What the future holds for Beijing's architecture 2004-05-08 15:02:16

     BEIJING, May 8, (Xinhuanet) -- You are in a city like no other on
earth. Beijing is not the New York of China, nor the London of northeast
Asia, nor the Mexico City of the Orient. Within a few years it may
resemble the set of Blade Runner or Fritz Lang's Metropolis more than
any of those places.

     Consider that by 2008, the following are some of the ambitious
projects that will be completed in the capital: More than ten million
square metres of construction in the CBD (the area around the China
World complex); 148.5 kilometres of new light rail and subway tracks,
giving the city a total of 202 kilometres; the Fifth Ring Road, the
Sixth Ring Road and the Beijing-Miyun Expressway, giving Beijing 718
kilometres of expressways and thousands of kilometres of motorways; the
construction and expansion of 318 kilometres of downtown urban streets.

     Those figures are compiled from Xinhua reports and statistics
released by the Beijing Organising Committee for the Games of the XXIX
Olympiad (or BOCOG). Different sets of numbers are reported in
newspapers in China and abroad on an almost daily basis, and that is one
of the problems when trying to figure out what this city will look like
in a few year's time: everything is in a state of flux.

     There motivations behind the construction of new infrastructure
projects and new are different buildings: some of them are designed to
alleviate problems that have been building for years, others have been
planned especially for the Olympics, but built in the hope that they
will contribute to the city's environment long after the athletes and
spectators have departed. No matter what the results may be, Beijing in
2008 will be dramatically different from the city we know today. Let's
take a closer look:

A Good First Impression

     The Beijing International Airport received its last facelift in
1999 based on designs by the Beijing Institute of Architecture and
Design (BIAD). There is currently a new plan for the construction of a
third terminal that will do more than just increase capacity, it will
provide the first impression of Beijing, and China as a whole, for
arriving passengers.

     The design is by Norman Foster whose credits include the HSBC
building, Hong Kong's airport at Chek Lap and the notoriously phallic
Swiss Re building in London (otherwise known as the Gherkin). The
airport itself is not the only facility getting changed. Whereas now the
only way to get from Beijing's airport to the city is on shuttle buses
or in not-always-fragrant cabs, by 2008 there will be a light railway
going all the way to Dongzhimen, where a new public transport
interchange is already in the early stages of construction.

     Beijing's transportation plans are vital to the sustainability of
its ferocious urbanisation. The Dongzhimen interchange will link the
airport to the city's subway system, long distance bus stations, and of
course to the Olympic village. The rest of Beijing's plans for transport
infrastructure include expanding the subway system, with two new lines
to be operational by the Olympics and many more post-Games, as well as
increasing road capacity along several major routes currently
intersecting the city.

     Skeptics, however, are already raising questions about the
efficiency of such massive transport interchanges, pointing out that
existing transportation hubs at Dongzhimen and Xizhimen are already
over-congested. A source close to the project noted that adding to the
capacity of these hubs would not ease traffic congestion but increase
pressure on them. In the case of Dongzhimen especially, its proximity to
the airport may make it less efficient because it will be the only link
to the airport. Compounded with the congestion of roads and the crowded
subway that take people from other places in the city to Dongzhimen, it
is unlikely that people will be attracted to making a special journey to
Dongzhimen just to get on a train: Car owners are more likely to
continue driving the extra 20 minutes to the airport.

     Another interesting feature of the area will be the future contrast
between international travellers arriving from the airport, people from
the countryside arriving on long-distance buses, and the upmarket
residents of new apartment buildings surrounding the Dongzhimen
interchange. The would-be upscale mall and apartment complex Oriental
Kenzo, just south of Dongzhimen, is already open for business. Renowned
film director Zhang Yimou recently bought the entire top floor of MOMA,
a new development still in construction just north of Dongzhimen that is
being sold as environmentally friendly, because of water recycling
equipment and green heating technologies.

