Beijing Feature


A City in Transition

The 2008 Summer Olympics changed the face of Beijing, and the changes keep on coming. Just about everywhere you look you'll find signs of the feverish development boom that is continuing where the games left off. Whole city blocks were razed to make way for state-of-the-art Olympic venues, new hotels, and modern buildings. The subway system was expanded from two to eight lines—15 lines should be open by 2015—including a link from downtown Beijing to the airport.

The new projects, many designed by top international architects, are impressive to say the least. Twelve brand-new Olympic venues were built from scratch, with another 11 existing structures renovated.

Gearing up for the Games

For the Chinese government the Olympics wasn't just about new sports venues and improved urban infrastructure. The Olympics were supposed to be the country's coming-out party, a peaceful celebration of a rising superpower. Efforts were made to reduce the serious pollution that still grips the city, and Beijing's Communist Party secretary promised to "reeducate" people used to cheering and jeering players at sporting events.

All did not go as planned from the very beginning. An international relay of the Olympic torch met with fierce anti-China protests across the globe after riots broke out in Tibet. The flame was later carried to the top of Mt. Everest, but the event was shrouded in secrecy. A huge earthquake on May 12, 2008, killed tens of thousands of people in southwest China, further dampening the festive atmosphere. Security concerns resulted in strengthened enforcement of visa policies for foreigners, giving the city the atmosphere of an armed camp. During the games, reports surfaced on the arrest and detention of Chinese citizens who had submitted applications to protest.

Growing Up: Beijing Under Construction

The skyline of Beijing was once famously flat—before a forest of pre-Olympic cranes rose above the remnants of traditional hutong neighborhoods. After winning its bid to host the 2008 Olympics, Beijing became "the world's largest construction site," a rowdy playground for international architects with little regard for traditional Chinese design. The city is now home to brash, breathtaking structures.

Beijing Capital Airport, Terminal 3

With its lantern-red roof shaped like a dragon, Beijing's airport expansion embraces traditional Chinese motifs with a 21st-century twist: its architect calls it the "world's largest and most advanced airport building." This single terminal contains more floor space than all the terminals at London's Heathrow Airport combined. Construction started in 2004 with a team of 50,000 construction workers and was completed a few months before the Olympic Games. Beijing Capital Airport.

Architect: Norman Foster, the preeminent British architect responsible for Hong Kong's widely respected airport.

Beijing Linked Hybrid

With 700 apartments in eight bridge-linked towers surrounding a plethora of shopping and cultural options, the Linked Hybrid has been applauded for parting from the sterility of typical Chinese housing. The elegant complex also features an impressive set of green credentials such as geothermal heating and a wastewater recycling system. Adjacent to the northeast corner of the Second Ring Road.

Architects: New York-based Steven Holl, who won awards for his Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland, and Li Hu, who helped design China's first contemporary museum in Nanjing.

CCTV (Central Chinese Television) Tower

The most remarkable of China's new structures, the new central television headquarters twists the idea of a skyscraper quite literally into a 40-story-tall gravity-defying loop. What some have called the world's most complex building is also, with a $1.3 billion price tag, one of the world's priciest. An accompanying building that was to include a hotel, a visitor center, and a public theater was seriously destroyed after it caught on fire during the Chinese New Year fireworks display in 2009. 32 Dong San Huan Zhonglu (32 East Third Ring Middle Road).

Architects: Rem Koolhaas (a Dutch mastermind known for his daring ideas and successful Seattle Public Library) and Ole Scheeren (Koolhaas's thirtysomething German protégé).

National Stadium ("the Bird's Nest")

Though its exterior lattice structure is said to resemble the twigs of a nest, the 42,000 tons of steel bending around its center make this 80,000-seat stadium look more like a Martian mothership. It's absolutely massive and must be seen to be believed. Beijing Olympic Park at Bei Si Huan Lu (North Fourth Ring Road).

Architects: Herzog and de Meuron of Switzerland, who won the prestigious Pritzker Prize for work at London's Tate Modern and the Ricola Marketing Building in Laufen, Switzerland.

National Swimming Center ("the Water Cube")

The translucent skin and hexagonal high-tech "pillows" that define this 17,000-seat indoor stadium create the impression of a building fashioned entirely out of bubbles. The structure is based on the premise that bubbles are the most effective way to divide a three-dimensional space—and they help save energy and keep the building earthquake-proof. The center has now been turned into a public aquatics center. Beijing Olympic Park.

Architects: PTW, the Australian firm that cut its teeth on venues for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

Grand National Theater ("the Egg")

Like the so-called Bird's Nest, "the Egg," as this bulbous glass-draped opera house is called, might cause passersby to think yet another spaceship has landed in the capital—this one near Tiananmen Square. Indeed, its close proximity to the Forbidden City and its soaring costs (more than $400 million) have earned it a hostile welcome among some Chinese architects. Xi Chang'an Jie (just west of Tiananmen Square).

Architect: French-born Paul Andreu, who designed the groundbreaking Terminal 1 of Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport in 1974.

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