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Instant Modernity

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Architecture is a passion for SOHO China Ltd., owned by the husband-and-wife team of Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, and the fever is spreading quickly. “Beijing is probably the only place in the world now where commercial developers have the guts to work with top avant-garde architects,” Zhang says. “When we launch a new project, we make an enormous effort to advocate the importance of the architecture, and the architects we work with become instantly in demand in China.”

A recent convert to the gospel of modern design, Zhang is a Beijing work-unit refugee whose escape to capitalism began with piecework at a Hong Kong factory and, before she returned to her hometown in 1995, included a graduate degree in economics from Cambridge University and a career in international banking.

After succeeding with Yamamoto, her company reached out to Iraqi-born radical Zaha Hadid, winner of the 2004 Pritzker Architecture Prize, for its next megaproject, a “logistics hub” in southeast Beijing. It has commissioned Australia's Lab Architecture Studio to design another large mixed-use complex in the exploding-glass style of Daniel Libeskind and won a special award at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 2002 for the Commune at the Great Wall, an architectural theme park of daring weekend houses built in the shadow of the wall north of Beijing.

And whenever a local journalist wants to know why SOHO so rarely commissions Chinese architects, Zhang tartly reminds them why nationalism is “so backwards.”

As an ardent free-enterpriser, however, even she admits to being shocked by the extravagance of recent government commissions in Beijing, which have scandalized the set-aside old guard of the Chinese architectural establishment.

Most controversial is the National Theatre by French architect Paul Andreu, an enormous titanium dome set in an artificial lake just west of Tiananmen Square, now nearing completion.

“You slap your own face and get swollen, pretending you are a rich man,” scoffs Peng, a professor at Tsinghua University who has campaigned tirelessly against the project. “We have less than one-fifth of U.S. GDP per capita, yet they want to build a grand theatre four times the cost of Lincoln Center.”

Undeterred by the theatre controversy, government planners are busy creating an architectural wonderland on the site of the 2008 Olympic Games, centred on the extraordinary “bird's nest” stadium designed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. And by embracing Koolhaas's design of the new headquarters for CCTV, China's state broadcaster, their audacity became breathtaking.

At 400,000 square metres, the CCTV building is the size of four Bay Street bank towers tumbled into a single pile. It consists of two towers leaning 10 degrees in different directions, rising more than 70 storeys from either end of an enormous, L-shaped base and joined at the top by an equally large, daringly cantilevered structure mirroring the dog-legged base. An engineering tour de force in the most stable bedrock, it will dominate the skyline of one of the most earthquake-prone capitals in the world.

Although they weren't able to stop the new National Theatre, critics of Beijing's imperial-scaled building plans claimed victory this summer when President Hu Jintao's new regime moved to simplify the lavish Olympic plans. In the meantime, the fate of the CCTV building remains unclear.

And as the government moves to cool down the country's overheated development industry by restricting access to credit, even some of the country's most avid modernizers are beginning to question the results of the national makeover.

While resisting nostalgia for the impoverished city she fled as a teenager, SOHO's Zhang willingly concedes the new city that replaced it is “a complete mess,” largely undistinguished architecturally and fatally lacking in the planning controls that help to rationalize the Western cities it tries to emulate.

For his part, Beijing architect Yung Ho Chang detects historically unprecedented feelings of cultural inferiority in the big party and its “mindless imitation” of Western design. “If that's going to be the prevailing atmosphere — and it is at the moment — there's never going to be any really good Chinese architecture.”

It's easy to believe in the continuity of Chinese culture when visiting Chang's Atelier Feichang Jianzhu in a tile-roofed outbuilding of the Old Summer Palace in northern Beijing, with birds singing in the trees and an unruly crop of sunflowers in the forecourt.

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