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Travel guide to Beijing

October 27, 2012 /

Beijing, China

Beijing-sanlitun-soho.jpgSanlitun Soho. Photo: Joachim Alexander Åresøn

Beijing is on the move. Constantly. You can't turn your back on this 20 million-some metropolis without new buildings shooting up, old sites being demolished, neighborhoods transformed or new subway-lines extended.

Being one of the oldest capitals in the world, the location of China's cultural, educational and political centers for centuries, the city is a unique study in urban planning on a massive scale. Beijing is known for its booming modern "starchitecture", alongside opulent imperial palaces and temples, and its often poorly built, massive scale Chinese communist-style blocks, dating from the 1950s to 1970s.  

A tour through the architecture of Beijing is a tour through the country's socio-economic development over the centuries: the perfectly laid out imperial palace dominating the people from its pedestal; the communist twist with its navel-gazing planned economy and glorification of its leaders; and now the world economy let loose, with foreign investors on the rampage. Viewing Beijing architecture is like time travelling through China's many dynasties. Not always what westerners would judge beautiful and worthy of copying, but interesting and fascinating - not least in terms of scale and building efficiency.

Many of the projects we have cast our eyes on in this guide are part of the growing Beijing skyline. Most of the contemporary projects seem to be constructed according to a "higher = better" philosophy, twisted into a futuristic, smooth, spacecraft-like glass design. For example, in the Central Business District - the architects' playground - numerous star-reaching projects are shooting up, many designed by foreign practices: the canonized national broadcasting headquarters (the CCTV), the three-phased China World Trade Center and several of the SOHO-investment projects, to name but some.

National Center for Performing Arts (NCPA)
Completed in 2007 the National Center for Performing Arts (also known as the Bird's Egg) hosts the national opera house (2416 seats), a concert hall (2017 seats), two theatres (one with 1040 seats) and various public spaces.Constructed as a 46 meter-high ellipsoid dome, and completely surrounded by an artificial lake, the theatre seems to hover above the water, at once unapproachable and alluring. It's like a floating, see-through egg, hence its nickname "The Egg".

Broken by a glass curtain, gradually widening from top to bottom, the building looks like a futuristic, half-squashed, ying-yang bubble, but at night this combination of simplicity and intelligent light design creates a beautiful nocturnal spectacle.

Guests arrive at the main entrance via the 80 meter-long corridor beneath the lake. A glass ceiling allows light to shimmer through the lake, creating a lively scene both under and above water. The floor in the foyer is covered in stone from 10 different regions in China, while the interior walls are lined with tens of thousands of panels of Brazilian rosewood, which give the interior a warm and welcoming feel.

This extremely simple and futuristic building has had a troubled history. Its exterior was accused of being inhumane, like an alien invading the historic city center. Designed by French architect Paul Andreu, famous for his design of numerous airports, the building could be mistaken for a transport hub, but Andreu's goal was to create an immediately recognizable iconic feature. This is what he did. Located just next to the Great Hall of People and not far from the Forbidden City this futuristic design, while initially controversial, has now been generally accepted as part of modern Beijing life.

Location: West of Tiananmen Square

See video with images fron the building and its interior


More information about whats on at the National Center for Performing Arts

Website: Paul Andreu

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Beijing Opera. Photo: Eva Bjerring

National Library (NLC). Second phase
The China National Library has a worldwide reputation, being the largest library in Asia and the second in the world, surpassed only by the Library of Congress in the USA. Phase II is a 77,000 m2 extension to the original National Library of Beijing, which dates from 1909. Completed in 2008, and designed by German KSP Jürgen Engel Architekten, this extension holds 12 million books and is visited by an estimated 12,000 people a day.

The design of the library is centered around the historically important "Si Ku Quan Shu" collection (Complete Library of the Four Branches of Literature) and the building spins around its core as if creating a frame around this cultural history. The interior wooden panels and their orange color give the center a warm feel, in contrast to the straight-lined steel boxes structures.

The third floor gives one a complete overview of the entire library building, the warm study zones and the extensive steel structure, while at night the glow of the long, flat, box-like exterior adds a horizontal break to this somewhat vertical city.

The glass section between the pedestal and the roof stands for the present and the passing on of the historical legacy, while the 27 meter-high building is crowned by a hovering roof structure, which houses the digital library and the large reading room with around 2,000 seats.

