In 1959, within just a few months, Beijing witnessed ten new examples of monumental architecture, and the face of the ancient city suddenly changed. With an unprecedented effort, the design institutes, recently reorganized according to the new collectivist regulations and guided by the “fathers” of modern Chinese architecture, began creating colossal buildings with the help of Russia, its only foreign ally. The goal was to demonstrate China’s capabilities and autonomy through an image of architecture that would become a manifesto for the world of its new path.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Beijing and China once again entrusted the change of their image to architecture, this time to spread a message of openness within the transformed historical and political context marked by its entry into the WTO and by the awarding of the Olympic Games.
The most renowned international “masters” were called upon to commence and participate in this process, supported by Chinese architects during the executive phases.
At the same time, the main State institutes began an intense exchange with the most noted international design companies for the more challenging interventions, in search of increasingly innovative and bold solutions from a formal and technological point of view. Thus, the design process, carried out in close collaboration right from the start, allowed an effective interchange of knowledge and a synergy of creativity.
The experience and example of the masters, acquired directly on-site and comprehended in depth for their merits and for their shortcomings, gradually gave Chinese architects the tools to begin producing buildings with greater autonomy.
Some designs show a more original and independent elaboration of architectural forms and characteristics, and they are an initial nucleus – now recognized as internationally important – of an even more interesting history of contemporary Chinese architecture.
History of the City until the 1990s
The City of the Republic (1911 – 1949)
1911 was the end of the Imperial Epoch, and in the early years of the new republic even the ancient traditional culture was shaken by movements of reform: the New Culture Movement of 1917 and the May Fourth Movement of 1919 were the first signs of a clear opening toward modernization in the Western sense.
This process was, however, slowed by the need to reinforce the sense of national identity of this young, immense Republic, and a traditionalist reaction sprang forth, aiming for a “search for a synthesis between Chinese and Western cultures that would be distinctively Chinese. Thus, the New Life Movement, founded by Chiang Kai – shek in 1925, asserted itself. The first political movement of Chiang, in 1926, was moving the capital back to Nanjing.
The loss of status as capital, and the absence of commercial activities due to the lack of foreign concessions and ports, retarded the city’s structural development, and until the early 1950s the city remained unchanged in size, confined within the ancient walls, and was, once again, called Beiping.
Nonetheless, these political changes led to the first interventions on historical movements.
Beijing’s modernization became an unstoppable process, with the consequent need to liberate the urban spaces from the multiple barriers of walls and enclosures separating the various zones of the city.
The Municipal government, instituted in 1919, gradually improved hygienic and functional conditions. During the 1920s, the streets, lighting, and sewage system were renewed; also, the first plans were drawn up for the city’s park network and the first norms regarding city planning were emanated.
This process was entrusted to the first generation of architects educated abroad, who were responsible for fostering the birth and development of the culture of modern architecture in China.
The Advent of the Communist Regime (1949-1976)
Just after the People’s Republic of China had been proclaimed, debate began to Beijing as regards the development model for the Communist capital. It was the decisive moment for the ancient’s city destiny.
An Issue for the newborn People’s Republic was the proper form for the architecture of representative buildings, as well for the entire city.
The first Communist architecture, owing to the understandable sentiment of national pride ignited by the country’s reunification, tended toward monumentality and formalism of Soviet derivation, but this was also combined with traditional forms, especially big, tiled roofs with upturning eaves. “Socialist content and national form “became the slogan of building development. A significant expression of this tendency is the Friendship Hotel by architect Zhang Bo.
In January 1955, civil constructions as well began following more closely the model of socialist realism.
The standardized low-income housing construction date from these years, with their minimal rooms and apartments inhabited by more than one family, consisting prevalently of buildings in line, with three or more stories, oriented north-south, without elevators, breaking with the tradition of quadrangular courtyards.
The First Modernization (1976-1992)
Between 1979-1979 Deng Xiaoping started the “four modernizations” (social order, urban environment, science/technology, and culture) inaugurating the so-called decade of the “Cultural Fever”. The first important reform was the “rural reform”, which aimed to increase agricultural production and abolish the People’s Communes.
The concept of personal initiative and responsibility were introduced into the collectivist system, dominated by centralized planning, with the possibility of selling excess resources to the state.
