Capital cuts chimney down to size

Controversy has raged for nine years, but now it seems the fate of a landmark Beijing building is sealed.

Controversy has raged for nine years, but now it seems the fate of a landmark Beijing building is sealed.

A 180-meter 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 was built in 1976 for the Beijing No. 2 thermal power plant, which was moved to the suburbs in 2009 to reduce air pollution.

The site has since 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.

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 debate over its fate.

Supporters of demolition argue the chimney is in “wrong place” and a blot on the surrounding cityscape.

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

The 58-meter pagoda is in Tianning Temple, which was destroyed iabout 700 years ago and rebuilt in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Famous for its chrysanthemum garden, the temple attracted crowds of 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 the ‘cultural revolution (1966-76),’ 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.

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 the capital’s gross domestic product and air pollution was severe.

In 1983, the central government required Beijing to become “a political and cultural center” and “no longer develop heavy industry.” 

For this reason, some scholars say 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 value or features compared with other chimneys,” says Zhu Zuxi, vice director of the Beijing Geographic Society.

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