Beijing's New Achitecture

When asked how he negotiates conflicting demands, Paul Andreu, architect of one of the most controversial buildings in China, answers with unapologetic candor. “I never compromise,” he says “I hate that word.” Andreu’s attitude allows him to create architecture as high art: radical, innovative, ambitious, expensive – uncompromising. In contemporary China he is hardly alone. As with the flourishing of all cosmopolitan metropolises, the rebirth of China’s cities is drawing in outsiders from all parts of the world. Foreign architects are flocking to the mainland, drawn by an unprecedented building boom. The country is spending 10% of it’s GDP on construction, using 54.7% of the world’s concrete and 36.1% of its steel. Perhaps even more important is the appetite for spectacular landmarks coupled with a unique openness to radical experimentation. “The Chinese aren't shocked by avant-garde designs," says Jacques Herzog, one of the architects behind the new Olympic stadium. While cities in the West are hobbled by caution and criticism, in China, it seems, anything is possible. The result is a new Chinese architecture of bizarre buildings at the cutting edge of form and technical engineering, made of seemingly impossible shapes, twists and curves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pre-Olympic capital. In Time magazine’s recent survey of the ten best (new or upcoming) architectural marvels, three are located in Beijing.

The Dragon
Most visitors to the Beijing games will arrive at the largest and most technologically advanced airport in the world. The building, which cost US$2 billion and took just under four years to complete, was created by Norman Foster and his London-based firm Foster & Partners. It is conceived as a celebration of flight. But this homage to high-tech futurism is steeped in Chinese tradition, using the imperial colors of gold and red and the dragon as an overarching design motif. With its aerodynamic roof, the ultramodern construction – especially when seen from the air -- appears as an ancient mythical creature about to take flight.

The Egg
The National Grand Theater will be equally prominent to most visitors, due to its location adjacent to the Great Hall of the People and only a stone throw away from Tiananmen Square. Architect Paul Andreu insists that the rounded curves of the theater echo the upward curves of the roofs of the Forbidden City. Yet the floating bubble of titanium and glass – dubbed ‘The Egg’ by locals -- appears as an alien cocoon, particularly when illuminated at night. The structure, which consists of an opera house, music hall and drama center, is completely surrounded by water. The building is accessed through an underground tunnel, which functions as a passage from the chaotic world of the street into the serene and exalted realm of culture.

The Hyperbuilding
The skyline of Beijing’s business district has also been transformed. It is already dominated by the (still incomplete) new headquarters for China’s state television CCTV.
Designed by Rem Koolhaas and his partner Ole Scheeren this building is, according to Koolhaas, an edifice “of unimaginable size and complexity." The CCTV headquarters is an experimental ‘hyperbuilding,’ part of Koolhaas’ “campaign to kill the skyscraper” which he sees as an important invention that has outlived its purpose. Rather than “competing in the hopeless race for ultimate height” the 500,000-sqm CCTV hyperbuilding consists of two L shaped towers linked by a giant archway in the sky. It aims to realize an architecture of extreme density, not through height alone, but through a massive – and intrinsically diverse -- trapezoidal loop. The building has 55 levels, no two of which share the same floor plan. It will accomodate all of the station’s 10,000 employees and contain, in a single structure, all of its production and administrative functions. In so doing it is meant to comprise its own city within the urban core. According to Koolhaas, the building also seeks to encourage the mutation of CCTV itself. The relatively closed state run company will be opened up through architectural links that connect all the processes of production as well as guaranteeing public access through a media park and a third tower -- the Television Cultural Center (TVCC) -- which includes a hotel, a visitor's center, a large public theatre and exhibition spaces.
The Bird’s Nest
The staggering innovations that characterize Beijing’s new architecture extend, of course, to the buildings designed for the games themselves. The Olympic stadium was designed by the Swiss team Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog, most famous for the restoration of London's Tate Modern. One of China’s best-known contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei, served as artistic consultant for the project. The structure is built from over 40,000 tons of steel and at one point is said to have engaged over 7,000 workers on site. The 80,000 seat arena consists of a giant red concrete bowl. Yet even this impressive interior is overshadowed by the structure and fašade. These two functions are ingeniously conjoined in a giant web of intricate twists that make up the building’s steel exo-skeleton.

The Water Cube
Next to the stadium is the equally innovative National Aquatics center, which will house the Olympic water sports and be transformed into an entertainment venue after the games. The massive square-shaped structure was designed by the Australian firm PTW, and funded primarily with money from overseas Chinese. Like the stadium, its most notable feature is its external membrane. Designed to mirror the organic form of soap bubbles, the molecular exterior is constructed out of lightweight panels made from a translucent plastic known as ETFE. This high-tech eco-sensitive material allows for the pools to be heated through solar energy. At night a massive LED system will transform the bubbly surface into a dramatic kaleidoscope.

Before he started work on the CCTV headquarters, Rem Koolhaas had to choose between designing a commemorative site at The World Trade Centre in New York and entering the competition in Beijing. He chose to work in the Chinese capital, he says, because he is more interested in the future than the past. "Our creativity in cities stopped just as China's cities started to boom," Koolhaas is quoted as saying. "We ceased looking to the future and started looking back.”

Another visionary architect Zaha Hadid has designed a scheme for SOHO, a one million square meter life-work complex on the South East corner of the fourth outer ring road. Envisioned as an alternative to the gated monotonous residential estates, which, Hadid writes “threatens to suffocate Beijing’s metropolitan potential,” Soho promises to be a sci-fi community with “built in complexity.” It will, she says, not be controlled by a rigid grid but instead be based on an “elastic geometry” which allows fluid buildings to form “dynamic swarms.”

Beijing’s hyperbuilding, its liquid formations, its birds nest and its egg have transformed this city of traditional gardens and imperial architecture into a laboratory for the future of urban design. The way people will live, work and play in these constructions – the new worlds that will hatch from this new architecture – will occupy the attention of urban theorists and ordinary observers alike for decades to come.