The second important innovation was the launching of the “Open Door Policy”. The “open door climate” had an effect on architecture. The work that most clearly represents the changes is Fragrant Hill Hotel, planned in 1982 in the environs of Beijing by the architect I. M. Pei, born in China but raised in the United States, where he received his higher education and started his career. In designing the building, which rises over the typical hilly landscape to the northwest of the city, Pei attempted to define a new departure for Chinese architecture, decidedly modern, but with its own specific identity. The articulate, asymmetric layout of the building, Western in style, is enriched by explicitly vernacular references and citations in its decorations, in the color combinations, and in the elements crowing the white volumes, which stand out against the luxuriant green of the surrounding landscape.
In Beijing, the construction of the city’s first large hotel and commercial complex began after 1985. This was the Lufthansa Center, born in cooperation with the German airline company; moreover, the foundation was laid for the city’s first steel and glass skyscrapers: the Jingguang Tower and the towers of the World Trade Center, the fruit of a partnership between American and Japanese groups. Construction activities increased, as well, in the residential sector, and concessions for facilitating building projects, together with the inflow of foreign financing, led to the acquisition and intense exploitation of vast areas.
The effects of the Old and Dilapidated Housing Renewal Program were even more incisive; the renovating of ramshackle houses and the even more important interventions in central areas were not supported by adequate financial backing from the State, and thus the implementation and development of over thirty-seven programs, launched beginning April 30, 1990, were entrusted completely to private enterprise groups, whose implementations proceeded with wide-ranging demolitions and reconstructions within the central zone.
During those years and experimental cultural approach was instituted in order to deal with the problem of reorganizing the historical areas of the city. Four zones were carefully selected in the four districts: Xiaohoucang in the district of Xicheng; Ju’ er hutong in Dongcheng; Dongnanyuan in Xuanwu; and Caochangtoutiao in the district of Chongwen.
A number of city blocks, included between the historic hutong of the eastern sector of the historic center, were demolished and then redesigned in accordance with a modern layout and architecture, remaining clearly attentive to local tradition. The typical courtyard typology was re-elaborated with buildings of several stories, partly underground and covered with slopping roofs, served by stairways. The objective was to ensure a greater housing density while at the same time allowing the survival of garden courtyards and external communicating elements, such as small balconies and staircases, in assonance with the typological characteristics of the proceeding siheyuan. The unusual white colors of the walls, the references to certain stylistic characters that although Chinese, were foreign to the culture of the city, and the difficulty of adapting to the typological novelties, manifested over time by the relocated populations, make this first attempt yet debatable, even though it is of great historical importance.
On the eve of the 1990s, the architectural scene of Beijing was dominated by some obvious contradictions, being caught between the new economies on the one hand, and the growing concern for conservation and the rediscovery of the memory of its glorious past on the other.
1992-2007: The Definitive Turning Point. Foundations for Change
The Production of Architecture
The architecture of those years is still clearly uncertain and naïve; the linguistic and technological gap in relation to the international panorama was manifest, but certain innovative aspects began to emerge. Engineers in their fifties who had spent time abroad and who spoke English were nominated as the heads of the institutes. In order to encourage and foster the use of new computer and data processing technologies, the best recent graduates from the most prestigious universities were selected, and without budget limitations, they installed the most up-to-date hardware and software available. The bright, new bundles of fiber optic cables banging near the windows were in stark contrast to the dilapidated state of the workplaces, but they showed that everything was proceeding at a frenetic pace, according to a clear and orderly plan.
New projects were also approached with a fresh spirit. One among many enlightening examples of the Academy Sciences, designed at the beginning of 1996 by the institute of architectural design of that academy, in the Fourth Ring Road in the Zhongguancum section. This was the first building of the campus, which was intended to modernize the scientific research quarter.
Great International Competitions and the 2008 Olympics
In 1998 the first great architectural competition open to foreigners was announced; the competition for the new National Grand Theater in the center of Beijing.
The winner, with an astonishing project, was the French architect Paul Andreu, who had just completed the futuristic Charles de Gaulle Airport at Paris. In China, he had already constructed the Shanghai airport and the sports Palace at Guangzhou.