Location: 33 Zhongguancun Nandajie, Haidian District, Beijing

Website: KSP Jürgen Engel Architekten

beijing-library.jpgNational Library Photo: Bgu61
Central China TV (CCTV)

The OMA studios look like a lively 3D exercise in an Escher perspective. It is a building with no end, twisting it self in defiance of gravity and sense. The looped, illogical skyscraper was conceived as a reinvention of the genre, an earth-bound skyscraper or, more radically, an anti-skyscraper. Designed by architects Rem Koolhas and Ole Scheeren, the CCTV is OMA's largest project ever, and their first major building in China.

The CCTV houses the national broadcasting headquarters, and was to be one of the first of 300 towers in the new Beijing CBD skyline. It was planned to open for the 2008 Olympic Games, but due to a devastating fire in the neighboring Television Cultural Center (TVCC) in 2009, completion was delayed. The CCTV was finished in May 2012.

Six horizontal and vertical sections form the main design, looking like two L-shaped high-rise towers, linked at the top and bottom. At its highest it reaches 234 meters and contains 54 floors. From the ground sections, as the two towers rise, they lean towards each other, merging 162 meters above ground in a perpendicular cantilever. The building has thus been variously nicknamed: "the Z criss-cross", "the Twisted Donut" and "the Boxer's underpants".

A web of triangulated steel tubes gives the buildings it diverse, irregular, diagrid façade pattern, highlighting the buildings' structure - dense in areas of greater stress, and looser in less strained areas. The building is a great study in floating, self-supporting heaviness and must be seen to be believed.

Location: East Third Ring Road / Guanghua Road

Website: OMA

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CCTV. Photo: Joachim Alexander Åresøn

2008 Olympic Games City
The Olympic Green north of the city center is a prime example of Chinese efficiency and extravagance. 12 venues were constructed specifically for use at the Games. The Olympic City shot up at an unbelievable speed. 

Most famous are the iconic, 91,000-seat Beijing National Stadium (popularly known as the "Bird's Nest") and the national aquatics center, the Water Cube. Both are astounding constructions, looking more like art pieces than regular sport stadiums, and are well worth a visit, especially at night.

beijing-bird-nest.jpgBird Nest. Photo: Tom Nguyen 


The Birds' Nest

The building was inspired by Chinese ceramics and designed to be the centerpiece of the Olympic project. The steel beams, the role of which was to conceal the supports for the retractable roof, seem to have been tossed around randomly and resemble a huge pile of pick-a-sticks or, more delicately put, a huge bird's nest.

The stadium was designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron in collaboration with Chinese provo-artist Ai Wei Wei who later, it is claimed, compared the stadium to a giant toilet seat. None the less, the stunning steel structure is tossed, twisted and rounded in such a manner that the somewhat often cold and hard material comes alive, looking like a warm and welcoming home for the imaginary huge bird. At night, illuminated in red and orange, the building looks even warmer and more inviting.

Location: The Olympic Green, Chaoyang district

Website: Herzog & deMeuron

Beijing-bird-nest-4.jpg
Bird Nest. Photo: Scott MeltzerBeijing-bird-nest-2.jpg
Bird Nest. Photo: Eva BjerringBeijing-bird-nest-3.jpg
Bird Nest. Photo: Eva Bjerring

The Water Cube
Venue for the swimming, diving, synchronized swimming and water polo events, the National Aquatics Centre (or "Water Cube") resembles a huge Tupperware container, bursting with gigantic soap bubbles. The design evolved as a team effort. The Chinese CCDI partners wanted the building to be square, in reference to classical imperial Beijing architecture, and in contrast to the rounded Bird's Nest. Sydney-based PTW Architects then designed the "cube" to incorporate bubbles, as a symbol of water. The facade design is based on the 3-dimensional, geometrical, Weaire-Phelan structure, while the pattern is developed as if sliding through soap bubbles, resulting in a somewhat irregular, organic pattern. So the building looks more like an architects' playground than a traditional swimming stadium.

Location: the Olympic Green, Chaoyang district

Website: Ptw

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Water Cube. Photo: Alberto Alerigi

beijing-water-cube-2.jpgWater Cube. Photo: Pascal 3012
Hutong bubble 32

The narrow hutong streets are the most vibrant, living testimony to the ancient, coal-heated Beijing, and a great opportunity to witness the ancient Chinese Feng Sui architecture. But the hutongs and the traditional courtyard residences (the "siheyuan") in the city center are fast disappearing, and giving way to high-cost real estate.

