Beyond The Bird’s Nest

The next phase of Chinese architecture takes wing.

Beijing’s olympic-era designs have captured the world’s attention, but like most iconic architecture, these monuments to China’s emergence are more reflective of fantastic visions of the future than pragmatic concerns. Thanks to the state-sponsored hype machine that has promoted them—not to mention China’s delicate image—the buildings already risk being lost in a haze of propaganda. Last fall, Beijing-born artist and architect Ai Weiwei, who helped Herzog & de Meuron design the National Stadium, lashed out at the government’s appropriation of the building as a national symbol, calling it a “public relations sham.”

Over the next two years, however, a new batch of buildings will emerge, reflecting both China’s ambitions and the sobering realities underneath. From micro-urban mixed-use developments to bold revisions of the high-rise to innovative new towns, this second wave of architecture offers fresh solutions for China’s rapidly urbanizing population. Both bigger and smaller, both more ostentatious and at times more reserved than their triumphant predecessors, these designs are rooted in the here and now. With construction costs still low and the ambitions of shrewd developers and local governments sky-high, these buildings would be hard to find anywhere else; not coincidentally, they’re also increasingly being produced by native architects rather than by foreigners.



Guangzhou Opera House


Zaha Hadid Architects, London
Groundbreaking/completion: 2005/Late 2009
Size: 750,000 sq. ft.
Cost: $200 million
Other China projects: Innovation Tower in Hong Kong, part of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University expansion
Key challenge: Building a pitch-perfect auditorium next to a city subway

After winning a competition in 1994, Zaha Hadid intended to build the Welsh National Opera house as one of her first projects. But political and budgetary pressures interfered, and Cardiff Bay, where the building was to be located, became shorthand for provincial conservatism. Now the Pritzker-endowed Hadid is getting a second chance to build a waterfront opera house, in Guangzhou—her firm’s largest project to date. With two concert halls resembling boulders, the building is classic Hadid, its stealthy, sleek angles slipping over each other. It promises to stand out against a forthcoming forest of relatively tame towers planned for the surrounding central business district.

Project architect Simon Yu says the building’s sculptural quality conforms to a time-honored Chinese desire for analogy in architecture—in this case, the rock forms found along the banks of the nearby Pearl River. But the interior of the house is anything but traditional. In the 1,800-seat main hall, the balconies and dividers flow in and out of the walls, twisting and arcing fluidly. Their asymmetrical design actually aided acousticians, but the government’s plans for a new subway line 150 feet from the auditorium did not. “That was hard,” says Yu. To reconcile their vision with the noise and vibrations, the architects had to “draw and redraw the designs,” he says, considering and then abandoning plans to suspend the auditorium or the building itself with acoustic joints. The final scheme will be a one-of-a-kind opera house, providing a counterpoint to design in China even as it sings of the country’s mesmerizing potential.

Shenzhen Stock Exchange Plaza

Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rotterdam/Beijing/New York
Groundbreaking/completion: Late 2007/2010
Size: 2.2 million sq. ft., 820 ft. tall
Other China projects: CCTV in Beijing, Prada Epicenter in Shanghai
Special features: A three-story cantilevered podium and innovative use of pattern glass on a high-rise


If Rem Koolhaas’s daring cctv headquarters in Beijing heralded the death of the traditional skyscraper, his firm’s second building in China seemingly advocates for its resurrection: The elevated podium of Shenzhen’s future stock exchange evokes Mies van der Rohe’s refined steel-and-glass rectangles. At the same time, it expresses boredom with convention. Floating 120 feet above the ground, the cantilevered platform exposes the typically hidden exchange floor to the outside world. “In the age of the electronic stock market, the traditional trading floor has become extinct, and along with it, the identity of the stock market,” says project architect Kunle Adeyemi. “One of the main architectural challenges of this building is the re-creation of this energetic identity.”

A more substantive challenge was the building’s facade: A curtain wall, resting on the building’s exoskeleton, is made from textured translucent glass so fragile its composition had to be specially engineered to withstand Shenzhen’s tempestuous weather. While Adeyemi was motivated by the “crystalline and mysterious” effect the glass would produce in sunshine—not to mention the shade it would provide—meeting code was like proving he could “safely hang a stunning glass chandelier in typhoon conditions,” he says. When the textured wall is implemented, it will be a first for a building this size in China.

Shanghai 2010 World Expo UK Pavilion

Heatherwick Studio, London
Groundbreaking/completion: January 2009/May 2010
Size: 3,400 sq. ft. inside, total envelope
(up to the end of the rods) is 8,400 sq. ft.
Cost: $20–25 million
Other China projects: Redevelopment of a million-square-foot shopping mall in Hong Kong
Materials: Steel, plywood, bamboo, and possibly Astroturf
Number of workers: 300–350
Lifespan: Six months

If world expos can feel like an architectural version of the Olympics, Thomas Heatherwick’s jury-picked design for the British pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai is going for the gold. Composed of 100,000 LED-tipped “cilia,” which the architect anticipates will be made of bamboo, its facade not only lends the building an ethereal fuzziness, but also transforms it into a pixelated 3-D video billboard. Inside the cocoon-like interior, the rods’ tips will invert the facade to create a fully immersive, light-rich experience for the 40,000 visitors expected per day. Stuart Wood of Heatherwick Studio says the building responds to the central problem of expo design: “How do you make something that’s stunning and memorable but which also links to its content?” he says. “We tried to make the content and the building the same thing.”