The proposal was an enormous, enigmatic half-dome of glass and titanium; a simple oval shape emerging from a lake, suggesting an immense crystalline vein drop falling into an expanse of water. Inside it are an opera house, seating 2,416, a concert hall, seating 2,017, a theater, and all the other functional structures, connected to the access spaces and concourses. The public enters the hall, with an unprecedented dramatic effect, through a transparent passage beneath the level of the surrounding water.
A decisive boost for international competitions came in 2001, when the Olympic Games of 2008 were assigned to China.
The resonance of the event, and the possibility of enriching the city with avant-garde architecture, gave the impulse to call upon big international firms to an even greater extent. Competitions for the overall layout of the Olympic site, and subsequently, for all the principal buildings and outfittings, began being issued right after the announcement.
The responses were projects and architectures having enormous impact on the city’s image. The Water Cube is a large, reticular enclosure with walls that look like water bubbles, obtained using a complex spatial structure of steel tubing, over which is extended a filling of an innovative, translucent, inflatable material. As the sunlight filters through, spectators and athletes will feel they are inside a magical underwater world, and by night the Cube will be transformed into a luminescent aquarium.
The National Stadium, by Herzog & de Meuron, is the realization of the idea, simple but closely bound to traditional Chinese Culture, of a “bird’s nest”, or as described by artist Ai Weiwei, who collaborated with the Swiss masters in conceiving the work, of the traditional local porcelain bowls, with their minute craquelet network of tiny cracks. The rigid and functional sporting volume is thus transformed into a poetic yet powerful architecture, which has already become the new symbol of the ancient capital.
The series of great international projects entered another important phase at the end of 2002, when the winner of the competition for the gigantic State Television (CCTV) headquarters was announced: the futuristic, zigzagging skyscraper, flanked by a second building with an enormous roof, crumpled and folded upon itself, by OMA (Rem Koolhaas with the young German architect Ole Scheeren).
The principal skyscraper bends at a height of nearly 200 meters and continues horizontally into the void for over 70 meters, before descending at an incline to the ground. In this case as well, the choice of such a spectacular and grandiose solution, with jagged, inclined forms, was dictated by the explicit desire to compete with other metropolises, especially Beijing’s Chinese rivals of Shanghai and Guangdong. Costs and technological commitment were decidedly ambitious and at the limits of contemporary technical capacities.
Koolhaas has also won the competition for the National Library, while the French company AREP was awarded the large office complex for the western station of Shizimen, with three ogival glass towers; and the new airport was awarded to Norman Foster, once again, a project chosen for its appealing resemblance to an enormous red dragon.
From “Uncertainty” toward a New identity
On the building sites dotted all over the vast urban territory of the Chinese capital, buildings, entire blocks, and immense districts endlessly grow, day after day, with the fragments of the new city rapidly substituting old Beijing. Its principal zones of development: the Olympic Green, the Central Business District (CBD), Zhongguancun, and the airport zone are progressively taking on their definitive physiognomy, within the planned, polycentric urban structure. The large arteries for surface and underground transport routes are proceeding toward completion, while the ancient center, with its palaces, lakes, and gardens, the Central Axis, and the old quarters, continues to represent the historical identity of the Imperial City.
The icons of international contemporary architecture stand beside the monumental structures of the past, arranged primarily around the margins of the central area, with the exception of the enigmatic presence of the National Grand Theater, alongside the Forbidden City.
This variegated constellation of ancient and modem architectures, an ensemble differentiated in terms of colors, dimensions, and shapes, nonetheless seems to be part of an underlying, overall design. New buildings are constantly added, more and more frequently designed by local offices, which no longer fear comparison with the works of foreign masters.
But this is the “city of objects” that Chang Yung Ho stigmatizes in his writings. It is the city touched by the history of architecture and by the international limelight, the one that appears in magazines or in photography books offered to tourists, along with the mementos of a past that no longer exists.
Beijing’s new identity revolves around and depends on everything relating to these factors, and on what it is becoming for its inhabitants, through its inexorable, frenetic, and multifaceted processes of renewal and expansion. Its true face is being shaped together with an identity that is still fluctuating, in precarious balance between a monotonous and oppressive densification, with the progressive loss of traditional urban qualities, and the signs of a different direction leading, at least in part, to a more desirable place. There are indistinct traces of this that we can single out in the lives of the inhabitants, a combination of the persistence, albeit rarefied, of the typical customs of Beijing and the adaptation to contemporary rhythms and new lifestyles.
