Memo from Beijing

City planner Edmund Bacon once described Beijing as “possibly the greatest single work of man on the face of the earth.” Indeed, when he was here in the 1930s, China’s capital was a sample of monumental geometry. The hutongs —va maze of alleyways formed by the traditional courtyards that shape city neighborhoods — were integrated with temples, imperial structures and quaint parks in a nearly symmetrical way. Beijing was all of a piece. 

Things have changed significantly since then. While Mao's reign from 1949-1976 witnessed an attempt to transform Beijing into a center for government dotted by industrial buildings and factories aplenty, the 1990s promoted a modernization message: "destroy the old and build the new." In practice, it put the capital city under attack from the wrecking ball of progress. 

Then, almost overnight, the metropolis has turned into a striking, unmistakably 21st-century city, combining relentless development with a fondness for the avant-garde. After winning the bid to host the Olympic Games in 2008, construction has been militant. Forever evolving, this Beijing has begun developing a unique skyline where towers are generously applied, and real gems are few and far between.


Imposing and impressive, most of Beijing’s new complexes display as much showmanship as architecture, while evincing a quiet, monumental grandeur. OMA's and Büro Ole Scheeren’s CCTV Tower kick-started the frenzy for new buildings in 2008. In 2010, Sanlitun Sohofurther fueled the hype. Designed by Kengo Kuma and Asociates, the structure is a sophisticated urban development that creates a sense of enclosure by clustering its buildings along a curving, central passageway. It mixes retail, offices, hotels, and residences, and, although largely still empty, creates the sense of a compact neighborhood with its own architectural identity. 

A new commercial complex called Indigo, a $654-million project, opened last year near Beijing’s 798 Art District just a short drive from the artistic cluster of Caochangdi. The 20-million-square-foot structure spans three levels to offer a shopping mall, a multi-complex cinema and an adjoining hotel, EAST Beijing, which mixes minimal décor with state-of-the-art business amenities. The property—a younger sibling of cult hotel The Opposite House in Sanlitun—boasts a three-level bar, two international and seasonal restaurants, 369 well-conceived, high-tech rooms, and alcoves filled with curated Chinese art. It has quickly become one of the places to see and be seen in the city. 

A gargantuan structure of white curved orbs connected by sky-bridges, Galaxy Soho was completed last October by Zaha Hadid Architects to serve as another new retail, office and entertainment complex. The 3.5-million-square-foot space comprises four domed structures around a series of public courtyards and a large central "canyon." Towering over the squat, Soviet-style buildings of the Chaoyang District, it seems to hover like a spaceship.

Developed by engineering firm ArupParkview Green FangCaoDi mixed-use complex was unveiled in November in the same district as Galaxy Soho. One of the city’s—and China’s—top ranked green buildings, it is encapsulated by a large glass pyramid to create an energy efficient microclimate. Encased in two nine-level and two 18-level towers are the boutique hotel, Éclat Beijing, a retail hub, as well as office spaces. 

Perched at the apex of the complex’s striking glass pyramid, Éclat is a remarkable new addition to Beijing’s luxury hospitality industry. The chic 100-room urban retreat, which opened in March, houses China’s largest private collection of Salvador Dali’s artwork, alongside works by Andy Warhol and Chinese artists Zeng Fanzhi and Chen Wenling. Large windows and the glass structure generate a feeling of space and light within the hotel while creating a unique, climate-controlled environment. 

Conrad Hotels and Resorts, one of the most upscale ventures of Hilton Worldwide, also opened a Beijing outpost by the local Mad Architects in March. It is a 300-room hotel spanning recreational facilities, restaurants, a rooftop bar and a spa. Its façade, which looks like a nervous tissue, is lined with a grid of curtain wall windows planted into a simple cubic. 

Alongside the flashy glitz of moneyed Sanlitun, a mecca of consumerism for the city’s wealthiest, Beijing is developing a booming art scene, gorgeous boutiques and heavenly food, often hidden in the Gulou, the neighborhood around the Drum tower in the heart of the old city. The area is gentrifying, and though that has its downside—like rising rents that push out locals—the changes have been piecemeal, and the neighborhood retains its charms while attracting visitors with cocktail lounges, trendy restaurants, and boutique hotels. Converted courtyards and renovated hutong houses have turned into some of the city’s most fashionable hotspots. 

