Search for "Beijing" on the Internet and the images tell a singular story: It’s a gloomy, gray place, a post-apocalyptic urbanscape choked by smog. The dangers of smog are very real, and speaking from first-hand experience, you can become easily plagued by the stuff when traversing the city’s massive blocks.
Yet Beijing is a vibrant metropolis teeming with life, commerce, and, yes, lots of vehicular traffic. All of which is charmingly captured in these colorful illustrations by Chinese artist Li Han.
Trained as an architect, Li draws his "Urban Landscapes" using axonometry, an anti-perspective pictorial device commonly found in architectural drafting; It renders buildings as three-dimensional objects. Li uses the technique to project entire neighborhoods and city districts onto materials that threaten to breach the borders of the page (or the T-shirts, bags, and other collectibles Li produces for the design label SQY-T). The effect recalls the pixelated, skewed skylines of SimCity, where rows of buildings become toy-like building blocks, each neatly delineated from the other by crisply outlined roadways, sidewalks, and green spaces.
The difference is that Li carefully populates each of his city scenes with all kinds of urban props—people, their pets, parked cars, trees—anything and everything that he encounters while making his way across Beijing. Where SimCity’s urban facsimiles can feel joyless and sterile, Li’s works burst with spontaneous activity. "I use photos and videos to document the space, and what people do in the space," Li explains to Co. Design. The "raw materials" he collects on his perambulations find their way into the drawings, most enjoyably in the form of animated human figures, who, Li says, "complete" and vivify his city portraits.
Li "pens" buildings in a 3-D modeling program, then fills them in with blotches of color in Illustrator. As he adds characters, he sometimes invents delightful little scenarios—in "The Little Salt Restaurant," a clunky life-size robot ambles about a roadway, much to the delight of picture-taking passersby. But mostly he’s just documenting people engaged in daily activities. In "Xi Ba He," a small group of women practice tai chi at the foot of towering residential blocks, while in the "Noodle Shop," enterprising street vendors capitalize on the foot traffic and wave sticks of grilled meats at people nearby.
Especially cool is the way Li blurs the divide between street and interior by erasing opaque architectural components, such as a wall or roof, to reveal scenes of life inside. "I hope all these familiar details will touch people who see them and that they evoke some shared emotions," Li says. In his hands, buildings are reduced to receptacles for human activity. Their forms, however lovely, are secondary. Which isn’t to say that Li ignores the architecture. Quite the opposite: He dutifully articulates every facade, window ledge, and wall treatment.
But by pulling back away from the street, Li creates an unusual vantage point from which to contemplate Beijing. Whether or not you notice all of the details, it’s crucial to Li’s project that they’re available to be discovered.