Beijing's buildings get user-friendly
By Daniel Allen
BEIJING - Beijing's Summer Olympics extravaganza a year ago may be a fading
memory, but the Chinese capital's furious construction craze shows no sign of
In the history of urban development, few cities have evolved as quickly or as
radically. With more large-scale projects in the pipeline, the state and
private sectors look set to maintain the pace of change for the foreseeable
future. With the overarching blueprint demanding sustained growth, many wonder
what the next decade holds for this rambling metropolis and its burgeoning
In the run-up to last August's Olympics, iconic architecture such as the
"Bird's Nest" National Stadium, "Water Cube" National
Aquatics Center and Beijing Airport's Terminal 3, grabbed the headlines. To
some, they embodied China's growing economic and political might in suitable
style and substance. Beijing's massive cosmetic exercise in concrete, glass and
steel successfully wowed the international crowds as local residents looked on
with pride. High-profile foreign architects such as Rem Koolhaas, Jacques
Herzog and Sir Norman Foster had fulfilled their obligations.
Today, however, many of Beijing's Olympic creations are already more evocative
of aging white elephants than rising dragons. Highways that were easy to
traverse for a few glorious August days are once again regularly choked with
cars and fumes. Most of the capital's residents complain of the same old
pollution and traffic, and the city's promised green and pleasant environment
seems as far away as ever.
The elevation of Beijing's skyline is currently tied to an upward trend in
population. Last year alone, an extra 600,000 people relocated to the capital,
and living space is becoming more crowded. Seen from above, the city resembles
an ever-denser patchwork of humanity divided by superhighways, subway lines and
sprawling, sterile plazas. The word "soulless" has been bandied about by
everyone from Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to London Mayor Boris Johnson, as the
informal, village-like atmosphere of Beijing's hutongs (alleyways) and
courtyards becomes as precious as it is anachronistic.
Despite Beijing's general philosophy of building big and building fast, there
is some hope on the horizon for those dreaming of a more utopian and community
minded conurbation. From intelligent mixed-use and retail developments to
sympathetic cultural makeovers and fresh interpretations of the high-rise, a
new wave of construction is now starting to enhance the capital's built
environment. A growing number of architects are now seeking to prioritize the
people in their modern creations.
"In this post-Games era, Beijing now finds itself in a unique and pioneering
position," said Neville Mars, director of Beijing's Dynamic City Foundation, a
research and design institute focused on the rapid development of China's urban
landscape. "There are no other cities of comparable size and growth rate that
can be studied or used as a model."
"In essential terms one of the key ways this city can be made more livable is
by filling in the cracks between the mega-projects," he continued. "Top-down
planning isn't going to make the real difference to people's lives - this city
needs large-scale and small-scale planning working in partnership. So far,
Beijing's recent evolution has been about the government imposing a coarse
development plan on the city. This now needs softening and refining."
Xu Tiantian, director of Beijing-based architectural firm DnA_Design and
Architecture_, concurs. "Beijing is now going through a healing process after
the big Olympic party," she explains. "Smaller-scale projects are starting to
contribute to communities and neighborhoods are being calmed and soothed. We
need to develop and enhance these small-scale spaces to generate more of a
sense of togetherness and raise quality of life."
When it comes to community and neighborhood, there aren't many new Beijing
constructions causing more of a stir than the "pedestrian-oriented" Linked
Hybrid building, one of the world's largest socially and environmentally aware
residential projects. It was recently named the Council on Tall Buildings and
Urban Habitat's Best Tall Building in Asia/Australasia for 2009.
Designed by US-based Steven Holl Architects, and envisaged as an "open city
within a city", the 220,000 square meter Linked Hybrid will soon house up to
2,500 people. In addition to its energy-saving technology, this
state-of-the-art eco-complex boasts a ring of elevated walkways enabling
residents to move between blocks in search of amenities like schools, gyms,
spas, shops and restaurants, and interact with friends and neighbors.
Linked Hybrid's green credentials will become official if and when it receives
its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accreditation, a
voluntary but now highly sought after green building award developed and
overseen by a US-based. non-governmental orginization. Only a few Beijing
constructions, including the Olympic Village, have so far received LEED
certification, although over 150 projects in China have now registered to
undergo the rigorous and lengthy inspection process.
