top ten Chinese modern architecture
Top Ten Essential Architecture
China's New Architectural Wonders

When global audiences tune in to watch the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the world's fastest and strongest athletes won't be alone in striving for superlative achievements -- a new generation of innovative architecture is rising in China. Fueled by a surging economy (the latest Chinese census, released on Dec. 20, says the country's GDP is $1.93 trillion, or 16.8% higher than previously measured), China will soon be home to the world's largest airport, the world's first fully sustainable city, and the world's highest outdoor observation deck, to name just a few of its innovative architectural feats.

With spending on China's residential building construction growing at 7.1% annually and nonresidential construction activity increasing by 7.4% (according to Cleveland-based researchers the Freedonia Group), the world's most populated country is experiencing a building boom of unprecedented scale.

The phenomenon is reaching beyond Beijing and Shanghai. As The New York Times recently reported, even the lesser-known northern city of Harbin is remaking itself with a new urban center. Built from scratch, a virtually instant skyline of residential and commercial skyscrapers is starting to sprout within a 285-square-mile area.

PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES. Still, it's Beijing and Shanghai, the nation's most populous cities, that are attracting the most attention. The roster of talent hired to complete projects in these two megacities reads like a Who's Who of star architects: Holland's Rem Koolhaas, Switzerland's Herzog & de Meuron, and Britain's Foster & Partners are all completing buildings scheduled to debut by the time the Olympic torch is lit.

But more remarkable than the architects' names are the projects themselves. The CCTV tower designed by Koolhaas, resembles nothing so much as a skyscraper tumbling into a somersault and required an entirely new structural system. The new Olympic stadium by Herzog & de Meuron -- nicknamed "the bird's nest" -- will be the world's largest "green" sports arena.

The following 10 projects range from residential to infrastructure. Each, in its way, pushes the boundaries of the architectural status quo. Together, they represent the wonders rising on the skyline of the new China.

With thanks to
1 The Commune, Beijing  
First phase completed 2002, expansion scheduled for completion in 2010
Even if the Commune didn't sit beside that wonder of the ancient world, the Great Wall of China, it would still qualify as a wonder. The complex includes houses by 12 of Asia's leading architects. It was conceived by married real-estate developers Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi, who gave each architect a $1 million budget. Shigeru Ban, the Japanese architect most famous for the paper houses he designed for refugees of the Kobe earthquake, designed the Furniture House, featuring the laminated plywood typically used for modular furniture, and China's Yung Ho Chang created the Split House, which takes the idea of a boxy dwelling, slices it in half, and spreads it out like a fan.

The Commune is now operated as a boutique hotel by the Germany luxury hotel group Kempinski, which is responsible for an upcoming expansion, which will feature 21 homes (including replications of the originals). One element will remain untouched in the new development: the Commune's private pedestrian trails, which trace untouched sections of the Great Wall.
2 Beijing International Airport, Beijing  
Foster & Partners. Under construction, to be completed in late 2007
According to the U.S. Embassy to China, the country will be building 108 new airports between 2004 and 2009 -- including what will be the world's largest: the Beijing International Airport, designed by Foster & Partners. Set to open at the end of 2007, in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the airport terminal will cover more than 1 million square meters, giving it a bigger footprint than the Pentagon.

It's designed to handle 43 million passengers a year initially and 55 million by 2015, figures that will probably push the new facility into the ranks of the top 10 busiest airports, going by the 2004 numbers from the Airports Council International. Given the scale and traffic, Foster & Partners focused on the traveler's experience, making sure that walking distances are short, for instance.

Building on Foster's experience designing Hong Kong's new mega-airport, the massive Chek Lap Kok, the sprawling Beijing terminal is housed under a single roof. To help passengers distinguish between different sections of the vast space, skylights cast different shades of yellow and red light across walls -- a subtle but innovative navigational aid. The architects also kept sustainability in mind: An environmental-control system reduces carbon emissions, and skylights situated on a south-east axis lessen solar heat, keeping the building cool.
3 Shanghai World Financial Center, Shanghai  
Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects. Under construction, completion scheduled for 2008
Rising in the Lujiazhui financial district in Pudong, the Shanghai World Financial Center is a tower among towers. The elegant 101-story skyscraper will be (for a moment, at least) the world's tallest when completed in early 2008.