     From Dongzhimen it will be possible to take the subway, light
railway or bus to the Olympic Village. The two most notable Olympic
projects are the Olympic Stadium, nicknamed 'Bird's Nest' and the
National Swimming Centre, also known as the 'Water Cube.' The Bird's
Nest was designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & De Meuron. This firm's
previous projects include the renovation of an old power station on the
banks of the Thames in London, which was turned into the Tate Modern Art
Museum. Herzog & De Meuron also won last year's Sterling Prize for
Architecture for their design of the Laban Dance Centre in a rundown
area of London.

     The Water Cube was designed by PTW, an Australian firm that
designed the International Athletics Centre and the Aquatic Centre of
the 2000 Sydney Games, together with Ove Arup Engineering. PTW has
completed many projects in China and maintains offices in Shanghai and
Beijing. Ove Arup is the renowned architectural engineering firm that is
single-handedly responsible for the engineering work of the majority of
new showcase projects in Beijing, including the airport's new terminal,
the Dongzhimen interchange, and the new CCTV headquarters.

Tower of Power

     This building will probably become a must-see tourist site for
Olympic visitors. The CCTV building is like nothing China, and indeed
the world, has ever seen. It will challenge people's perceptions of the
roles that such grand architectural projects, all designed by foreign
architects, have in China. The CCTV project was designed by OMA, the
studio led by Rem Koolhaas. In the 1980s and '90s, Koolhaas was the
enfant terrible of international architecture who made his name by
writing books such as Delirious New York before any of his major designs
were actually constructed. Koolhaas' credits include the Prada flagship
store in New York and the Dutch embassy in Berlin. He is now on the
commission charged with designing new headquarters for the European

     Interestingly enough, while the CCTV headquarters may become the
most avant-garde building in Beijing, Koolhaas has also been selected to
write a report on the demolition and preservation of Beijing's hutongs,
and how best to preserve them while keeping pace with the city's need to

     In the case of the CCTV building, some of the problems and
criticisms it has faced are representative of the difficulties facing
international architectural firms coming to China: that their designs
are not Chinese enough, and that these ambitious projects are allowing
foreign architects to use China as an experimental playground for
designs that they will never have to inhabit.

Walking on the Eggshell

     One of the most controversial new buildings is the new National
Theatre, designed by French architect Paul Andreu and nicknamed the
'Eggshell,' on the west side of the Great Hall of the People at
Tian'anmen Square. Paul Andreu's previous works include the Osaka
Maritime Museum and the Dubai airport.

     The oval dome of the theatre is already nearing completion and is a
striking contrast to its surroundings. Complaints about the building
have included objections that it ruins the feng shui of central Beijing,
and that it matches neither the Great Hall of the People nor the
traditional housing surrounding the nearby Forbidden City. Yet China's
modern city planning has always looked to the West, starting from the
grid plan of urban housing in cities like Tianjin, Shanghai and Harbin,
to the more recent highways reminiscent of America's spaghetti
junctions. Beijing's choice of cutting-edge international architects is
a predictable manifestation of its desire to enter the modern world
stage, and of what China perceives 'modern' to mean at the beginning of
the 21st Century. With the Olympics as its greatest chance to showcase
itself to the world, one cannot but expect notable, grand, and
eye-catching projects.

     In the Red Zone

     Although these projects are truly Olympian in scale, and no matter
how much it may appear that Beijing's skyline will be fantastic and
futuristic, they may just end up being isolated reminders of the 2008
Games. The establishment of the Olympic Village has indeed helped push
up property prices in the area to those matching the CBD, but it is
still a long way from being a social or community centre of Beijing's
northern districts. With the project needing to recoup its initial
investment and remain financially viable post-Olympics, facilities such
as the Water Cube will be hired out or used as ultra-high-class gyms.
All indications from the financial directors of Beijing's Olympic Games
to the media are that their primary focus is on making them commercially

     The organisers have looked to the Barcelona Games as a model and
hope the 2008 Games will raise the profile of the Chinese capital as the
Games did for Barcelona in 1992. The Olympics did more for Barcelona
than for any other Olympic city, mostly because its mayor saw the Games
as an opportunity to develop and address underlying problems of the city
as a whole. Barcelonans now occupy the villas where athletes lived, and
the Olympic Village is a fully integrated, thriving part of the city,
and a magnet for business and the arts. It is hard at this stage to
imagine that Beijing will come to the same end, though the momentum and
impetus to change the city is plainly there.

