“The Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall introduces the long history of the immortal city… and is playing the role as a patriotism-education base as well as a platform for the international experts and scholars to exchange.”
By Brian Spencer
It’s the year 2061, and I’m buckled into the “sophisticated dynamic chair” of a virtual flying car. Soon I’ll be shuttled through light air traffic of a Beijing that loosely resembles Coruscant, then embark on a short journey of “fantasy beyond time and space which depicts the prosperous China under the reform and opening policy.” First, though, two attendants have to reboot and reposition the ceiling projectors, figure out why the sound isn’t working, and remind me that the director of my journey beyond time and space will be speaking in Mandarin, not English.
I smile and say “no problem”, the theater lights are dimmed, the sophisticated dynamic chair starts rotating… and the voice of an English-language narrator welcomes me to 2061. I’m the only one traveling back to the future to learn about the eco-friendly planning of early twenty-first century Beijing; in fact, I’m one of the only people, period, at the four-story Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, a roughly 172,000-square-foot space located near Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Mao Zedong Experience.
I see light rails stretching into the farthest reaches of China. Sparkling train stations. Beautiful blue, smog-free skies. Soon, the journey ends with a cruise through euphoric Olympic celebrations at Beijing National Stadium. Fireworks, cheering, hope eternal, eco-friendliness — the only things missing are Ewoks and Stormtrooper helmet bongos.
A 4-D film detailing the city’s urban transit development isn’t the only curiosity housed within this under-visited museum. You’ll also find detailed miniature scale models of Beijing and the Forbidden City, a cinematic look back on the evolution of Beijing as told by holographic tour guides from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and a series of exhibitions presenting near-future China as the greenest and most eco-friendly country on the planet. It’s like a warped Communist spin on the exhibits of Epcot’s Spaceship Earth, circa 1983. It’s forward-thinking and revisionist, shamelessly propagandist, and at times mind-numbingly dull — in other words, it’s magical.
The fourth-floor scale model of Beijing, created by interweaving miniature models of the central city with aerial photographs of outlying districts, is impressive. It’s best admired from the observation desk, but you can also go down a floor and walk on the photographic glass panels surrounding the 1:750 model.
Beyond a mysteriously placed piano draped in creepy red velvet, the exhibition hall’s central atrium is highlighted by a massive bronze relief of Beijing’s layout in 1949. It was completely, eerily silent here, save for the soft whir of escalators after solemn attendants, one stationed at each floor, stamped them into motion when they saw me approaching. I wouldn’t have been completely shocked to look up and see tidal waves of blood splashing down from the opened theater doors, a dog-costumed man appearing at the piano and singing “Midnight, The Stars and You.”
The 4-D journey back to the future lasted a scant five or six minutes, my sense of time and imagination so drastically challenged, as a small plaque outside the theater stated it would be. Beijing’s urban mass-transit planners had thought of everything: the sprawl, the light rails, the Olympics, the environment. I was convinced. Still, I did leave with one nagging, unanswered question about urban planning for Beijing Year 2061:
With many of the transit projects I learned about not completed until 2020 or so, when during that roughly 40-year in-between period — a fairly small window — were all those brand-new light rails replaced by flying cars, and Beijing transformed into a scaled-down version of Coruscant?
Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, 20 Qianmen East Street, Chongwen District, Beijing. 010-6701-7074. Open 9am – 5pm Tuesday to Sunday.