Under the LEED system, buildings applying for certification are comprehensively
reviewed and awarded credits in five green design categories: sustainable
sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and
indoor environmental quality. Those that gain enough credits are awarded LEED
certification - a status that invariably boosts real estate profitability as
well as residents' long-term health and happiness.
Another building chasing LEED certification in Beijing is the China Life
Insurance Research and Development Center, designed by German architectural
firm Henn Architekten, in conjunction with China Construction Design
International (CCDI). Construction on a site to the northwest of Beijing is
scheduled to begin in September, and the whole structure, which is built around
a large communal courtyard, should be complete by 2012.
In terms of the way ahead for Beijing's architecture and livability,
Beijing-based Henn Partner and Design Director Christian Bechtle also agrees
with Neville Mars. "In the past there has been too much emphasis on the speed
of construction, which has often compromised quality and led to poor layout.
The challenge is to now raise the urbanity of the city center, filling it not
only with greater density but also with better quality and better integrated
buildings," Bechtle said.
"I believe the next 10 years we will see far greater investment in the city's hutongs,"
Bechtle continues. "Places such as Nanluoguxiang are already showing how
Beijing's alleyways and courtyards can be renovated intelligently. The quality
of life is being raised there without sacrificing architectural aesthetics."
Bechtle regards Beijing's Sanlitun Village as the perfect example of a new
project that has managed to fuse retail and hospitality in an innovative,
community minded way. Situated in what used to be the heart of the embassy
quarter in the 1950s, the Village now boasts a much-admired collection of
contemporary architecture, and comprises 19 buildings across two sites,
including the 99-room luxury Opposite House hotel. The south section of the
Village opened before the Olympics, while the north part will open later this
Bearing in mind the communal spaces of the Village, it comes as little surprise
that the chief designer, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, drew inspiration from
Beijing's hutongs in his masterplan. "I adore the shapes and atmosphere
of these traditional buildings, and much prefer their style to the perfect
lines and rigid alignments of typical American structures," he said. "As the
Village is central to Beijing, I wanted to adopt a Chinese approach, creating
something more sophisticated and varied than the city's predominant
Kuma is also responsible for another groundbreaking Sanlitun-based creation,
Sanlitun SOHO, which is currently under construction opposite Sanlitun Village.
With a planned floor area of over 450,000 square meters, this mixed-used
commercial and residential project is expected to be the highest grossing
project for SOHO China, Beijing's leading developer of high-profile commercial
property, since the company was established 15 years ago.
Designed as an open community by Kuma, Sanlitun SOHO will comprise five
shopping malls, linked by a recessed garden which runs north to south and
features a narrow waterway. Five mid-rise office towers on the north side of
the site and four residential towers on the south side of the site will extend
above the shopping area.
As with Sanlitun Village, Kuma is keen to emphasize the communal feel to his
project: "Visitors to Beijing Sanlitun are struck by its unique charm. It is a
place where the dynamism of the city borders on the serenity of a village, as
illustrated by the bars and cafes adjoining the embassies. It is a 'compact
city', not only in the sense of scale, but in the allure of its
'neighborhoodliness'. Sanlitun SOHO revives this vision in a novel style
representative of the 21st century."
SOHO China is also involved in Qianmen, an area of Beijing concerned as much
with preservation as innovation. Located south of Tiananmen Square, Qianmen
Street has been a prosperous area for more than 600 years, and has long been
home to some of China's most famous brands. After a year of renovation this
legendary thoroughfare re-opened to the public earlier this year, although SOHO
China has recently announced the official opening will take place during
China's national holiday period in October.
In keeping with Qianmen Street's mass-market appeal, Pan Shiyi, founder of SOHO
China, has deliberately prevented exclusive, luxury brands from moving in.
"This is not an upmarket business area," he explains. "We want to make shopping
and dining here an experience everyone can enjoy." That enjoyment should be
enhanced by some attractive, early 20th century-style architecture, as well as
a range of traditional snack foods, regular street performances and even a
fully working tram.
If the last decade of Beijing's architectural development was about building
bigger and bolder, then the next 10 years should see more emphasis on building
smarter, smaller and more sophisticated. With an ever-increasing appreciation
of sustainable construction and the needs of its inhabitants, the capital may
see itself rising up the list of livable cities way before the next Olympics
put in an appearance.
Daniel Allen is a freelance writer and photographer currently living in