One of the biggest challenges of building tall is creating a structure that can withstand high winds. The architects devised an innovation solution to alleviate wind pressure by adding a rectangular cut-out at the building's apex. Not only does the open area help reduce the building's sway but it also will be home to the world's highest outdoor observation deck -- a 100th-floor vista that will take vertigo to new heights.
4 National Aquatics Centre, Beijing  
PTW and Ove Arup. Under construction, completion scheduled for 2008
The striking exterior of the National Swimming Center, being constructed for the 2008 Olympic Games and nicknamed, the "Water Cube," is made from panels of a lightweight form of Teflon that transforms the building into an energy-efficient greenhouse-like environment. Solar energy will also be used to heat the swimming pools, which are designed to reuse double-filtered, backwashed pool water that's usually dumped as waste.

Excess rainwater will also be collected and stored in subterranean tanks and used to fill the pools. The complex engineering system of curvy steel frames that form the structure of the bubble-like skin are based on research into the structural properties of soap bubbles by two physicists at Dublin's Trinity College. The unique structure is designed to help the building withstand nearly any seismic disruptions.
5 Central Chinese Television CCTV, Beijing  
OMA/Ole Scheeren and Rem Koolhaas. Under construction, scheduled for completion in 2008
The design of the new Central Chinese Television (CCTV) headquarters defies the popular conception of a skyscraper -- and it broke Beijing's building codes and required approval by a special review panel. The standard systems for engineering gravity and lateral loads in buildings didn't apply to the CCTV building, which is formed by two leaning towers, each bent 90 degrees at the top and bottom to form a continuous loop.

The engineer's solution is to create a structural "tube" of diagonal supports. The irregular pattern of this "diagrid" system reflects the distribution of forces across the tube's surface. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren and engineered by Ove Arup, the new CCTV tower rethinks what a skyscraper can be.

6 Linked Hybrid, Beijing  
Steven Holl Architects; Li Hu, lead architect. Groundbreaking on December 28, 2005, scheduled for completion in 2008
Linked Hybrid, which will house 2,500 people in 700 apartments covering 1.6 million square feet, is a model for large-scale sustainable residential architecture. The site will feature one of the world's largest geothermal cooling and heating systems, which will stabilize the temperature within the complex of eight buildings, all linked at the 20th floor by a "ring" of service establishments, like cafés and dry cleaners. A set of dual pipes pumps water from 100 meters below ground, circulating the liquid between the buildings' concrete floors.

The result: The water-circulation system serves as a giant radiator in the winter and cooling system in the summer. It has no boilers to supply heat, no electric air conditioners to supply cool. The apartments also feature gray-water recycling -- a process that's just starting to catch on in Beijing in much smaller buildings -- to filter waste water from kitchen sinks and wash basins back into toilets.
7 Dongtan Eco City, Dongtan, Shanghai  
Masterplan by Arup, for the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corp. In planning stages, first phase to be completed in 2010
Developed by the Shanghai Industrial investment Corp., Dongtan Eco City, roughly the size of Manhattan, will be the world's first fully sustainable cosmopolis when completed in 2040. Like Manhattan, it's situated on an island -- the third-largest in China. Located on the Yangtze River, Dongtan is within close proximity of the bustle of Shanghai.

By the time the Shanghai Expo trade fair opens in 2010, the city's first phase should be completed, and 50,000 residents will call Dongtan home-sweet-sustainable-home. The goals to be accomplished in the next five years: systems for water purification, waste management, and renewable energy. An infrastructure of roads will connect the former agricultural land with Shanghai.
8 Beijing National Stadium, Beijing  
Herzog & de Meuron. Under construction, to be completed in 2008
Sports stadiums have long followed the enduring design of one of the original wonders of the world, Rome's Coliseum. Herzog & de Meuron's National Stadium in Beijing is an attempt to rethink the classic sports-arena layout for more ecologically correct times.