MAD studio's little tin blob in a hutong courtyard is an example of how to meet this challenge with just a small twist. The Bubble was originally created as an idea sketch for the Beijing 2050 future vision. First revealed at the exhibition "MAD IN CHINA", at the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale, it was not initially intended to become a real life building. But three years after being showcased in Venice, the Hutong Bubble 32 emerged in 2009, containing a private toilet and a staircase to the roof top garden, both of which were innovations in the hutong district.

With its metallic, alien aircraft-like shine and its reflections of the neighboring greenery, the Bubble seems almost to disappear into the surroundings. It represents a link between modern and traditional architecture, a vibrant and humorous reinterpretation of the ancient neighborhood. You cannot help but smile, when you see it. At the same time, it provides a serious and well-conceived answer to some of the huge challenges, which urban Beijing is facing.

China's rapid growth is transforming the city landscape at a pace incomprehensible to most people, forcing traditional residential architecture to rely on unauthorized, spontaneous renovation, in order to survive the massive changes. Alternatively, the historic buildings are simply razed to the ground. In addition, poor standards of hygiene have created a serious urban health problem in these old neighborhoods. Thus the private toilet in the Bubble is a simple, but extremely significant element, suggesting a radical improvement of living conditions for the residents, while the design seems to breathe new energy into the neighborhood and is the most talked-about subject in the small streets.

Location: No. 32 Beibingmasi Hutong, Dongcheng District

Website: MAD architects

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Bubble: Photo: Joachim Alexander Åresøn

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Bubble. Photo: Joachim Alexander Åresøn

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Bubble. Photo: Joachim Alexander Åresøn
Galaxy SOHO

Scattered around the city, the SOHO-projects symbolize China's most visible and lavish property developers, the SOHO China Limited, SOHO being the acronym of Small Office/Home Office. Of the increasing number of SOHOs, the Jianwai SOHO, Sanlitun SOHO and the Galaxy SOHO from 2012 stand out as the most prestigious and impressive. They all unfold as linked building volumes, making the overall projects massive in scale.

Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the Galaxy SOHO is a 330,000 m2 office, retail and entertainment complex, which opened in the fall of 2012. Its four main compositions resemble huge cocoons, bulging and swirling into each other, and creating a massive complex of soft flowing structures without corners or abrupt transitions. Especially at night, when bathed in soft light, this flowing building has a wonderfully playful and warm feel to it.

The interior reflects traditional Chinese architecture, with courtyards creating internal open spaces (a reference to neighboring hutong courtyards) and following the same coherent formal logic of continuous curve linearity as the overall building.

Video from opening ceremony

Location: Soho, Beijing, next to 2nd ring road and subway station 'Chaoyangmen'.

Website: Zaha Hadid Architects

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Galaxy Soho. Photo: Joachim Alexander Åresøn
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Jianwai Soho. Photo: Joachim Alexander ÅresønBeijing-jianwai-soho-2.jpgJianwai Soho. Photo: Joachim Alexander Åresøn
Art districts 798 and Caochangdi

Getting tired of glass and steel, finance districts and rush hours? So go visit the vibrant 798 Art District, or taxi on to the new, edgier (some would say "real") art district, the Caochangdi. Both areas are characterized by a special combination of nostalgic weariness and new hot art. The contrast comes as a relief after the sleekness and steel, which characterize most of Beijing's new architecture.

The 798 is located in a cluster of 50-year old military factory buildings, which are interesting in themselves. The factory was build as a joint venture between China and East Germany, and the Germans found great inspiration in Bauhaus design, a departure from the heavier, monumental Soviet style. The "form-follows-function" philosophy and the ideal of "healthy-workspace-ensures-efficient-workers" called for large indoor spaces with a maximum amount of natural light. All the windows face north, in order to reduce drop shadows.

These large, arched building made the perfect home for the homeless Chinese avant-garde art scene. So, in the early 1990s, when the factory closed due to lack of government support, the more flamboyant "workers" moved in. First movers and important institutes, such as the Central Academy of Fine Arts, chose to reside here, thus initiating the area's new era as an artistic hotbed.

The 798 now functions as the heart of Beijing's artistic and cultural community. Its importance in the contemporary Chinese art scene is unparalleled and the 798 has served as a stepping stone into the international art scene for several now famous Chinese artists.

Many of the original inhabitants of the avant-garde movement do feel though that the area has become too commercialized and too much of a tourist attraction. So they are moving on to the new rising star within the art and design scene, the Caochangdi. It is well worth the traveling out of the city center to visit this district.

Location: 798, Dashanzi, Chaoyang

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798. Photo: Leeulv
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Pace. Photo: Johannes Nygaard

Last updated: December 19, 2013

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