Efforts have been made to renovate some neighboring residential compounds along the Central Axis of Beijing to harmonize them with the surroundings. The revamp of Lao Shi’s pigeon house is part of a program called “the fifth facade” renovation, a reference to the area’s roofs. By November 2022, the renovations in the Bell and Drum Towers area were mostly completed. The ongoing program covers four hutongs including the one where Lao Shi’s family and his pigeons live.
According to Liu Weiyan, who works on the renovation program, it covers an area of 1.19 hectares to the northwest of the Drum and Bell Towers. It included 89 households with a total construction area of 2,536 square meters. Liu said the fifth facade renovation targets the roofs of houses that do not meet the requirements of the Central Axis. It involves the demolition of illegal constructions, decoration and removal of ancillary facilities, and pigeon house renovation, as well as cooperation with communities in the Shichahai lake area to carry out the demolition and restoration of roofs and illegal constructions.
Apart from demolition of illegal rooftop structures, as families often extended their homes with extra rooms or terraces, facilities including solar-powered water heaters, solar panels and some air conditioners that affected the overall aesthetic were removed or covered. Liu said the government gave free indoor electric water heaters as compensation for removing solar panels.
Some modern buildings have been lowered in height. The threestory Di’anmen police station is now reduced to one floor with a new traditional-style roof.
To improve residents’ living conditions, the sewer system has been repaired, and wheelchair accessible ramps have been built for the elderly and disabled. Residents and shopkeepers were solicited for their opinions on improving the facades of stores and businesses.
“People understand the World Heritage Site application is a big deal, so most local people support it,” Liu said. The process for the clearance of illegal constructions in communities was based on sufficient negotiation with locals. “No removal project was conducted under coercion,” he said.
To restore the old courtyard communities to their original style and layout, in the spring of 2021, a voluntary relocation program around the Drum and Bell Towers began. Residents can apply for equivalent financial compensation or relocation to other districts.
Among the 30 courtyards with 185 households covering a total area of 5,250 square meters, 14 courtyards involving 72 households applied for the program. According to Liu, a significant number of residents were willing to relocate to larger modern apartments in other districts on the outskirts of the city. The Shi family moved from a 9-square-meter house to a much larger two-bedroom apartment. The Peng family spent part of their compensation to move from their 20-square-meter house to a twobedroom apartment of over 80 square meters.
“The purpose is to reduce the number of households by 30 to 50 percent so we can restore the old architectural layout. The people who choose to stay are very important elements of the landscape,” Qin said. She believes that cultural heritage should be integrated into the city and become part of people’s daily lives.
According to Chen Mingjie, directorgeneral of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage, “If the cultural relics are ‘teeth,’ then the surrounding environment are the ‘lips.’ The teeth should be well-protected, and so should the lips. For example, vacating non-ancient buildings that are close to ancient ones protects the cultural relics, significantly improves the living environment and enhances the happiness of residents, thus attaining a win-win situation.”
Lü thinks that after years of efforts, the reconstruction of the block near the Drum and Bell Towers has considered both their modern popularity and traditional style, which is an ideal transformation project.
Shan Jixiang, former director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage told the Global Times in August 2022 that the application for the World Heritage Site process could benefit the conservation and revival of cultural heritage along the Central Axis by inspiring more people to learn about heritage sites and increasing awareness of protection efforts.
As the official description of the Beijing Central Axis on the UNESCO website states, although some historic remains along the Central Axis have been altered or vanished during past renovations, “the Axis as one entity adapts to the social needs in different periods and plays an important role in the development of Beijing city.”
Photographer Zhang Jie, a Beijinger, has spent over eight years taking photos of the Drum and Bell Tower area. He said that after 1996, as the environment in the surrounding areas changed, many non-locals and foreigners came to visit or live in the hutongs. “This reflects the openness of Beijing as an international city that attracts all kinds of people from all walks of life,” Zhang told NewsChina.
Zhang feels he now has a new opportunity to understand the Central Axis: “The story of the Central Axis will never end, so I will continue to explore it, and as far as the Central Axis remains, it can guide people, and I won’t get lost.”