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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 March, 2004, 01:36 GMT
Beijing's building revolution

By Louisa Lim
BBC correspondent in Beijing

In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is changing its public face, with the world's most expensive and innovative architects designing a new crop of projects which are sweeping away swathes of the old city.

Luxury development on Beijing outskirts
Buildings in luxury developments can cost $1000 a day to hire

"Nobody knows where Chinese culture is heading," Yung-he Chang said.

"What is a Chinese house today?"

It is a dilemma that, as a Chinese architect, he has tried to address in his own work.

His vision of the future stands in the shadow of one of the country's earliest architectural structures, the Great Wall.

In his attempt to reinterpret the traditional courtyard house, he has designed a split building divided by a triangular courtyard.

Set in the countryside outside Beijing, Yung-he Chang set out to make a biodegradable house, with a wooden frame and ramped earth walls.

Zaha Hadid
They want to have more extreme buildings, or buildings which will put them on the map
Zaha Hadid, architect

"The house can deteriorate, can disintegrate and can to some extent can disappear back into nature," he said.

It is a world away from Beijing's futuristic new look, showy projects designed by foreign architects and built to last.

The new Olympic stadium has variously been described as a "vision of some post-Blade Runner city" and a bird's nest.

The arena enclosed in its twisting concrete hoops is the work of a Swiss team, Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog, who were responsible for the transformation of London's Tate Modern.


Even more extraordinary is the new state television station by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. It seems to defy gravity with its intersecting Z-shaped towers which frame a huge empty hole. It has been christened the twisted doughnut.

"They want to have more extreme buildings, or buildings which will put them on the map," Zaha Hadid said of the Chinese leadership.

An Iraqi-born architect who is based in Britain, she is a superstar of the architecture world.

National Museum of Revolutionary History
The Chinese Communist Party has always valued architecture

She is also designing a project for Beijing, a one-million square metre residential and office complex, and she says working in the Chinese capital is unlike anywhere else.

"There's the will and the desire to make something quite unique and different. I think this is aided by the Olympics. It's a brave new world where it's possible to maybe test ideas and develop ideas which in some other places may not be possible."

"The scale is different here," she said.

And the quest for modernity has already begun - work on the state opera house is underway.

Designed by French architect Paul Andreu, locals call this dome-like structure the Egg.

In the shadow of the building, 80 year-old Mrs Kang does her washing.

She lives in a courtyard house surrounded by narrow alleys. It's a leftover of old Beijing, which will be bulldozed to make way for a highway circling the opera house.

For her, the new architecture is another instance of China's rulers imposing their will on the masses.

"What's it got to do with us?" Mrs Kang says. "After they've finished building it, they're going to kick us out. I'd never go to the opera anyway."


The Chinese Communist Party has always used architecture to present its public image.

Zhang Kaiji
It was just to show off. It wasn't really to serve the people
Zhang Kaiji,
Communist Party architect

Its familiar, forbidding face is Tiananmen Square with its huge open expanse flanked on both sides by massive monolithic porticoed buildings.

Zhang Kaiji designed one of those buildings, the National Museum of Revolutionary History. As one of the chief architects for the Chinese Communist party, he drew up the plans and supervised the buildings construction in just 10 months from start to finish in time for the 10th anniversary of Communist rule in 1959.

But at the age of 92, Zhang Kaiji now wishes he'd done things differently.

"There are a lot of things I regret," he told the BBC.

"Tiananmen Square is too big. We wanted to show how great our country was. At that time there was a feeling that bigger was better, but I think that is wrong. It was just to show off. It wasn't really to serve the people," he said.


Zhang Kaiji's son is the architect Yung-he Chang. And as he wanders around his split house, he also wonders about the motivation behind it.

Yung-he Chang
Yung-he Chang fears that like his father his work serves the elite

Originally it was envisaged by a local private developer as part of an upscale gated community made up of 12houses, each the work of a different Asian architect.

But it's become a luxury hotel with each house for hire at US$1000 a night. Now Yung-he Chang worries that he - like his father - is simply serving the elite.

"My father did work for the state in the name of the people. I don't think it's that accessible. In my case, I'm working for the new middle class. And my problem is am I really able to reach more people than my father? That's always questionable."

As it readies itself as an Olympic stage, Beijing is redefining its image: it wants to be ultra-modern, the essence of cool, designed by the best the world has to offer with money as no object.

But in this headlong rush to modernise, China's people and its traditions risk being left behind.

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