Located in a hidden courtyard house once home to the last empress and tucked away in Mao’er hutong, boutique shop Wuhao is filled with curated furniture, jewelry and clothing by Asian and international designers. Nearby is recently opened Ink, a Hong Kong import that stocks cutting-edge menswear. Austria-based architect Thomas Pucher is behind the inventive hutong space, transformed with suspended rails and a gallery, which can showcase new collections and crossover projects with local artists as well as host private parties. 

On the hospitality side, bespoke hotels like 3+1 BedroomsTemple Hotel and The Orchid have raised the bar for boutique destinations in the city. 3+1 Bedrooms offers cool, minimal interiors, private patios with lush bamboo, and a rooftop terrace with views over Old Beijing. Tucked away down the narrowest of alleyways, the tiny Orchid is the work of a young Hong Kong architect, a Canadian tea expert, and a Tibetan-born Chinese woman, who imbued a derelict old hutong home with style, comfort and luxury. 

Temple Hotel is a heady mix of art gallery, restaurant, hotel and cultural curiosity that can’t be quite defined. Built during the Ming Dynasty as an imperial printing house for Buddhist sutras, the complex later became the residence of one of the most important religious authorities of the Qing Emperors—then abruptly transitioned into a TV factory during the Cultural Revolution. It sprawls over a city block just yards away from the fabled Forbidden City. Its latest reincarnation, led by Australian firm Hassell, features an installation by artist James Turrell and works by designer Ingo Maurer within its courtyards and pavilions, not to mention one of the most exciting restaurants in town, TRB. Inside the restaurant, a wall of windows allows diners to gaze into the renovated courtyard. Blending old and new, it has preserved the original stone archway and wooden beams and while adding sleek contemporary furnishings.

A vibrant dining scene is also one of Beijing’s most remarkable and evolving features. China’s capital has recently drawn quite a few international names from the gastronomy world, including Daniel Boulud, Yannick Alleno, and chef Nobu Matsuhisa. The mix got a lot hotter this past winter, when The Courtyard, a venerable restaurant located along the Forbidden City’s moat, was relaunched as Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard. Best known for molecular gastronomy, British-born chef Brian McKenna made his name in the U.K. at Le Poussin at Parkhill and moved to Beijing in 2007. For his first namesake restaurant, McKenna has teamed up with luxury developer Handel Lee, who opened the original Courtyard back in 1997, and hired Graft to revamp the space. 

Together they have morphed the space into something more akin to an exclusive private dining room, albeit one without an ounce of pretention. Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard has only nine tables, and offers diners views over the water and old City walls, which are illuminated at night. In contrast to the ancient setting, the sleek interior effortlessly weaves together old and new with ample use of brass and an oversize photography of the Forbidden City occupying most of the restaurant’s back wall.

The new building for the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), a 1.3-million-square-foot structure has seen many blockbuster contemporaries, including Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid competing for its commission. Planned to be one of a trio of buildings—the others being a museum dedicated to the arts and crafts and a Sinology center—the new NAMOC will occupy a site next to the Bird’s Nest,Beijing National Stadium, as part of a broad effort to attract more visitors to the area. 

Eyes are also on Galeries Lafayette's return to the Chinese capital, after the Parisian luxury shopping mainstay opened a Beijing outpost on Wangfujing over 15 years ago and shuttered it shortly after due to disappointing sales. The new Galerie Lafayette Beijing is slated to open in September 2013 in Beijing’s Xidan district, a partnership with the Hong Kong fashion retail powerhouse I.T. Expected to comprise 190,000 square feet, the outpost will be the group’s largest after its flagship Paris store on Boulevard Haussmann.

In contrast to luxe retail, experimental pop-ups and alternative events and venues are visible expressions of a strong underground movement characterizing Beijing. Offering a shot of underground cool, The Tease Boutique, an indie collective of European and Chinese creatives, has gained visibility among city-savvy locals for a series of conceptual parties held monthly or bimonthly in secret locations, spanning abandoned churches and empty lofts.

