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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 January 2007, 13:55 GMT
Beijing builds on foreign footings
By Quentin Sommerville
BBC News, Beijing

From the dust and dirt of north Beijing, China's new national stadium rises spectacularly.

National Olympic Stadium in Beijing - Sep 2006
Beijing's skyline has been transformed

A tangle of steel and concrete, China - and the world - have never seen anything like it.

The imagery used to describe it is Chinese - it conjures up lattice work or bowls of noodles - but everyone seems to agree that it looks like a bird's nest.

The influences are Asian, but the architects are not.

Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, which designed the structure, is part of a growing army of foreign architects who are setting out a new vision for the Chinese capital.

But this remodelling of Beijing by outsiders has not pleased everyone. Some of the new buildings have infuriated China's architectural establishment and caused a backlash from the Chinese leadership.

Away from the Olympic site, near the bricks and timber of the Forbidden City, it is as if an alien presence has landed.

The new National Theatre was designed by French architect Paul Andreu. He may have imagined a shimmering egg, surrounded by its own moat. But in this dusty city, the egg rarely glistens.

As the country pushes on with urbanisation, it will see a new generation of architects that produce work with a Chinese style
Zhu Pei

Professor Alfred Peng of Tsinghua University, one of its fiercest critics, says the building is unsuitable for Beijing.

"It's totally out of place, it doesn't fit within the whole. It's all courtyard houses around here. This doesn't integrate with any urban fabric in this neighbourhood," he said.

And he believes that the theatre is disconnected from the surrounding hutongs, Beijing's traditional courtyard houses, and the people who live in them.

Different lines

Beijing is an intimate place. As in many Chinese cities, even private spaces are communal. The line between what is public and what is personal differs from the West.

This is something foreigners do not understand, says another architect, Zhu Pei.

"After 1949, a lot of courtyard houses were no longer for one family, they have many families. Even inside the courtyard you have to share, so this means between the public space and the private space you can never draw clear lines. So everything is shared," he said.

But, whether public or private, earlier Chinese architecture was poor.

It was state-controlled, the buildings monolithic and uninspiring. Chinese influences appear as crude afterthoughts, plonked on-top like hats. It left Beijing with no modern landmarks of note.

Model of CCTV building
The CCTV project stoked official displeasure

Adjusting to the single-minded visions of western architects has not been easy, especially when they have created buildings like the new headquarters of state broadcaster CCTV. According to its Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, this will be the second biggest building in the world after the Pentagon.

The firm describes its design as a folded loop. Two of its towers will leap out at a six degree angle; a cantilevered section will then connect them mid-air.

It is as if they have taken four of London's Canary Wharf towers and balanced them on top of each other.

Breathtaking it may be, but it has also caused China's leadership to pause for thought.

Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minster, has said some of these new grand projects are style over substance, and their foreign flourishes and excesses could damage the harmony of Chinese society.

Knowledge transfer

For a while the CCTV building, the Bird's Nest stadium and the new National Theatre projects were put on hold.

Eventually they restarted, with some alterations. But new foreign commissions may now be more difficult to come-by.

Ole Scheeren, who is in charge of the Rem Koolhaas project, believes Chinese architects are ready for more responsibility.

"There's an increasing number of Chinese architects that are now taking over more and more significant projects and starting to produce more and more significant architecture," he said.

Zhu Pei
Zhu Pei is looking to a new generation of Chinese architects

"It's maybe a natural aspect of the process of rapid modernisation that a country in the initial stages of such a process looks abroad for knowledge and technology transfer," he said.

Zhu Pei is part of a new breed of local architect, keen to exploit China's rapid modernisation. Educated at Berkeley in California, his work is definitively but subtly Chinese.

"I feel I have a sense of mission," he said.

He transformed a Mao-era garment building near the Forbidden City into an upmarket hotel.

"I hope I can bring the western way of working, the idea of precision, to architectural design in China.

"As the country pushes on with urbanisation, it will see a new generation of architects that produce work with a Chinese style. I think they will eventually become part of the band of first rate, international architects," he said.

Urbanisation is taking place in China at an improbable speed. The country's cityscapes are being transformed, sometimes with mixed results.

China's own architects have had to learn fast - they now have the tools to build great buildings. But without foreign influence, that would have been unthinkable.

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