by Lola Akinmade Åkerström
Beijing has set its sights on being a global innovator, and this mission is evident in the complexity of the city’s state-of-the-art architecture and intelligent designs.
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They slowly come into view as the grey haze lifts. Skyscrapers spreading out in all directions. Monoliths of glass and steel reflecting against each other, blurring the lines between where one building ends and the other begins. They spring up like metallic fortresses around the metropolis of Beijing, with its 3,000-year-old history of pioneering architecture and centuries-old landmarks.
These edifices create a visual illusion of space in a dense city that is home to 22 million residents, making their designers seem more like magicians than architects.
Local Nancy Niu heard a quote once that seems to summarise the magic at work here: “Architects are like artists painting on the surface of the Earth.” Originally from the sleepy countryside of Hebei province, Niu moved to Beijing in 2013 and has since been working as a local fixer with China Tours, a local tour company.
For the uninitiated, this is the structural art that welcomes them in Beijing. The juxtaposition of the old and the new highlights something unique about the city: an underlying thread of intelligent design that has lasted millennia. It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that Beijing was designated the prestigious and highly coveted UNESCO Creative City of Design in 2012.
Today, Beijing has set its sights on being a global innovator, and this mission is evident in the complexity of the city’s state-of-the-art architecture. But to understand modern Chinese design is to travel back in time to see how ancient dynasties fortified themselves in revolutionary ways.
The UNESCO-protected, 5,500-mile-long Great Wall of China, which is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, is considered a modern marvel of human engineering. Located a mere 45 miles northeast of Beijing is the Mutianyu section of the wall that smartly snakes along the ridges of surrounding mountains.
Closer to street level lies the Beijing Ancient Observatory, which was first built in 1442 and remains the oldest of its kind in the world. For centuries, Ming and Qing ruling dynasties looked to the stars and cosmos using its astronomical instruments — a cross between Western technology and intricate Chinese design.
Yet truly marvelling at magnificent imperial architecture means exploring Beijing’s Forbidden City, with its 8,700-plus rooms. “My personal favourite remains the Forbidden City”, Niu says. “Because it is the living testimony of peak ingenuity during the Ming and Qing dynasties”, she adds, referring to how the early Chinese developed ground-breaking buildings by hand with difficult-to-source materials.
Built between 1407 and 1420, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was home to 24 emperors as far back as the 14th century, and its vibrant orange ocher façade and bluegold details give you a glimpse into the DNA of Chinese architecture — sturdy, complex and attractive.
As 19th-century British historian Arnold Toynbee once said, of all human civilisation, only Chinese culture has survived thousands of years almost unchanged. He attributed this to the way so many in the country have continued to value education and an undying quest for knowledge across dynasties.
Modern-day China owes a lot of its physical transformation to economic reforms and international trade of the 1980s and 90s, which opened up the country to foreign investments and innovation. Since then, as is common with long-time residents, it is easy to take one’s own city for granted. “I never realised just how modern and cutting-edge my city is”, Niu admits, as she explores the Central Business District where Beijing’s most striking architecture resides.
From the iconic China Central Television (CCTV) Building, which mimics the open beak of a bird, to the Galaxy SOHO shopping district, which feels like standing onboard an intergalactic spaceship, architects in Beijing continue to push the boundaries of creativity and technology in their designs.
(To see how Beijing morphs with time, a visit to the City Planning Exhibition Center shows full models of the expanding city; its buildings, both old and new; and its vision for the future.)
Artist Wang Xinzhou has also witnessed Beijing’s physical transformation, a few critiques notwithstanding. Working as a portrait artist at 798 Art Zone — a decommissioned military factory converted into prime space with dozens of art galleries and exhibitions — he notes, “I have seen how Beijing has changed and become more commercial over the years, yet my passion for art is what keeps me going”.
In a sense, it’s that historic passion for art that underlies many of Beijing’s most recent creations. When Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008, for instance, its innovation and creativity were presented for all to see on a global stage. Its Bird’s Nest and Water Cube stadiums at Olympic Park threaded historic relics with avant-garde design.
Beijing’s tallest building, China Zun, is currently under construction. Once completed, it will have 108 floors.
Like a resting giant, it will float back into the haze with the other structures, blending into the other architectural feats in this populous city. Local architects, artists, continue to push themselves creatively.
“Even masters of their crafts have to learn something new every day”, Niu says.
Beijing Marriott Hotel Northeast