Behind the Olympics: Memories of the old Beijing

Last summer, I found myself on a dusty lot overlooking Herzog & de Meuron‘s newest creation: an elegant jumble of I-beams that Beijing residents wryly refer to as the “bird’s nest.” The stadium housed 91,000 spectators for the opening of the Olympics, marking what many believe to be the “Century of China.” I struggled to see anything beyond the gawking tourists, imposing cranes, and cough-inducing smog.

Beijing isn’t very Beijing-ish anymore. Just a decade ago, I could amble through the labyrinths of hutongs – narrow alleyways unique to the capital – and sip some cha at the neighborhood teahouse. Now I barely recognize the new Beijing.

The sleepy outpost once considered the architectural backwater of Asia now rivals Shanghai and Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan juggernaut and its ambitions do not stop there. In the last few years, Beijing has snatched the attention of the world’s top architects away from the usual gang – New York, London, Paris – to power its metamorphosis at a frenetic pace that threatens to eclipse Dubai‘s.

It boasts the world’s largest airport terminal, designed by Britain’s Norman Foster (which opened last month), the immense national theater by Frances Paul Andreu, and the megarestaurant LAN by Philippe Starck. But towering above anything else – both figuratively and literally – is Rem Koolhaas‘s 750-foot doughnut-shaped marvel for China Central Television (CCTV), which will be broadcasting this year’s Olympics from the skyscraper to the 1.3 billion Chinese. “The sheer possibility of designing it, something of that magnitude and ambition, is only possible in China,” says Ole Scheeren, the partner in charge of the project.

The CCTV building sits squarely in the middle of the newly established Central Business District (CBD). “Five years ago, there was nothing there besides abandoned factories,” says Mr. Scheeren. He recounts being shown a blueprint of the district by government officials with 300 skyscrapers etched in – planned construction for the coming decade. Their postmodernist wonder has rewritten the playbook on space and context.

Driving toward it one day last summer, the “trouser legs” (a local nickname for the CCTV) looked imperial and gargantuan. A split moment later, as I glanced in the rear-view mirror, it seemed gaunt and teetering on collapse, like a stack of poorly placed Jenga pieces.

Across town, and next door to the Forbidden City, developer Handel Lee has been busy converting the former American Embassy – built in the dying days of the Qing Dynasty – into another international icon of Chinese extravagance, featuring chic imports like a Daniel Boulud restaurant from New York and the swanky nightclub Boujis from London. As the perfect example of Beijing‘s “me, too” attitude, it’s telling that Mr. Lee’s last project was Three on the Bund, a cultural venue that revitalized Shanghai‘s riverfront.

Thankfully not everyone’s quick to take the Beijing out of Beijing’s architecture. A year or so ago, Shauna Liu, born and bred in Beijing, opened Côté Cour, the first upscale hotel set in a traditional courtyard or siheyuan. Here, in one of the last cultural enclaves in the city, not much has changed since Ms. Liu’s siheyuan was first built 500 years ago. Neighbors exchange gossip, kids run down the packed hutongs, and vendors hawk everyday goods like fresh fruit and pirated DVDs (OK so one thing’s changed). She’s managed to fuse the authentic Chinese design with a Western splash of style, bringing in Venetian plaster, glass tiles, and a lily pond. And guests couldn’t be happier – she’s almost booked for this year’s Olympics.

Sadly, even though China‘s populace is no longer so complacent or disconnected, in the push to modernize, the central government has gutted Beijing’s very soul.

A generation ago, some 6,000 hutongs wove through the pedestrian-friendly city. Now less than a thousand remain. More than a million local residents have been tossed into the streets, their homes commandeered in the Olympics frenzy. The whole situation ominously smacks of Mao’s conquest of the capital in 1949, when he seized the siheyuans and tore down the historic city wall to make room for a humdrum slew of factories.

Millions of peasants and migrant workers are expected to pour back into Beijing after the Olympics, and the city’s wealth gap continues to widen, making it hard to maintain President Hu Jintao‘s vision of a “harmonious society.” One thing’s for sure though, a doughnut-shaped icon won’t be able to feed the poor.

New Beijing Airport to be World’s Largest

China is building a new airport in Beijing that is expected to be open in time for the 2008 Olympics. At over a million square meters, and an expected 53 million passengers per year, it will surely become the world’s largest and most technologically advanced. “It was built using sustainable design principles,” according to Business Week, “including southeast-oriented skylights (to maximize heat from early sunshine) and an integrated environment-control system that uses minimal energy.” Check out the gallery below. (Thanks, Marilyn!)


Beijing to Ban Traffic in August

In response to the high levels of pollution in Beijing, China, the International Olympic Committee is beginning to worry about the health of Olympic fans and athletes alike. To determine whether or not to completely ban private cars in the city as way to decrease the pollution, the committee will do a two-week, car-free trial run in August. If the two weeks sans cars significantly reduces pollution in the city, private car traffic will be completely banned in Beijing during the Olympics of 2008.

With almost 15-million people living in Beijing and the surrounding municipality, this seems completely crazy. How can a city continue to operate when all private cars are banned? Sure, Beijing has some decent mass transit, and many, many people travel by bike, but still. If the trial run shows a significant decrease in pollution, that means there are still a ton of people relying on private cars to get around.

Thanks to our sister site, Autoblog Green, for the tip!