Following Beijing Design Week last September, Caochangdi, the artistic enclave in the city’s northeastern outskirts that was one of the festival’s main components, continues to be a major hotbed for Chinese creativity, boasting avant-garde spaces for local and international artists. Designed by artist Ai Weiwei as a cluster of low, minimalist buildings clad in weathered gray bricks reminiscing of thehutongs, it houses some of China’s leading galleries, from Pekin Fine Arts to Three Shadows Photography Art Center, alongside artists’ studios.

1949 Hidden City, a former research facility for the Beijing Machinery and Electric Institute, is also leading the city’s social scene. In 2008, Elite Concepts retooled the factory on Beijing's east side into a hip industrial dining and entertainment venue which now includes restaurants, a cafe, a bar and an art gallery, as well as gardens and a gorgeous rooftop. Frederick Twomey’s Bar Veloce, one of New York’s best wine bars, opened here last May. Orange bricks, a high ceiling, neatly arranged seating and a few industrial touches characterize the venue.

Architect Ma Yansong, a native Beijinger, is known as an important voice in a new generation of Chinese architects. Since the founding of his practice MAD Architects in 2004, his works have been widely published and exhibited. He studied at Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, holds a degree in architecture from Yale University, and has taught at CAFA. In 2011 he became the first architect from China to receive a RIBA fellowship.

Interior Design: Are you currently working on any projects in Beijing?

Ma Yansong: Yes. We’re just about to start the planning and designing of a new urban complex near Chaoyang Park. It will consist of commercial, residential and office buildings, inspired by a shan shuivision, literally meaning city of mountain and water. It will combine the urban construction and the natural environment, with two high-rise buildings resembling mountains. The tight integration of architecture-landscape-city is the core of the traditional Chinese city design theory and methodology, and what we strive to follow at MAD too. We’ll also soon be launching a shan shui manifesto, coinciding with an exhibition on futuristic urbanism. 

ID: How do you hope it will add to the city?
MY: I hope it will contribute to Beijing’s organic growth as a metropolis, and become an integral part of the landscape, as well as of the community. That’s my vision of urban life—a lot of people integrated with one another.

ID: Is there a specific trait that you think characterizes Beijing’s urban development? 

MY: Big buildings and mega cities-inspired urbanism. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing, although it’s perhaps unavoidable at this stage, given Beijing’s rapid expansion. 

ID: What drew you to become an architect? 

MY: As an architect you control lots of resources to build buildings, and those buildings influence society. We build them step by step, and they influence our society little by little. Eventually they become historical trends. This fascinates me, but I’m also aware reaching this level is not very straightforward.

ID: What part of the city is most inspiring to you? 

MY: The old hutongs around Houhai. I find the philosophy of traditional Chinese architecture extremely fascinating—how it was so focused on the environment, rather than on visual elements. 

ID: With the development of new luxury complexes and rising rents, some say that Beijing is rapidly becoming more commercialized and losing some of the gritty soul that makes it so popular. Do you think this is true?

MY: Sadly yes. Beijing has lost much of its history because of demolition projects that have swept away entire areas. What the city should strive for it’s a new balance within architectural developments and organic surroundings. 

ID: An increasing number of international architecture firms are settling in Beijing—and China in general—to work on their own projects. What challenges are they bound to face?

MY: There are a lot of challenges, and these are new for Chinese architects as well as for architects coming from different places. The building boom in China offers so many architectural projects that one might think young architects have it easy. But this is only half-true. Good architecture can capture people's emotion. Some architects have a lot of opportunities, but that doesn't mean good architecture. A lot of opportunities also have a lot of traps. They can make you so busy you can lose yourself. You have no time to think.

ID: What does Beijing need more of to grow as a design city? 

MY: We need more idealistic or unreal thinking from the people that plan and build this city. Beijing needs a more constructive resolution for the future. I think there are possibilities to make something new yet able to express the feeling of beauty you get with classic architecture. We should work towards that. 

ID: Beijing is often compared to Berlin in the 1990s, in terms of reinventing itself as a new city. Do you agree? 

MY: In a way. I think there’s this sense that both cities seem to be unendingly works-in-progress. You feel like there’s still room for possibility, and that the place is not fully defined yet.

First appeared on, May 2013.