Second Thoughts on Beijing's New Olympic-Inspired Architecture

Article excerpt

The capital hasn't seen this kind of an architectural makeover since the Mongols overtook the city, but a new Beijing may not be what's best for a modern China.

Over the summer I found myself on a dusty lot overlooking Herzog & de Meuron's newest creation: an elegant jumble of I-beams that Beijing residents wryly refer to as the "bird's nest." When it's completed, the stadium will house 90,000 spectators for the opening of the Olympics, marking what many believe to be the "Century of China." I struggled to see anything beyond the gawking tourists, imposing cranes, and cough-inducing smog.

Beijing isn't very Beijing-ish anymore. Just a decade ago, I could amble through the labyrinths of hutongs - narrow alleyways unique to the capital - and sip some cha at the neighborhood teahouse. Now I barely recognize the new Beijing.

The sleepy outpost once considered the architectural backwater of Asia now rivals Shanghai and Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan juggernaut and its ambitions do not stop there. "Beijing desperately wants to be accepted as a global city," says Jeff Soule, a consultant on China for the American Planning Association. In the last few years, Beijing has snatched the attention of the world's top architects away from the usual gang - New York, London, Paris - to power its metamorphosis at a frenetic pace that threatens to eclipse Dubai's.

It boasts the world's largest airport terminal, designed by Britain's Norman Foster (which opened last month), the immense national theater by France's Paul Andreu, and the megarestaurant LAN by Philippe Starck. But towering above anything else - both figuratively and literally - is Rem Koolhaas's 750-foot doughnut- shaped marvel for China Central Television (CCTV), which will be broadcasting this year's Olympics from the skyscraper to the 1.3 billion Chinese. "The sheer possibility of designing it, something of that magnitude and ambition, is only possible in China," says Ole Scheeren, the partner in charge of the project.

The CCTV building sits squarely in the middle of the newly established Central Business District (CBD). "Five years ago, there was nothing there besides abandoned factories," says Mr. Scheeren. He recounts being shown a blueprint of the district by government officials with 300 skyscrapers etched in - planned construction for the coming decade. Their postmodernist wonder has rewritten the playbook on space and context.

Driving toward it one day this summer, the "trouser legs" (a local nickname for the CCTV) looked imperial and gargantuan. A split moment later, as I glanced in the rear-view mirror, it seemed gaunt and teetering on collapse, like a stack of poorly placed Jenga pieces. "The role it plays is of a one-off that illustrates new possibilities," explains Scheeren. …