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Special Feature

Bricks of the Future: The Making and Unmaking of a New Beijing

Victoria Nguyen
p. 39-49


How might the future of a city be foretold in a single ubiquitous, yet often invisible, building material? Across the Chinese capital today, municipal planners, developers, artists, and residents alike are mobilising the brick not only as a window to the past and an indictment of the present, but a key portent of the future. Amid a capricious climate of creative destruction, this article tracks how bricks emerge as historicised artifacts, aesthetic interventions, and weapons used by and against the forces of China’s spectacular development. Against clichés of intractable permanence, the Chinese brick today is revealing new and unpredictable vicissitudes as it is co-opted in projects of governance and resistance, demarcating both the material and symbolic parameters of urban belonging in contemporary Beijing. Approaching the lived form of the Chinese metropolis through this traditional architectural material, the article describes Beijing brick in three instantiations: as a lightning rod for debate about the past, present, and future of Beijing’s historic old city; as a materialisation of the atmospherics of pollution and “progress”; and as the armament of both development and its opposition. Through these instances, the brick oscillates between being understood as a relic of aestheticised tradition, a symbol of modernisation, and a trenchant instrument of both building and destruction. As extended fieldwork in Beijing evidences, it is precisely this social and material mutability of the brick that today reorients life in the city toward novel human and nonhuman alliances and oppositions, while also conditioning wider political sensibilities about who counts and what matters in official and unofficial imaginings of China’s future.

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Editor’s notes

Manuscript received on 3 November 2022. Accepted on 13 December 2023.


Full text document will be published online on December 2024.


Bricking up, bricking out
Brick networks: Alliances, affinities, and assemblages
Brick worlds, brick worlding
Bogus bricks
All that is solid
Figure 4. Nut Brother vacuums air pollution outside of Tiananmen Square.
Weapons of popular destruction
The capricious qualities of brick

First lines

Bricking up, bricking out

When the greatest threat to Xiao Yan’s business descended upon the family-run fruit stand in the summer of 2017, it took a rather unexpected form. It was not an eviction notice, demanding they vacate the modest six-by-ten-foot storefront they rented in Beijing’s central old city. It was not a new tax on migrant business owners in the capital. It was not a supply-chain issue with the handful of farmers and suppliers they worked with, who had been battling the alternating challenges of drought and flood for months. Neither was it a shortage of customers, with many residents visiting the stand daily and a steady stream of passersby enticed by Yan’s bountiful displays of seasonal fruit – mangosteen, lychees, and peaches – delicately arranged and often individually wrapped. Instead, after weeks of rumours, the most potent threat to their livelihood materialised overnight, appearing in the early morning hours not as a bulldozer, but as a stack of bricks.

Just befor...

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Bibliographical reference

Victoria Nguyen, Bricks of the Future: The Making and Unmaking of a New BeijingChina Perspectives, 135 | 2023, 39-49.

Electronic reference

Victoria Nguyen, Bricks of the Future: The Making and Unmaking of a New BeijingChina Perspectives [Online], 135 | 2023, Online since 01 December 2024, connection on 04 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Victoria Nguyen

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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