Because the bamboo rods are flexible, the porcupine-like exterior will undulate in the wind. Some 10,000 of the rods will also serve to elevate the central steel-and-plywood structure 16.5 feet off the ground. This flexibility, and the building’s professed sustainability—bamboo grows fast, and steel can be recycled—vaguely nod to the expo’s theme of “Better City, Better Living.” The external “screen” will display morphing graphics related to Britain, designed by U.K. artists with real-time input from visitors. Despite all the movement, the building’s main job is to leave a fixed impression. After all, it will stand only for the expo’s six-month duration. Says Wood: “We have to create an image that can burn into people’s memory.”

Changbaishan Public Activity Center

DnA, Beijing
Groundbreaking/completion: Late 2007/Late 2008
Size: Three buildings about 13,000 sq. ft. each
Cost: $2 million
Other China projects: Songzhuang Art Center in Beijing, Ink Painting Gallery in Ordos, Inner Mongolia
Materials: Steel and concrete structure with wood, stone, and glass
Key challenge: The northern climate permits construction only five months a year, and steel is still hard to find in the area
Star power: Known for her museum designs, Harvard-educated principal Xu Tiantian is one of few Chinese women leading an architectural practice

Building an active public center for a town that doesn’t yet exist presents a uniquely Chinese conundrum. If it’s too traditional, the architecture may fail to capture the town’s aspirations. If too modern, the design could severely jar with its surroundings, not to mention disrupt its harmony with nature—a top concern in Chinese architecture. In designing a government-commissioned centerpiece for the emerging resort town of Baixi, located near the Changbaishan mountains on the North Korean border, Xu Tiantian of Beijing’s DnA tried to balance all three concerns.

Visitors enter the site via the Info Tree, a welcome center with a bright red steel core and multi-level platforms suggesting a summer-camplike directional signpost. The wood-paneled exterior has a rustic feel, but the randomly skewed levels could only be current. Nearby, an exposed-concrete structure unfolds like a lotus flower, with each of three “petals” devoted to a theater, a ballroom, and rooms for karaoke. A third complex, Bridging Water, spreads out in a fractal of cantilevered walkways across a manmade waterscape. The water not only provides leisure activities, but also extends and refracts the building’s etched white floral pattern. “The architecture resonates across multiple scales and cultivates complexity and possibility,” says Xu.

Fake Hills

MAD Studio, Beijing Groundbreaking/completion: 2008/2010
Size: 4.3 million sq. ft., 4,000 apartments
Cost: $136 million
Other China projects: Sinosteel Building in Tianjin
Star power: Principal Ma Yansong received a 2006 Young Architects award from the Architectural League of New York and is considered a leader of the Chinese vanguard. He recently showed up on Beijing television and bus shelters as the face of a popular Chinese brand of kitchenware.


At a design presentation for a new residential complex last year, officials in the coastal city of Beihai grew tired of listening to architects share cookie-cutter high-rise designs. With the models laid out on a table, the bureaucrats interrupted the presentations and pointed to the scheme they liked best: a wavy set of apartment towers that paid overt homage to the region’s hilly landscape. To architect Ma Yansong, the celebrated 31-year-old founder of Beijing-based MAD, the design was an audacious play on the Chinese obsession with natural harmony. “It was a joke, but one not meant to hurt anybody,” he says. For all its cartoonishness, Fake Hills implies something more serious. “No matter what kind of building you do here, you will destroy nature,” Ma says.

Along with a handful of basic environmentally sound features, like sun shading and natural ventilation, the building reaches for resource efficiency by consolidating functions within a single structure. By boldly combining two typologies—the multiple high-rises of the urban periphery and the long, connected low-rise apartments of the super-block—Ma intends Fake Hills to force fresh thinking within the typically conservative realm of real-estate development. It’s here, not in museums or expensive homes, that China’s architects must develop avant-garde ideas, he argues: “Most development in China is residential. If you change something here, you can change the city.” Already officials eager to raise their city’s profile are listening. The mayor of Beihai recently solicited Ma for advice on the design of a new district. “I didn’t have an idea,” he says, “but at least he asked.”

Sliced Porosity Block

Steven Holl Architects, New York
Groundbreaking/completion: Late 2007/2010
Size: 3.3 million sq. ft.
Other China projects: Linked Hybrid in Beijing, Vanke Center in Shenzhen, Nanjing Museum
Holl-marks: Bridges, green features, angular geometry, and an emphasis on community

To cope with the copy-paste banality of urban Asia’s high-rise residential towers and gated communities, Steven Holl cut right through them. The erratic diagonals of this mixed-use complex currently rising in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, are more than merely aesthetic, though. The towers’ shape is meant to ensure that the surrounding, lower residential buildings
receive sunlight.

Holl’s social embrace is strongest at the middle of the complex. An elevated public plaza lets commerce mingle with public life around three central ponds, which double as skylights for shopping space below. Three public pavilions designed by Holl, Lebbeus Woods, and Ai Weiwei are set in voids within the buildings’ boxy facades. Combining public functions and attractive space along both vertical and horizontal axes, Holl says, “allows for fresh new dimensions of living in ever-denser 21st-century cities.”

Underpinning the buildings’ neighborliness are their green credentials: Geothermal heating and cooling, rainwater harvesting, and high-performance glazing could score the development a LEED gold rating, a rarity in China. Micro-urbanism and sustainable design are also cornerstones of Holl’s Linked Hybrid complex in Beijing, which opens this summer. For the architect, China can make dreams come true in a big way. “It’s encouraging to see these elements now appear at such an incredible scale—a scale at which these aspirations can really influence life in the city,” he says.

Alex Pasternack is a freelance writer based in Beijing. He has written about architecture for Architectural Record and Domus, contributes to Treehugger.com, and is features editor at Urbane.

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