The selection of Wang Shu as the first Chinese architect to win the Pritzker Prize did not just recognize an individual achievement but sent a strong message. Wang, a critic of the widespread destruction of traditional architecture in rapidly urbanizing China, was hailed by his country's press and politicians, even though his views run counter to popular ideas of progress. At the nine-course banquet that followed the Pritzker ceremony in Beijing, the mayor of the capital said that Wang had provoked his "deep thinking" about the city of 20 million people, where 500,000 more arrive each year. "We are faced with difficult choices of balancing innovation and tradition," he declared.
From that limited menu of options, architectural innovation (along with many cheap imitations) is clearly the plat du jour in Beijing. The day after the banquet, Pritizker jury members toured a new mixed-use complex called Galaxy, designed by Zaha Hadid. On a prime site where the old city walls once stood, the project is comprised of four immense egg-like forms. The first three floors and basement will house retail, with office floors above, totalling 3.5 million square feet of space. Crews have been working three shifts a day to complete the project by November.
For the same developer, SOHO China, Hadid has designed a 5.5 million square-foot complex with three curvy towers, also in Beijing, as well as another 3.5 million square-foot commercial project in Shanghai.
Meanwhile, in Beijing's new Central Business District east of the Forbidden City, the CCTV building by OMA is finally finished. Of all the innovative projects commissioned in China since the start of the millennium, this one is still the most provocative: a building you can't take your eyes off of when it comes into view from all over the city--a sharply angled looping structure, with its radical engineering and daredevil cantilevered corner.
When the design was unveiled in 2003, the building was supposed to finish in time to house China's state broadcast center for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now, the first department to move into the network headquarters will be the sports unit, just in time to broadcast the 2012 Games from London.
Despite all the new construction around Beijing--including the China World Trade Center by SOM, now the tallest building in the city and towering over its neighbor, CCTV--there's a surprisingly strong pulse in many of the few remaining old hutongs. Some of those historic neighborhoods of alleyways with traditional courtyard houses are being gentrified. Architects such as Zhu Pei and Yansong Ma have turned crumbling courtyard houses into elegantly cool rehabilitated homes for private clients, while trendy boutiques and cafes adapt others into funky storefronts. Duck down one of these dusty modest lanes, and you'll encounter places like Dali, a hot new restaurant in an old house with candle-lit tables crowding its secluded courtyard.
One of the most stunning adaptive reuses is Wuhao, a gallery/shop devoted to design and fashion in a courtyard house that was once the home of China's last empress. Behind a red door in a shabby wall is an artfully decorated vestibule, lined in silvery metal, that opens onto a lovely small garden. Isabelle Pascal, the French expat impresario of Wuhao, who works with a partner based in Paris, has not entirely covered over the poetic decay of the rooms that surround the garden, so that a sense of the passage of time mixes with the up-to-the minute furniture, objects and clothing on display. The designers Pascal is discovering or promoting are all young Chinese or have a connection to Chinese culture. Many are making unique editions of their work for Wuhao. They are passionate about sustainability, as is Pascal, for whom the creation of this enchanting place in an old Beijing house is the ultimate act of recycling. (www.wuhaoonline.com)