2023.2-住宅-北京东城区
Photo Credit: Li Xiao (李潇)
Chronicling the modern history of Beijing’s apartment buildings on camera

One autumn day in 2022, as I took a walk through Beijing, a high-rise apartment block caught my eye. I paused for a few minutes to admire it and snapped some shots with my camera. After I got home, I examined the architecture in the photos closely. It felt like all the various details of the building were competing to tell different stories.

This first encounter with the capital’s apartment buildings inspired this photography series. I started to roam around Beijing, and occasionally my hometown in Hebei province, to find interesting cases. I would find a vantage point, perhaps atop another nearby building, where I could center the building in the frame. Later, on my computer, I would edit out extraneous elements like tree branches, telephone wires, and other buildings, leaving only the sky and my subject. I want viewers to focus entirely on the rich details of the buildings without interference.

Their fading paint, caged balconies or windows, clothes hanging to dry, and potted plants, all fascinate me. These are traces of human life that are continuing to grow, even as the building housing them withers.

Though I was initially attracted only by the buildings’ appearance, I gradually learned their history. In Beijing, some of the first apartment blocks were three-story buildings built in the 1950s. At that time, the capital’s traditional bungalow homes were struggling to cope with a growing population. The ’70s, on the other hand, were characterized by the vast construction of five-story, red-brick buildings, influenced by “khrushchevka”—a type of apartment building popular in the ’60s in the Soviet Union.

After market reforms began in the ’80s, T-shaped high-rise buildings with two elevators and four apartments per floor came into fashion. From then on, as private developers took on construction, residential buildings began to take on many more forms and designs.

I think of these residential buildings as grand “story books,” housing all kinds of complex and rich lives inside. They stand there in silence, waiting for us to discover their tales.

An apartment building over 20 stories constructed in the 1990s in Haidian district, Beijing, Beijing’s apartment buildings on camera

An apartment building over 20 stories constructed in the 1990s in Haidian district, Beijing

A lit window at night in Li Xiao’s hometown, Wu’an in Hebei province, Beijing’s apartment buildings on camera

A lit window at night in Li Xiao’s hometown, Wu’an, in Hebei province

A residential building under renovation in Chaoyang district, Beijing.

A residential building under renovation in Chaoyang district, Beijing

Small bathroom windows on the side of buildings are a common design feature.

Small bathroom windows on the side of buildings are a common design feature

An apartment complex shot from a deserted building in Beijing.

An apartment complex shot from a deserted building in Beijing

Constructed in different eras, apartment buildings carry distinctive marks of time in their styles.

Constructed in different eras, apartment buildings carry distinctive marks of time in their styles

Today, gated communities are the norm of residentials areas in Beijing, the largest housing some 300,000 people.

Today, gated communities have become the norm of residential areas in Beijing, the largest housing some 300,000 people

Mostly constructed in the 1950s, three-story residential buildings with red walls are among the oldest apartment blocks in Beijing.

Mostly constructed in the 1950s, three-story residential buildings with red walls are among the oldest apartment blocks in Beijing

Photography by: Li Xiao (李潇)

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Born in 1988, Li Xiao is a photographer and graphic designer based in Beijing.


Translated By
author Liu Jue (刘珏)

Liu Jue is the co-managing editor of The World of Chinese Magazine. She has been working for TWOC since 2012. She is interested in covering history, traditional culture, and Chinese language.

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