Ole Scheeren helped create perhaps the most aggressive building on the Beijing skyline — the CCTV tower, which he designed with Rem Koolhaas before opening his own firm, Buro Ole Scheeren, in 2010. Now Scheeren hopes to become known for a less divisive contribution to the Beijing scene — an auction house headquarters that, despite its 600,000 square feet, treads lightly on its site, and which may represent a way forward for foreign architects in China under a culturally conservative regime.

Scheeren’s client is the Chinese-owned auction house China Guardian, which wanted more than the required galleries and sales rooms. Indeed, its so-called Guardian Art Center, scheduled to open in 2016, will include a 120-room hotel, as well as a library, bookshop, lecture hall and restaurants. Guardian President Wang Yannan, the daughter of the former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, studied hotel management in Hawaii. She calls the center “a comprehensive enterprise with an auctioning pivot.” 

The building is rising on one of Beijing’s most famous commercial streets, Wangfujing, near the National Art Museum of China and a few blocks from the Forbidden City. Developers had been trying for 18 years to win approval to build on the site. To succeed where they had failed, Scheeren says, “We had to demonstrate how we had carefully embedded the project in this very historic and sensitive context.” His partner on the project is the Chinese government-owned Beijing Institute of Architectural Design (BIAD).

Zhang Yu, BIAD’s chief architect, says he had seen 30 proposals for the site by local and foreign architects fail to win planning approval. Breaking the streak, he says, required getting the thumbs-up from “five architecture and five preservation experts at the national level.”

Scheeren and BIAD succeeded where others had failed by breaking down the building’s mass. They placed the largest galleries inside a four-story plinth composed of staggered (they say “pixelated”) volumes that recall Beijing’s maze-like hutongs. The surface of the plinth is gray stone echoing traditional Chinese masonry, but with thousands of small circular perforations to admit light and provide views to the outside. These openings were located by projecting one of China’s most important landscape paintings, the 14th century “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains,” onto the elevations. That may sound gimmicky, but Zhang hailed the “renewed harmony between the old and the contemporary” inherent in the gesture.

Within the plinth are exhibition spaces, including a column-free 18,300-square-foot room. Additional galleries are located in the basement. On top of the plinth is the hotel, a four-story donut, wrapped in window-sized panes of glass with deeply recessed joint lines making the panes appear to float. A small tower in the courtyard will contain an art library, a lecture hall and an artists’ lounge.

The building’s first four floors, in Scheeren's view, “echo the grain, color and intricate scale of Beijing’s hutongs, while the upper portion of the building” — with its sheer surfaces — “responds to the larger scale of the contemporary city.”

For Scheeren—most of whose current projects are condo towers—the Guardian Art Center could be a stepping stone into a new practice area: designing for cultural institutions. It also suggests that his decision to move to Beijing in 2004—rather than build in Asia as an outsider, like many western architects—is paying off.

According to Zhang, Beijing “will continue to welcome foreign thinking and ideas.” But, he says, “future design for China will need to respect the local environment,” and that, he says, “can only come from an architect who understands the culture and requirements through real experience.