The City of Architects
The Role of the New Generations
The group of the main protagonists of the capital’s architectural scene is, now taking shape. It is exceptional to in that it is a young team.
In the late 1990s, the first vertical curved walls appeared an immediate echo of the curvilinear skyscrapers of Renzo Piano, or of Kohn, Pedersen, and Fox. Certain buildings on the Fourth Ring Road in the northern section of the city, all built between 2000 and 2005, constitute an emblematic series of variations on the works of these architects.
After the inauguration of Yamamoto’s towers for Jianvai SOHO, we begin to see combinations of asymmetrical volumes, or volumes with different orientations, first in a restrained and measured manner, such as the intervention of Cui Kai at Deshengmenwai, and then progressively with more boldness, such as in the Haidian Culture and Art Center by Huang Wei, or the Museum of Film.
More recently, in emulation of the novelty introduced with the city block Shang Du SOHO, by the Australian Lab Architecture Studio, the curtain walls have begun to bend slightly. The flat regularity of the large walls of glass has begun to fragment, animated by the differentiated reflections of light across the various facets of the surfaces.
In this general and widespread renewal of architecture, still under the obvious influence of international culture, certain recurring characteristics have begun to appear which seem to be more firmly connected to a specific “Chinese” condition. These are starting to give originality to the capital’s new architecture.
The Big Roof, Revisited
The most typical formal expression of Chinese architecture – the big, sloping roof with cantilevered/jutting eaves, evidenced by its dark shadow— continues to be present in much architecture for representative purposes, even though in some cases this has evolved to a refined use of new materials . Western interpretation of this classical element has contributed, in some cases, to an elegant simplification of the language, as for example the Capital Museum.
In their very modern projects, some young Chinese architects are attempting to propose again the essential traits of the traditional roof, resolving the tops of their edifices with large cornices replicating the monumental effect or simply with the projection of a covering slab, to obtain a protective shadow onto the technological facades (Qi Xin, National Institute of Accountancy).
Many of the grand works of foreign architects, in some cases executed in collaboration with Chinese colleagues, have drawn upon the wealth of traditional symbolism—the droplet of water for the National Grand Theater by Paul Andreu; the dragon’s back for the airport by Norman Foster; the swallow’s nest for file Olympic stadium by Herzog & De Meuron –as a predictable homage to Chinese Culture, often mythicized by the West. Nonetheless, it is appreciated and preferred by the prevailing nomenclature. New and more elaborate interpretations can be seen in some of the capital’s recent buildings, which are inspired by the elegance of Chinese calligraphy or the iconographic power of the client’s initials. For example, the headquarters of the company Gua Hua, by Cui Tong, whose vigorous architectural forms resemble a gigantic, letter G, standing out against the city skyline around the Second Ring Road.
The use of the square courtyard is ever more present in the projects elaborated in recent years, even if the architecture is characterized more by the opening or the distortion of the enclosure that characterizes the architecture. The Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Beijing Logo building are two of the most successful examples, but other new and interesting interpretations frequently appear in the city’s architectural panorama. The small Christian church in the Fangshan district, designed by Liang jingyu for example, succeeds in blending the needs of the foreign religious cult with local tradition by modeling the continuous wall enclosing the characteristic central courtyard in accordance with the silhouettes of the assembly hall and the bell tower.
Use of Traditional Materials
The return to local materials is another aspect that is constantly being experimented with and verified.
Chang Yung Ho, with his Split House villa at the Commune Great Wall, has clearly shown the expressive potentials and qualities of raw earth reinforced with straw and bamboo, which is the most ancient traditional technique, even though it does not attain the constructional and formal coherency of large historical masterpieces as much as emphasizing its material qualities exalted by the use of exposed reinforced concrete.
Wood, bamboo, and bricks, in the way they can occupy portions of the constructed mass, are ideal for the countless possibilities of architectural decoration, but the wealth of regional constructional techniques, which offer innumerable and original combinations, chromatic effects, and textures, remain as yet uncharted territory.