The Swiss architects (of Tate Modern fame) wanted to provide natural ventilation for the 91,000-seat structure -- perhaps the largest "eco-friendly" sports stadium designed to date. To achieve this, they set out to create a building that could function without a strictly enclosed shell, yet also provide constant shelter for the audience and athletes alike.

To solve these design problems, they looked to nature for inspiration. The stadium's outer grid resembles a bird's nest constructed of delicately placed branches and twigs. Each discrete space within the facility, from restrooms to restaurants, is constructed as an independent unit within the outer lattice -- making it possible to encase the entire complex with an open grid that allows for natural air circulation. The architects also incorporated a layer of translucent membrane to fill any gaps in the lacy exterior.
9 Donghai Bridge, Shanghai/Yangshan Island  
China Zhongtie Major Bridge Engineering Group, Shanghai # 2 Engineering Co., Shanghai Urban Construction Group. Officially opened in December, 2005
A key phase in the development of the world's largest deep-sea port was completed when China's first cross-sea bridge -- the 20-mile, six-lane Donghai Bridge -- was officially opened in December, 2005. Stretching across the East China Sea, the graceful cable-stay structure connects Shanghai to Yangshan Island, set to become China's first free-trade port (and the world's largest container port) upon its completion in 2010.

To provide a safer driving route in the typhoons and high waves known to hit the region, Donghai Bridge is designed in an S-shape. The structure, reported by Shanghai Daily to have cost $1.2 billion, will hold its title of China's -- and one of the world's -- longest over-sea bridge for only a couple of years, though. In 2008, the nearby 22-mile Hangzhou Bay Transoceanic Bridge, which also begins (or ends, depending on your journey) in Shanghai, will earn the superlative.
10 National Grand Theater, Beijing  
Paul Andreu and ADP. Under construction, to be completed in 2008
Located near Tiananmen Square, the 490,485-square-foot glass-and-titanium National Grand Theater, scheduled to open in 2008, seems to float above a man-made lake. Intended to stand out amid the Chinese capital's bustling streets and ancient buildings, the structure has garnered criticism among Bejing's citizens for clashing with classic landmarks like the Monument to the People's Heroes (dedicated to revolutionary martyrs), the vast home of the National People's Congress, or Tiananmen Gate itself (the Gate of Heavenly Peace).

French architect Paul Andreu is no stranger to controversy -- or to innovative forms. A generation ago, in 1974, his untraditional design for Terminal 1 of Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport was criticized for its unusual curves, yet Andreu's groundbreaking, futuristic building later was seen to distinguish de Gaulle from more generic European and international air hubs. (The same airport's Terminal 2E, also designed by Andreu, gained attention in 2004 when it collapsed, tragically killing four people.)

Beijing's daring National Grand Theater is as much a spectacle as the productions that will be staged inside in the 2,416-seat opera house, the 2,017-seat concert hall, and the 1,040-seat theater. At night, the semi-transparent skin will give passersby a glimpse at the performance inside one of three auditoriums, a feature that highlights the building's public nature.
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Forbidden Cities
Beijing’s great new architecture is a mixed blessing for the city.
by Paul Goldberger June 30, 2008 Copyright

The new CCTV building is known by some locals as Big Shorts.

The city planner Edmund Bacon once described Beijing as “possibly the greatest single work of man on the face of the earth.” When he was there, in the nineteen-thirties, you could still see that the city, from the walls surrounding it to the emperor’s Forbidden City at its heart, was conceived as a totality—a work of monumental geometry, symmetrical and precise. Even the hutongs, the warrenlike neighborhoods of small courtyard houses set along alleyways, which made up the bulk of the city’s urban fabric, were as essential to Beijing as the temples and the imperial compound, which has the same intricate mixture of courtyards and lanes. Bejing was all of a piece.

