This post was jointly written with the delightful Tom Gatley, whose ’blog, beijing & things, and entries on the Financial Times MBA ’blog, you should go and read right after you’ve read this.

Beijing’s Museum of Urban Planning has a name whose near-sarcastic tedium belies a genuinely fascinating wander through the past and present of one of the world’s oldest capital cities. If this were the UK, the museum would probably have been given a wanky, faux-trendy moniker, like ‘Beijing PastFutureZone’, or ‘BeijXPERI3NC3’. To be strictly accurate, however, the place should be entitled ‘Beijing Succession of Ever-More Jaw-Droppingly Intricate Scale Models of Beijing’…and, if you go in expecting that, you won’t be disappointed.

The first you’ll come across is already quite impressive—a selection of architectural highlights plucked from the north–south axis which slices the city down its centre, adorned with more blue LEDs than a pimp-my-ride Vauxhall Corsa. The route takes in Tiananmen, the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park, the Drum and Bell Towers, and finally the Olympic village, landmarks ranging in age from a couple of years to six centuries, and in ostentation from audacious to fucking audacious.

The next model concentrates solely on the Forbidden City, and is constructed entirely from teeny-tiny pieces of wood (the courtyards are decked out with minute, individual slabs, which can’t be more than 1×2 mm in size). One suspects that it took at least as many man-hours to construct as the Forbidden City itself, and probably deserves UNESCO World Heritage recognition of its own.

As you walk upstairs to the next level, a ten-tonne bronze model of ‘old’ Beijing, the city as it was in 1949, dangles precariously from the wall above you. Over 100,000 buildings adorn this astonishing metal monolith, and it’s good fun playing spot the difference. There are a few easy pickings for those whose geographical sense is entirely gleaned from guidebooks: like the dinky, old-fashioned Tiananmen Square, which has been enlarged and covered in 100 acres of concrete in the intervening years.

To avoid getting scale-model vertigo, it might be worth taking time out at this point. Another room in the museum features a digitally remastered version of Tian Qu Dan Que, a sixty-metre-long silk scroll painting of early 20th-century Beijing, again running along the north–south axis. Some elements have been embellished rather tastefully—such as occasional, semi-abstract flocks of birds which erupt gracefully from behind buildings or lakes—but others—such as a caravan of camels walking over a bridge, whose jerky gait looks almost ironic (this may just be a camel thing)—make you wonder if George Lucas shouldn’t just have left a timeless classic alone, especially that pointless bit where Han Solo treads on Jabba the Hutt’s tail. Yeesh.

As you enter the room containing the pièce de résistance, you realise that the preceding models existed solely to lower your expectations. Set in an atrium is a 10×10 m sprawling facsimile of the entire city (up to and in some places beyond the fourth ring-road), built of painstakingly-accurate architectural models. The floor outside the 3D model is glass, underneath which lies satellite imagery of the surrounding area, with every road, railway and feature carefully aligned.

As you tower over this sumptuously detailed miniature like some kind of imperialist Godzilla, the first question to leap to one’s mind is ‘how much of this could I stomp into oblivion before I get taken out by the museum SWAT team?’ The answer, we assume, is about this much:

The next question, of course, is ‘can I see my house from here?’ As it turns out, we found Tom’s apartment with relative difficulty; the process being complicated by the fact that next to the building ran a very major road which does not, in fact, exist. Perhaps we had accidentally stumbled into the Museum of Urban Planning Permission, and this represented a major arterial route either yet to be built or discarded as an idea after the construction of the model; or maybe we had come across the world’s first scale-model ‘trap street’. Trap streets are a fascinating concept (check out this London example on the always-fantastic BLDGBLOG): distortions of reality introduced intentionally to safeguard an entity’s claim on their accurate description of that reality. In this case, perhaps the MofUP, fearing an upstart competitor museum would infringe upon its proprietary model (so to speak) has built in this trap street to provide undeniable evidence for recourse to the law.

Much like the city whose story it tells, the museum is a work in progress, with exhibits sporting plastic tarpaulin, interactive screens displaying erratic error messages and even the occasional model with the appearance of having been Godzilla’ed. In fact, we almost didn’t make it inside at all, because the very avant-garde front entrance to the museum appeared to be undergoing renovation, leaving only a barely-marked side door for access. We can’t therefore offer any guarantees—the museum, and indeed the city, may be entirely different by the time you get round to going—but you can be sure it will be a BeijXPERI3NC3.

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