The Indicator: On a Clear Day You can Almost See Beijing

  • 17 Jan 2013
  • by
  • Architecture News Editor's Choice The Indicator
© Jason Lee for Reuters via

I remember the smog in Beijing rendering the most beautiful skies. There was an innocence to the air pollution back then, before the engines of economic development really got going.

It was just a pretty sunset, or a delicate brown haze that romantically softened the edges of things—while wrecking your lungs, of course. But, like the sand storms, pollution gave the city a different, rarified quality.

© Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times. Coal mounds in Gobi, Mongolia

There was also less of it—less pollution and less city. Beijing, like most Chinese cities, was much smaller ten years ago; there were fewer buildings; hardly any dirty trucks bellowed smoke en route to construction sites. Most people didn’t own cars. Things were just getting started.

The way Beijing’s smog is being written about now makes me think of Lars Lerup’s “zoohemic canopy”, which he described in his book, After the City. The atmosphere floating above Houston was intrinsic to its character.

© Reuters via

But Lerup’s canopy was benign, passive, even beautiful, a giant friendly blob that formed another plane of life. It was not, like China’s apocalyptic air, something conjured by brute economic ambition and reckless nationalism. Lerup’s canopy was more weather than toxic byproduct.

© Chinese artist Ai Weiwei via

Beijing’s smog is always at its worst right about now, in the depths of winter when the city smokes coal like cigarettes to keep the heat up.

When I lived there, this “haze” was certainly dreaded when it showed up, but it was not yet an international issue or a measure of progress. Over the past couple of weeks, Beijing’s air quality has become a specter of China’s on-going development frenzy—an economic trajectory we in the west are wholly complicit in helping to create. China’s coal-fired engines are running for our Walmarts and iPads, our intertwined economic fates.

© China Chas, Flickr via

Part of the west’s dream of China is that it was once defined by a benign past, not by contemporary economic might. Even though we depend on it, we are less at ease with this China. It has been our greatest and most necessary realm of otherness, helping to prop up popular notions of contemporary institutional and cultural superiority. But this trope has become destabilized with China’s rise. It is now polluting with the best of us.

© Jianan Yu Reuters via

In a way, air pollution has turned into the menacing beige megashape of our xenophobia. The more China pollutes, the more it projects power, its pollution an accidental and unexpected index of aggression.  China spreads it smog around the way it spreads its money and people around. Back in 2008 there were fears that China’s toxic cloud would reach Europe. At that time, the world also watched to see if the air would clear enough to hold the Olympics.

© Reuters via

There were days last week when the AQI (Air Quality Index) in some districts of Beijing was reported to have been above 900. According to the World Health Organization, this is the sort of air quality that can potentially decrease your lifespan by five years. So, everyone in Beijing: You may have just had five years stolen from you.

© Via

Globally, roughly 40% of all power is produced using coal. 42% in the US. In China its 79%. Moreover, according to a New York Times special report, to meet increasing demand, China will be adding about 160 new coal-fired power plants within the next four years. Coal is still king…and emperor too. It will be for some time.

Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: On a Clear Day You can Almost See Beijing" 17 Jan 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 May 2015. <>
  • Tian Wu

    …..oh yh….

  • Aaron

    From my perspective, and it is only, my perspective, this article goes a little too far… most obviously, the comment – “According to the World Health Organization, this is the sort of air quality that can potentially decrease your lifespan by five years. So, everyone in Beijing: You may have just had five years stolen from you.” could have been cut in half without the OBVIOUS, and conflict inciting latter half of the comment… Truthfully, this is the kind of “Hate China” narrative that I would expect out of Yahoo… I thought this website was above that, first, because ArchDaily usually tends to take a more neutral stance on political circumstances and secondly because this website is geared towards exposing people to ARCHITECTURE… not propoganda. There is already enough propoganda in China and in the western world targeting the shaky rise of China. I guess maybe from my perspective as a daily reader of this online magazine, I didn’t expect, or appreciate logging on this morning to a website that I usually do as another source of drive in my profession, to find this oppositionally minded, overly emotional commentary. Again, only my perspective.

  • David

    Well, China is the new kid on the block, and quite fiesty too, so there’s always some (involuntary) hate speech.

    My question would be what good is architecture if you’ll never get to see it because of pollution? Will the next generation of Beijing buildings be airtight pods using spaceship technology to ensure the safety of the people inside?

    • Fred

      You just reminded me of London in the 1800′s where Joseph Paxton suggested the idea of enclosed avenues to combat the problem of the growing air pollution from the industrial revolution. Bizarrely, it seems beijing is unfortunately facing that same problem.

      • Aaron

        That was an awesome comparison… urban planners doing projects in China actually take such things into account, solution–enclosed residential communities and big trees.

    • Aaron

      Right, that makes sense, but if you’ll go back and read again you’ll find that my point is that such speeches are rarely made on this site, and that that is a good thing.

      “involuntary” is a stretch

      China is actually the old-new kid on the block. This story is years old now.

      Your latter point makes sense.

  • Streetviper

    there is absolutely nothing romantic to the cancerous fumes that even cost lives. Been breathing it one and a half year. It made me leave Beijing. The city would be so much more enjoyable without it. It stains, hurts, corrodes,…

  • archi

    But but but… Volcanos polute more! (apparently…)

  • Paul Chen

    help me,I’m a Chinese