THE CITY THAT CLOSED ITS DOORS

Monday, May 4, 2009



We are almost at the one-year anniversary of the Great Sichuan Earthquaqe of 2008, a natural disaster in China's Sichuan Province that occurred on May 12 and killed at least 68,000 people. The city of Beichuan was one of the cities hardest hit. A city of 20,000 people before the quake, Beichuan lost over half of its population. 80-percent of its buildings collapsed. The city was deemed to be un-livable and the government decided it was best to relocate the city's survivors - and thus the city itself - to a new location, 16 kilometers south.

Today, as bulldozers prepare the new location for Beichuan, the old Beichuan has been completely evacuated, a metal fence marking its perimeter. The only inhabitants are the dead bodies that could not be extracted from the rubble, at least 2,000 of them. Meanwhile the government is planning to convert the old city into a memorial, but at the moment it is unclear how this will take place. The city might be converted into a walkable memorial, with teetering schoolhouses and apartment blocks with sheared facades, exposing a tableau of crooked bedrooms and kitchens, preserved as they were just after the quake. Or, it is possible that the perimeter fence will remain and the building rubble uncleared - and the monument will be something viewed from a mountain-top lookout above.

This is a strange kind of urbanism mixing modern construction, tourism and natural disaster. It seemingly has no precedent except for the preserved cities of the Greek and Roman empires, such as Pompeii, perhaps also Versailles. But no historical example comes close to the active and immediate preservation of Beichuan, replete with the city's relocation to an entirely new location. Which brings to mind another precedent, Archigram's Walking City, a far less somber example but equally strange, indeed.

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