     One of the other problems facing the Olympic projects is a
discrepancy between these world-name architects, and problems with
workmanship and getting high quality materials. The architects have in
mind a full vision of how their buildings will look, right down to the
last detail and the texture of the materials, which doesn't always work
out in the finished product.

     The Silver Lining

     Nonetheless, the current phase of Olympic-driven development
certainly presents the city with many opportunities. There is a
regulation in place that specifies all foreign architectural firms must
work with a Chinese partner. This presents an unprecedented opportunity
for interaction between Chinese and foreign architects and potentially
bodes well for a new, cosmopolitan generation of Chinese architects.

     This is already happening. Some private sector property developers
are pushing the architectural envelope with bold designs that are a
radical departure from the poured concrete blocks and ersatz Chinese
roofs that characterized late twentieth century urban Chinese design.
One noticeable success in this respect is CLASS, an apartment complex
near Wangjing in northeast Beijing. Trading on its unique designs alone,
CLASS has managed to sell all its flats at prices comparable to those in
the CBD despite its relatively disadvantageous location. The previously
mentioned MOMA, Central Park in the CBD (a Hong Kong Land project), and
Park Avenue (built by American construction firm Hines) are all examples
of the private sector showing an awareness of high quality construction
and design.

     The developer that pioneered this approach is SOHO China, headed by
the media-savvy husband and wife team Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin. SOHO
first made its name with the Commune by the Great Wall project, which
won Pan and Zhang awards at the Venice Biennale last year for their
support of modern architecture, the first time Chinese nationals have
received such international acclaim.

     SOHO has gone on to create SOHO New Town (Xiandaicheng) and the
just-completed Jianwai SOHO, both of which appear at this stage to have
been financially successful, as well as unique in their vision of
building new modern complexes. Both projects have explicitly marketed
themselves on the basis of their designs, using renowned architects in
their bid to introduce high-quality international standard housing to
Beijing. They are also projects that directly affect the living
standards of Beijing residents, though of course only available to
certain high-income earners.

     SOHO has now embarked on one of the largest and most ambitious
private- sector architectural projects in the world: SOHO City. Situated
to the southeast of Beijing next to the highway to Tianjin, SOHO City
will be a million square metre community of apartments, offices, shops
and parks. The project is being designed by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi born
British architect who has just been awarded the Pritzker Prize, the
architectural equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Hadid's previous work
includes designs for the just-opened Rosenthal Centre For Contemporary
Art in Cincinnati and the Central Building of the BMW Plant in Leipzig.

     SOHO City comprises a variety of different buildings, all of them
asymmetrical, which are supposed to flow together and facilitate the
flow of people and activities. It is hoped that SOHO City will become a
thriving micro-city, with its own socio-cultural life, that will grow
organically without contributing to congestion and other problems
associated with Beijing's development. As always with projects before
they are fully realised, one will have to wait until SOHO City is built
and inhabited before judging its marketing claims.

     But more importantly, the private property sector players show that
investment in good quality housing is both sought-after and financially
successful. This bodes well for the future of urban design in what is
still the world's most populous nation.

     So when the first visitors arrive for the Olympics in 2008, will
they find themselves in a city that resembles an anime Neo-Tokyo? Will
the city work as a place to live or will it be a mere showcase for
international architecture? Will there be anything distinctively Chinese
left of Beijing?

     These questions are impossible to answer. What is certain is that
in the next few years, Beijing will continue to be a world hot spot for
avant-garde architecture, and a living experiment in the construction of
a twenty first century city.Enditem

(That's Beijing)