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China Turns To More Modern Architecture

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China Turns To More Modern Architecture


China Turns To More Modern Architecture

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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During this summer's Olympics, television networks will be broadcasting images of China's national stadium in Beijing. The exterior of this circular structure is a jumble of interwoven beams. Most Chinese have come to call it the bird's nest. The Beijing Olympic committee calls that stadium an icon of modern China.

The bird's nest is not the only modernist building that's gone up in China's capital in the past few years; internationally acclaimed architects and designers are swarming around the city with big plans and even bigger budgets. Not everyone is fond of the new cityscape but everyone does take notice.

Lisa Chow reports from Beijing.

LISA CHOW: I'm standing here in Tiananmen Square, beneath the famous portrait of Mao Zedong. It hangs at the entrance of the magnificent Forbidden City. Most of the buildings in the Square are large monumental structures. You've got rigid lines, large columns. They look like dynastic or post-revolutionary Communist China.

But not far away there's a striking new building, radically different from what you see here. It's just a few blocks away so let's walk on over.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

CHOW: So here we've got the National Grand Theater. It's an enormous titanium and glass dome surrounded entirely by water. So to actually get into the building, you've got to go underground. It's probably the most controversial building built in Beijing these past few years, costing more than $300 million. And the architect is Frenchman Paul Andreu.

Mr. PAUL ANDREU (Architect): A modern building in an existing place is disturbing. That is a fact.

CHOW: After winning the design competition, Andreu met with then Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. He says the Chinese leader knew there was a risk the public would disapprove of the design.

Mr. ANDREU: He told me your building is difficult. This place is good for us, and take care. But we selected yours and if we have 51 or 52 percent of the people, please, that's our first success.

CHOW: The government has awarded some of its biggest projects to foreign architects. Besides Andreu's building, the Bird's Nest Stadium was designed by Swiss architects, and a Dutchman designed the new headquarters for China's state television network, CCTV. The government not only spent $1.5 billion on these buildings, it broke rules to make them happen.

CCTV's architect Rem Koolhaas says China's soaring ambition helped him realize his unusual design.

Mr. REM KOOLHAAS (Architect): To reinvent institutions, reinvent laws, reinvent a society and kind of trying to find organs that can somehow both express but also make it work, that is of course unique to this moment here.

CHOW: Koolhaas's structure includes two L-shaped high-rise towers leaning inward and linked at the top and bottom. It seems to defy gravity. Its been touted as the second-largest office building in the world, after the Pentagon. Rory McGowan is chief engineer. He's with Arup, a firm based in London.

Mr. RORY MCGOWAN (Chief Engineer, Arup): There is nothing like this anywhere in the world. There is no precedent.

CHOW: He says because of its shape and size, it broke all of the building codes. And so China brought together its top engineers to help come up with new codes. But, McGowan says, what really set this project apart were the building criteria that CCTV presented to the architects at the start.

Mr. MCGOWAN: The brief was to have the entire workings of the national media company on one site. Okay. That is unparalleled brief. It's never happened before and it probably never will happen again.

CHOW: He says the site will house everything from mobile broadcasting trucks to a hotel, conference facilities, broadcasting studios and management, where 10,000 people will work. The architect, Koolhaas, points to another factor behind the lofty goal for this building: age. He says in American cultural institutions, decision makers are 70. In Europe, they're 50, 55.

Mr. KOOLHAAS: The average age of decision makers here is 30 or 35. And that in itself, you know, is simply statistically means that we are talking to people who are in the beginning of their life and therefore, you know, have the thrust and the sense of adventure.

CHOW: And yet many young people in Beijing aren't particularly drawn to the flashiness. Luo Qing is 32 and has watched the CCTV towers go up from across the street in her office.

Ms. LUO QING: (Through translator) I don't like it. I can't deal with such a modern-looking building. I still prefer more traditional Chinese architecture.

CHOW: Her colleague, Sun Peng, also 32, agrees.

Mr. SUN PENG: (Through translator) I think Beijing should construct buildings that reflect the city's history and culture, especially for important landmarks such as the CCTV tower.

CHOW: One of the strongest critics is Xiao Mo, a retired professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Professor XIAO MO (Tsinghua University): (Through translator) There is a bird's egg in the South, a bird's nest in the North, a bird's tree in the East, and a bird's cage in the West.

CHOW: Bird's egg refers to the National Grand Theater; tree refers to the CCTV building; and cage refers to the Olympics basketball stadium, designed by Swiss architects.

Prof. XIAO: (Through translator) They turned our beautiful Beijing into the world's bird capital.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHOW: Back outside, Andreu stands in front of his egg-shaped theater, or what he calls a cultural island in the middle of a lake.

Mr. ANDREU: I do believe that culture is important. We have all these ancestors and all these ideas behind us, and all these centuries of culture behind us, but what is required from us is to live our lives, not to look back.

CHOW: And at least for now the Chinese government agrees.

For NPR News, I'm Lisa Chow.

AMOS: And to see photos of the dramatic new buildings in Beijing, visit


While Beijing's architecture looks to the future, China's sports system grows out of its past. Just as in the days of Chairman Mao, the government pays salaries to athletes, and as we will hear in the coming week on MORNING EDITION, China spends millions of dollars to train those athletes.

Unidentified Woman: Financially their life is probably a bit easier than most athletes, at least in the U.S. Most Olympic athletes in the U.S. are still supporting themselves by college scholarships or other jobs. The result in China is that athletes can concentrate fully on their training.

INSKEEP: Sounds cushy, but for Chinese athletes who begin rigorous training early in childhood, the experience can be brutal. NPR's Louisa Lim brings us that story Monday as we begin a weeklong series on China's exclusive athletic system.

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