It couldn’t last forever, and it didn’t. Mao Zedong tried to change Beijing into an industrial and governmental center, putting up factories and ponderous administrative buildings. But now Mao’s Beijing is nearly as much a part of the past as the Forbidden City. The factories are being pushed to the outskirts, and in their place the city has developed a skyline. It isn’t like the height-obsessed skyline of Shanghai, or the tight, congested skyline of Hong Kong. In Beijing, the towers are sprinkled all over the place. Most of them are mediocre, and some are ridiculous—a few have pagodalike crowns, to satisfy a former mayor who insisted that new buildings appear Chinese—but a handful are among the most compelling buildings going up anywhere in the world. In Beijing, the latest trend is architecture that will force the world to pay attention, and the result is a striking, unmistakably twenty-first-century city, combining explosive, relentless development with a fondness for the avant-garde. Beijing is as ruthlessly unsentimental today as it was in Mao’s time, with little patience for history if it gets in the way of development, and yet the city doesn’t feel as if it were defined solely by growth, like Shanghai, or like the kind of entirely manufactured environment that you see in Dubai. When I visited Beijing recently, the architect Ole Scheeren said to me, “I think Beijing is incredibly strong in its ability to completely override its own history and yet not surrender its identity.”

Scheeren is the co-architect, with Rem Koolhaas, of the most eagerly awaited building in Beijing, the headquarters of the Chinese television network CCTV, a monumental construction that has become world-famous long in advance of its completion, scheduled for late this year. A vast structure of steel and glass, it is a dazzling reinvention of the skyscraper, using size not to dominate but to embrace the viewer. The building will contain more office space than any other building in China and nearly as much as the Pentagon, but, as skyscrapers go, it is on the short side, with just fifty-one floors. Looking from a distance like a gigantic arch, it is a continuous loop, a kind of square doughnut. Two vertical sections, which contain offices, lean precariously inward, connected by two horizontal sections containing production facilities, one running along the ground, the other a kind of bridge in the sky. When you get closer, you see that each horizontal section is made up of two pieces that converge in a right angle. The top section, thirteen stories deep, is dramatically cantilevered out over open space, five hundred and thirty feet in the air, and it seems to reach over you like a benign robot. The novelty of the form—some Beijingers have taken to calling it Big Shorts—takes time to comprehend; the building seems to change as you pass it. “It comes across sometimes as big and sometimes as small, and from some angles it is strong and from others weak,” Scheeren said. “It no longer portrays a single image.”

You might think that, like a good deal of Koolhaas’s work, the building is as much showmanship as architecture, but it evinces a quiet, monumental grandeur. Some of that is due to the color of the glass, which is a soft gray, almost perfectly echoing the overcast Beijing sky. Around the glass, the diagonal grid of the building’s steel framework is visible, the lines getting denser in the cantilever, where the structural stresses are more extreme. Scheeren told me, “I had the fantasy that the façade would disappear against the gray sky and you would be left with only the black grid.”

Like the CCTV building, a new development designed by the New York architect Steven Holl—a cluster of linked apartment buildings—displays a boldness that would be unlikely to escape compromise in a Western city. And, like the CCTV building, its most notable feature is a bridge—or, rather, bridges—high in the air. Holl has built eight squarish towers and one round one (which will contain a hotel), each about twenty stories tall. The residential towers have identical aluminum façades in a grid pattern, with square windows set back and edged in bright colors that Holl says he took from Buddhist temples. Holl placed the towers in a ring around the property, connecting them with glass-enclosed bridges at various heights—a kind of public, or semi-public, street in the sky running all the way around the complex. Some bridges start on one floor and end on another, so that you walk up or down a ramp—a hill in the sky. Each bridge contains some facility that the tenants share—a gym, a café, a bookstore. The most eye-catching has a swimming pool, which feels as if it were floating in the air, seventeen stories above Beijing.

The idea of the street high above the city is intended to counteract the sense of isolation that high-rise living usually brings, and to create an incentive for residents to walk around the complex. “In Beijing, to go anywhere means taxis and traffic jams and pollution,” Hideki Hirahara, the project architect in Holl’s Beijing office, told me as we walked around the site, where construction crews were just beginning to enclose the steel bridges. “We wanted to create all city functions inside the project.”

