people in these Museums. In Tianjin, I was one of eleven; in Tianjin, I was alone. But then, the Tianjin Museum is part of a new ‘cultural precinct’, still under construction.

The swan museum has a certain appeal – but you wouldn’t stumble upon it by accident – or spend some time in the area, after your visit, for the pleasure of discovering a Chinese neighbourhood.


Tianjin is a water city, built along the banks of the Hai He river, at the intersection of the North and South Canal, and about 15km from the the Estuary on the Bohai Gulf. Its location (and history) is somewhat similar to that Shanghai, for which reason I like to call the the waterfront of the former French concession ‘the Bund’

The fortune of Tianjin – in literal translation ‘Sky Ford’ – was always connected to its location – a meeting place of many waters, a cross-canals offering passage to the sea, nearby.

In such an environment, bridges – as much as boats – have a crucial function to play, practically (because if people cannot cross, then the many waterways become an obstacle to trade), and symbolically – signifying connection.

The colonists understood that symbolic function, and built garish bridges on the Paris model, with warrior sculptures on pedestals, and horses at water level.

Two of the most famous symbols of Tianjin are the 19th century ‘Jiefang’ bridge – allegedly built by Gustave Eiffel (Eiffel tower Eiffel), and just further down-river, the new sun and moon bridge from Da Gu road to He Bei district.

But the beauty of Tianjin comes not only from the majestic Hai He, snaking its way through the city centre. The town is full of quieter water bodies. There are lakes in the Water Park, or People’s Park, or at the foot of the TV Tower. Bridges are there, as well, to connect artificial islands, a zoo, a Japanese garden to the mainland.

Not far from where I worked is a long canal – which, if I was on a little barge, and followed it, could lead me to Beijing, or Shanghai, or, along the coast, all the way to Seoul. I’ve sat on a bench, often, looking at it.

I crossed a stone bridge over it, many times a week, to get my lunch.

Around the French concession

For seven weeks, I have lived in the heart of the Tianjin French concession. Somehow, it is a fitting spot – coming here as a French man from Australia, to work at Alliance Francaise. I also consider it a bit of a luxury.

Is it the powdery – polluted – air? Is it the morning light? Is it just a common effect of exoticism? The fact is, when you’re travelling abroad, you somehow see more. A laneway, the inside of a house, an old man walking away from you, all take on a mysterious, fleeting beauty.

Names have their own magic, and because it’s in ‘the French concession’, a simple street scene will take on an ‘old Paris-village’ charm; like a memory of Belleville, recovered in North China.

Surprisingly, whereas the Shanghai French concession is the hypest thing on the planet, the Tianjin one is rather underrated – people don’t mention it as an exceptional spot. My colleagues at Alliance Francaise even seem to think of it as rather off centre, far, and a slightly dull place to live.

But I really love the French concession. Not only the simple daily life, and people sitting on steets. It has more grandiose elements, like old-new buildings in French style – probably re-furbished for Municipal government services.

More glamorous still, the French concession has Jin Jie, ‘Gold Street’, the Champs-Elysees of Tianjin – a beautiful, pedestrian commercial street, just fifteen minutes walk from where I lived. Luxurious and sophisticated – embodying everything glamour about France.

I’m sure one day, Tianjin will emerge as a global glamour destination. Then, I will look back with awe at these two months I spent in the middle of the French concession, thinking – how was I ever so lucky to be there, when it was still in the making!

And I will pass by my old Xiao Qu (or the place it was, if it is converted into something shinier), and think back at summer 2011, nostalgically. By then, I will not remember the pollution, the humidity, the heat, and how difficult everything was. I will sigh, thinking of a time when things were still nice, and quiet, and nothing ‘tebie, just harmonious and pleasant.

Wu Da Dao

I had been to the ‘Wu Da Dao’ area – the five great avenues – on my first trip to Tianjin, and had very good memories of it. I went for a walk there one day, trying to capture something of Tianjin’s European past, and how it still informs its contemporary shape.

The place does have a certain European charm, which I have tried to define better – because European charm does not mean much, except that the place was weirdly familiar.

I walked around, and wandered into the side lanes from the main roads and avenues.

I saw the passages with bicycles leaning on the walls, and I saw the laneways with clothes hanging. I saw the buildings and houses, with their continental architecture.

Then I found a word for it. The place has a certain Milanese charm – the beauty of a rich, efficient, and slightly dull bourgeois city. Something North Italian, a discrete, opulent elegance, bordering on the Bavarian. With a touch of grey colour, and a touch of fat.

Reading more about Wu Da Dao, I learnt it had always been a place for rich people. That part of Tianjin was the place to get a house in China for Conservative politicians in the last 20 years of the Qing Empire, and in the early years of the Republic.

I found a place which I think summarizes Wu Da Dao Coffee Office – a coffee place inside a converted mansion, with a relatively small public area on the ground floor, and private meeting rooms on the upper floors, including one room for men, one for women, and a little booth for couples to watch a DVD together, on a corner sofa. The enthusiastic waitress who took me on a tour said ‘I don’t know if there is another place like this in Tianjin – I don’t know if there is another place like this in China!’ There might not be. The coffee was delicious, and the music subtle and quiet – in line with the customers. Qualities I have grown to strongly appreciate after some time in China.

Juliette told me of another Wu Da Dao project – a friend of hers wants to convert a house there into a museum of furniture. Fitting. This is a dream place for antique lovers – or for those conservative spirits who like everything soft and slightly dusty, like old books, European ghosts, and haunted houses, overgrown by grass.

Jiefang Bei Lu – day and night

I live just off Jiefang Bei Lu – ‘JieFang Bei Lu he DaTong Dao de JiaoKou’, is what I tell the taxi drivers taking me home. In the heart of the old French concession. Known as ‘finance street’, it is home to many bank headquarters – and has beautiful classical architecture.

It is rich in historic buildings – like the first ever post and telegraph office in China, which I pass on the way to the market or the bus stop.

 It is also lovely by night, when I walk back from XiaoBai Lou – like an atmospheric film set in Paris.

Sometimes, it’s hard to live in China – but them, I go for a walk around the block, and I think, it’s not so bad.