August 7, 2008

Beijing Becoming Attraction For Architecture Tourists

As sports fans from around the world convene on the city of Beijing for this year's summer games, it's becoming hard to ignore the city as a modern world power.

Just thirty years ago, the city was a poverty stricken backwater studded by a few dull Stalinist monuments grafted onto an ancient and decaying imperial capital. Now, Beijing has become home to many world-class structures and remarkable architecture.

"The Olympics is a world event and world-class architecture has been delivered for that event," said Rory McGowan, the director of the Beijing office of international design engineers Arup.

Arup has worked on several of these structures, including the new CCTV Tower and China's National Stadium, centerpiece of the Games.

The CCTV tower, headquarters of China's state television station, is in fact two towers leaning inward and locked together in a high-altitude embrace. It is a symbol of cutting-edge work under way here and all over China.

"Beijing is pointing architecture in a new direction," said Ole Scheeren, the German partner in Rem Koolhaas's Office of Metropolitan Architecture. Scheeren was involved in the design of the tower.

Further north stands the new National Stadium at the centre of the Olympic Green, where many of the Beijing Olympic venues are grouped close together.

The stadium was dubbed the Bird's Nest because its threads of interlocking steel beams resemble a nest of twigs, but the Chinese also see in it the cracked glazed pattern of ancient Chinese pottery.

Nearby stands the National Aquatic Centre, designed by Australian firm PTW with the help of Arup to look like bubbles of water moving over a blue box.

"No city in the world in recent times has had so much world-class work done," said Scheeren in a recent interview. 

Now, Beijing is attracting worldwide visitors on its architectural merits alone.

"Architecture tourism to Beijing is starting," said Arup's McGowan. "People are coming here purely to see the new stuff."

Beijing's planners have broken with the style of commercial development, dominant in Asia for decades, that has produced a rash of tower-block clones across the continent.

Nevertheless, Tan highlighted that 30 percent of the old city had been saved, and rejected criticism from some locals that the foreign-inspired new buildings did not fit in with the local culture.

"It is always like that. Think of the Eiffel Tower when it was built in Paris. It caused a lot of controversy," he said.

"As long as these buildings stand on Chinese soil they are part of China and people will learn to love them in time."


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