In terms of space and design, our apartment in Beijing might be the nicest apartment I’ve lived in up to now. I had some nice digs in Seattle, back in the days when I had a real job and some money, but it was a small studio, whereas this place would qualify as a two bedroom. Most of the furniture and the flooring is cheaply made, like almost everything else in China, but it’s fairly sturdy regardless, and we don’t require much more than that. Then there are very nice design touches like the windowed interior doors, glass shelves in the bedroom windows, and recessed lighting in the ceilings. It’s obvious that someone put some thought into the interior design of the place. But the most meticulous plan is useless if there are not good materials and skilled workmen to carry it out.
So, for instance, there is some nice wallpaper in our apartment. But, judging by the dark streaks along many of the seams, a lot of it was probably hung by people with dirty hands. In the bathroom we have a nice western-style sink and toilet. But no one bothered to remove the manufacturer’s labels on the side of the sink, which are now yucky agglomerations of dissolving paper, sticky adhesive, and greenish grime. Similarly, the toilet is not seated on the drain properly, and the several tubes of silicone smeared around the base of the porcelain does not prevent a small trickle of water escaping from somewhere at the back. The bathroom shelves of stainless steel mesh are fastened to the wall with non-stainless steel screws. And the screws themselves are wood screws, held into masonry holes by little sticks of wood pounded into each hole. In the kitchen, the cabinet doors all hang crooked, and no attempt has been made to disguise the rough and uneven cuts made in the cabinets to put in the vent above the stove. In short, parts of the apartment look as though they were constructed by the worst handy-man in the world. There are many things about the place that simply are not up to code, as my dad might say. But still, it works just fine, even if the way it works is not always aesthetically pleasing.
And there are other features of the place that, while they might not look pretty, are, I think, beautiful in their utilitarian simplicity. The water heaters, for example, are unlovely tanks that hang on the walls in the bathroom and kitchen. They use electricity for power, and if you want hot water for something, you have to turn them on a half an hour or so before you’re ready to use the water. Once water is heated, the tanks are insulated well enough that the water inside will remain hot for the entire day with the heaters turned off. It’s a very simple and energy-efficient system. For cooling during the summer, there are three air-conditioners in the apartment, one for each of the large rooms. The separate units allow you to cool only the room you occupy, not the entire house at once. The small washing machine fits snugly into the back of the kitchen and runs quietly, using only cold water. Rather than waste a bunch of energy on drying the clothes, the apartment has a sun-room with a retractable clothes rack hanging from the ceiling. Hanging the clothes is only slightly more bothersome than stuffing them in a dryer, and relying on the sun for the drying saves a ton of energy.
So not everything in the apartment is sparklingly beautiful, and some things are downright ugly–sometimes because of poor materials; sometimes because of sheer indifference on the part of whoever built the place. But all-in-all, it works pretty well. Surprisingly well, in some cases, which reflect a simple practicality that apartments in other parts of the world might learn from.