A DIY Tour of Beijing's New Architectural Stars

Culture | by Stephan Larose
Posted: August 1st, 2008 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
A self-guided tour of Beijing's new architectural marvels, from the Bird's Nest to the Egg to the Cube to the Wingless Dragon and beyond.... If you've been paying any attention to China at all in the past year, you've no doubt caught the hype on the Discovery Channel's Extreme Engineering or in countless newspaper and magazine articles. Beijing—long famed for ancient classics of Chinese architecture, from the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven to the Great Wall—has been boldly remaking itself with one futuristic architectural statement building after another, inviting the world's most innovative starchitects to make their marks. If you're in Beijing for the Olympics or just for a visit, you'll want to check out the city's new cast of starchitect-designed buildings, from the Egg to the Bird's Nest and beyond. But there's no need to line up a tour guide—here at TravelChina.net, we've got you covered with a quick outline for an independent self-guided tour of Beijing's newest architectural marvels. All you'll need is a pair of walking shoes, a bottle of water, change for the subway and, of course, your camera! Norman Foster's Wingless Dragon, Beijing's Terminal 3 That's right, you've just gotten off the plane and already you're there!  Another building in a long line of made-in-China world's ____est structures, this one, a glass and steel dragon of unprecedented size, is touted as the largest and most advanced airport building in the world. Jaw-droppingly vast in scale, Terminal 3's most impressive fact may be the speed with which this monster was put up. Bigger than all of London's Heathrow terminals combined (and perhaps 1,000 times as efficient and 500 times less obnoxious), Beijing's Terminal 3 went up in less time than it took just to conduct Heathrow Terminal Five's planning inquiry, making it a tribute to central planning and to the steely determination of the 50,000 workers responsible for finishing it in time to welcome hordes of Olympics tourists. Terminal 3's 3.25 km of feng-shui-friendly red and gold concourses perfectly match the dominant colors of Beijing's prize attractions, the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City—a respectful gesture to China's past and traditions. Looking forward, by 2020 the terminal is expected to process over 50 million passengers a year. Think that's enough to handle China's growing share of air traffic? Think again—there are plans to build a staggering 96 more airports throughout the country, though it's a safe bet that none will rival the jewel of Beijing Capital's crown. After taking a look around, hop onto the newly opened Airport Express subway and take it to the first stop: Sanyuanqiao Station (this is assuming you don't need to hit the hotel and sleep off a transcontinental flight—if you're into contemporary architecture, we recommend checking out one of the following new hotels: the Kempinski's Commune by the Great Wall or the Hotel Kapok). Disembark and transfer to Line 10, heading to Bagou Station. Keep your eyes peeled—you'll want to get off at Beitucheng Station, which exits onto the opening of the massive Olympic Green and the site of your next superstar buildings, and perhaps the most recognizable of them all. The Bird's Nest (Niaochao) and Watercube (Shuilifang) The Olympic Greens, Beijing's newest urban parkland, are great for walking and sightseeing—they're full of Olympic-themed sculpture, art and fun rest spots. To get to the Bird's Nest, walk north on Beichen Lu, and soon you'll see it on your right with the Watercube on your left. The Bird's Nest—officially known as Beijing National Stadium—is easily the most iconic of Beijing's Olympic structures. It's hosting all Olympic track and field events and Beijing football matches (Shanghai Stadium will also see some football action), all to be played before crowds of 100,000. If you're among them, you'll be one of the privileged few to appreciate Herzog and deMeuron's architectural masterpiece up close. Monstrous steel elements weighing up to 350 tons a piece have been intertwined in a way that actually makes this gargantuan structure look delicate. The building has received both praise and criticism for its unconventional and potentially risky design—over 70% of the building's weight hangs over the audience's head. Critics notwithstanding, there's no doubt the Bird's Nest represents a massive accomplishment for the Chinese. As an architectural marvel, an unmistakable landmark and an iconic Olympic image, it will undoubtedly be a source of pride for years to come. The Watercube, although less grandiose in scale, almost manages to upstage its neighbor. A childlike simplicity and enchanting bubble motif mask an incredibly sophisticated design. The builders, a consortium of Chinese and Australian firms, employed a quasi-magical material called ETFE, a species of teflon, to give the cube its bubblicious glam quotient. Designed to react to changing light conditions, it's the material responsible for the Water Cube's stunning visual effects, which are best viewed at night. The walls, which capture up to 90% of ambient and solar heat, slowly shift through a range of colors. It's almost enough to make you forget that the action is inside, not outside the building. After you're done taking in these two Olympic icons, hop on to the subway and head back down to Beitucheng Station, where you'll transfer back to Line 10, this time heading in the opposite direction, towards Jinsong Station. Exit at Jintaixizhao Station. When you exit, make your way north along the East Third Ring North Road, and you'll see building four of your tour almost immediately. Rem Koolhass's Twisted Masterpiece: The CCTV National HQ The new CCTV headquarters is undoubtedly the world's most unconventional high rise, and, like the Bird's Nest and Wingless Dragon, it's already earned itself a few amusing nicknames, including the dakucha or the "big pants" and the less flattering, but more literally accurate, waiqu dalou (歪曲大楼) or "twisted building," with a heavy implication of "twisted news," though we honestly can't imagine why the home of China's state television media would warrant such a sour sobriquet. Sure, there's lots of controversy surrounding this gravity-defying behemoth, but one thing is certain: this building cements Beijing's reputation as a global center for experimental architectural design. The alarming angles and bending bridge section may seem chancy for earthquake-prone Beijing, but the design incorporates a massive encapsulating grid of diagonal beams that thicken around stress points to minimize the risk. For the less skeptical, the building's eyebrow-raising design represents a consciousness shift away from the rigid mindsets of careful control of social order towards something more improvisational and open minded. Check it out: you be the judge (note , however, that any change in mindset hasn't extended to the interior of this fabulous building, which remains closed to any but CCTV employees and special guests). After snapping a few pics you'll want to hop back on the metro and head south (same direction as before) and transfer to Line 1 at Guomao Station. Head west towards Pinguoyuan and get off at Tian'anmen West. This is the last stop on your tour, right in Beijing's cultural heart, near Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City. So once you're done admiring the new National Center for the Performing Arts, you'll be able to join the tourist throngs wandering Beijing's most famed ancient landmarks. Paul Andrew's Egg Many visitors will probably find this to be Beijing's prettiest new structure, with its smooth graceful lines and curves. Be that as it may, "the Egg" seems to be the building that's gotten the most flack from Beijingers. They've even called it huai dan, the "Rotten Egg," for disrupting Beijing's feng shui. The architects mindfully incorporated the circle-and-square/heaven-and-earth theme present in so many pinnacles of Chinese culture, like the Summer Palace, but, if many locals are to be believed, they flubbed it. The Egg's square half thoroughly disrupts the concentric circles weaving out from the Forbidden City, and unfortunately, that's the motif around which all of Beijing was originally designed. People say it's an impostor and an alien monstrosity. And there is indeed a drastic contrast between this über-modern structure and that epitome of tradition sitting next door, the Forbidden City. Still, despite all the local disparagement, many visitors are certain to fall in love with Paul Andrew's Egg. The sky is mirrored its semi-transparent, golden-netted glass walls, allowing onlookers outside to enjoy the play of colors as the lights of dawn and dusk interact with the building's massive titanium and glass shell Now you're done with your tour of Beijing's 21st century icons, and, if you start early enough, you'll have time left to explore the city's older side, from Tian'anmen Square to the Forbidden City and Beihai Park. Enjoy!
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