Walls and Walling Masses
Large walls without openings or with gaps reduced to minimal loopholes, typical of the enclosures, the monumental bases, and massive walls of so much vernacular architecture, re-emerge in recent buildings as a distinctive element of architectural composition. Recent creations include the enormous blank walls marked by enigmatic gaps, in Digital Beijing by Zhu Pei and Urbanus, the compact, asymmetrical masses of the new Songzhuan Art Museum, by Xu Tiantian, and the white walls with classic circular holes, of the Shijingshan Financial Center by Wang Yun.
The wall can also provide an opportunity for a specific aesthetic or constructional research, as demonstrated by the abstract tectonic presence of the brick walls of Αi Weiwei, rendered vibrant by alternating two traditional colors, gray and red,, in the Gallery Urs Meile, or more recently, by making use of gaps and three-dimensional excrescences in the material of the Three Shadows Photography Art Center . Equally interesting are projects proposing load-bearing and decorative structures made of brick, by Dong Yugan, or the fragmentation of the wall, in -the Sight-cutting Wall House by WM Space.
The random intermingling of crooked structural elements and irregular geometric meshes, expressions of current international architectural language and recognizable in Beijing in the two main Olympic buildings—the Stadium and the Water Cube—correspond to the utilization of decorative meshes and networks in traditional Chinese architecture.
The semitransparent grids and screens—in wood or pierced stone, used as elements of partial separations in Chinese interiors, allowing light to filter through, establishing complex relationships between the rooms and the exterior, or various degrees of closure in relation to the observer’s movement or position—appear ever more frequently in local production. At times these grids and networks conserve the volumetric effect of a complete walling, but provide a solution to the functional problems of – lighting or ventilation, as in the case of the hotel designed by Zhu Pei, in central Beijing, and the dense black grille of the building by Cao Xiaoxin . They may even entirely characterize the construction, as occurs with the compact structure, enlivened by infinite variations, of the sunshade utilized by Cui Tong in the office building in Haidian, affording varying perspectives from the surrounding streets—at times appearing transparent, at other times presenting its illusory opacity.
But such meshes and networks can also become the decorative motif for the facade. The efficacious experiments of 9.3 Group – Strategy Architectural Design are emblematic of this. It has focused the architectural image of its creations specifically on the geometric patterns deriving from the chromatic variations of the cladding, made by alternating various types of windows, ranging from minute to very large ones, thereby creating a very particular image.
The outside look of buildings in Beijing becomes, often, the sole creative and decorative intervention possible, owing to limited construction times and economic means available.
Moreover, the complete utilization of the volumes permitted by the regulations generally limits experimentation with volumetric articulation. These two factors—even though they have prevented any substantial typological renovation of buildings—have focused more specific attention to the theme of the urban facade. Ever more sophisticated variations of the few elements permitted by the clients attempt to introduce distinctions between the new constructions, or more rarely, to harmonize them with the variegated surrounding urban landscape. A further novel element consists of the spontaneous initiatives of the inhabitants themselves who periodically renovate the exterior appearance of their dwellings. The most attentive architects have attempted to adapt to this phenomenon by means of some very original elaborations, as in the case of certain projects by WM Space, and the extreme case of the new Sanlitun shopping mall, where the flexibility and interchangeability of the facades, together with the fast-changing management of the businesses, is presented by promoters as an innovative attraction.
Perhaps unintentionally, the gigantic looming jutting bulk of the CCTV skyscraper of OMA has become the symbol of a tendency, by now widespread in recent metropolitan constructions, to create buildings with parts protruding to a greater or lesser degree. This characteristic can be seen not only in the MOMA towers, by another International master, Steven Holl, but also in numerous significant works by affirmed Chinese architects: in addition to the Procuratorate building by Cao Xiaoxin and the Beijing Logo building, another work by Cui Tong, as well as the Ge Hua building, the Wangjmg Park of Technology by Hu yue, and even the small Gallery Urs Meile by Ai Weiwei all exploit the effect of unstable dynamism conferred upon the buildings by the projecting parts. They unite the appearance of movement and precariousness with the solidity of the powerful, projecting volumetric masses, apparently attempting to combine the duality of weight and lightness into a single architectural element, combining the ideas of the fixed and the mobile, in accordance with the importance the local culture has always given to the simultaneous presence of opposites.