The bridges are spectacular, inside and out, and one can imagine that there will be an allure to walking in the air from tower to tower that having a cup of coffee on the ground can’t match. But there’s a hitch. This clever prototype for a city without streets is also an admission that the traditional street-based city doesn’t have much of a future here. As an attempt to bring avant-garde ideas to high-rise housing, the development is impressive, but at another level it’s not unlike the gated apartment compounds that now fill much of Beijing’s rapidly developing outskirts. The twenty-first-century equivalent of the ancient hutongs is a kind of skyscraper suburbia. You drive there, and then you get back in your car every time you go outside—exactly the model that planners in the United States have been trying to get away from in recent decades.

In this context, it’s not surprising that another example of big-ticket Western architecture in Beijing—the National Center for the Performing Arts, by the French architect Paul Andreu—is about as disconnected from the street as possible. It’s an ovoid of reflective glass set in an artificial lake and designed to look as if it were floating on water; there isn’t even a door, lest the purity of its shape be disturbed. You descend to a sunken plaza beside the pool, walk through a tunnel under the water, and ride up an escalator to find yourself inside the ovoid. There’s excitement in being under a huge, curving roof that shelters three different halls, but, in general, the entrance, striving for high drama, comes off as silly and cumbersome. The Chinese refer to the building as the Egg.

Locals call Beijing Tan Da Bing, which means Spreading Pancake. Since 1991, it has gained, on average, nearly three hundred thousand people a year, and by the end of last year it had a population of around seventeen million. Old Beijing—designed for pedestrians and imperial processions but not much in between—has turned out to be a bad framework on which to construct a modern city. It has too few conventional streets, and they are spaced far apart. There aren’t many traditional city blocks. In the days when Beijing was famous for swarms of cyclists, its unsuitability for automobiles didn’t matter; now that the Chinese have cars, Beijing has gone in one generation from emanating an ancient spirit to feeling like Houston. When I visited three years ago, I thought that its problem was a compulsion to repeat the mistakes of American cities. Now the picture is much less clear. Crowding, pollution, and sprawl still define the city, but the new architecture, far from replicating an American mistake, surpasses what most American cities would be willing, or able, to do. This has an effect on the city’s mood: people talk about the new buildings and, whether they approve or not, recognize that such daring constructions would not get built anywhere else.

Beijing is also beginning, slowly, to talk about historic preservation. Wang Jun, a thirty-nine-year-old journalist who was born in southwest China, has become Beijing’s Jane Jacobs, an outspoken advocate of old neighborhoods and traditional streets. “When I started to work, it was the period of Beijing’s most intensive dismantling,” he told me. “I did a lot of investigating, and the city officials were very unhappy, which drove me to more investigating, which made the city officials even more unhappy.” Now, Wang says, city officials invite him to meetings they once refused to let him attend, and the city has begun to put money into renovating some hutongs that would have been demolished a few years ago.

There are urbanists who think that Wang Jun’s position smacks of nostalgia, and that the challenge facing Beijing is to develop a new urban form. “In China, bigness has become the only tool to keep pace with the fast developments,” Neville Mars, a Dutch architect in Beijing, said to me. “The European model of urbanization is outdated, and China proves it. Beijing is a scattered city—how can we patch it back together? The Chinese appear to be in control, but it is really moving too fast for anyone.”

Still, developers have lately begun to grasp the appeal that older buildings have, at least for the rapidly growing professional class. SOHO China, a marketing company that established itself with huge modern residential and commercial complexes in Beijing, is now at work on a retail complex, at Qianmen, just south of Tiananmen Square, that will be built around preserved and reconstructed sections of a hutong—a kind of Beijing version of Boston’s Fanueil Hall. Zhang Xin, who, with her husband, Pan Shiyi, controls SOHO, told me, “So much has been destroyed. Now what excites me is keeping what is left.” But often what’s left isn’t much, and most of the new complex will have to be built from scratch. Zhang said, “Chinese people don’t like anything old—they want everything new. If someone came from the moon, they would think this is a newer country than America.” She paused. “Maybe that is what Mao wanted,” she said. ♦