Going up faster than ever, Chinese architecture’s avant-garde buildings dominate the skylines in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou.

By Joseph Giovannini
November 19, 2012
Credit: Philipp Engelhorn

China is in the midst of what may be the biggest building boom in human history, surpassing the creation of the Pyramids and the Great Wall, outstripping the celebrated build-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Tens of millions of the country’s 1.3 billion population are flooding into its cities, where progress is the theme and the future is the goal, and ever taller buildings are pumping up skylines into steroidal versions of Manhattan. Posters promoting the image of the new China as a First World country proudly display fast sports cars, bullet trains, and iconic buildings poised to lift off.

Consider the view of Shanghai’s central business district, Pudong, from the Bund, the gracious esplanade of old buildings in classical styles fronting the Huangpu River, built during the city’s colonial period of foreign concessions. On the bank opposite, the spectacular jumble of new Chinese architecture—globes, pagodas, pyramids, dish stacks, and glassy tubes, along with a wafting stingray, may cause you to blink, but it is real, and the hallucinatory combination of disparate shapes and materials is lit to dazzling at night.

China has become the world’s experimental architecture lab, for both international and Chinese architects. Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, Pei Partnership Architects, and Gensler are just a few of the high-profile architects and firms hired to design the country’s new buildings, their names representing labels of quality in China, much like Armani, Prada, and Louis Vuitton, among fashion houses, and Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW, among cars. And now Chinese architects are themselves catching on, catching up, and breaking out, the first of a new generation that will earn its place on the ubiquitous architecture posters advertising China’s cities. Last May, Hangzhou architect Wang Shu became the first Chinese national to be awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel.

At a dinner after this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize ceremony in Beijing, Hadid—a juror for the awards—commandeered a colleague’s iPhone to inspect the latest innovation spawned in China’s architectural petri dish. Even she, a Pritzker laureate, seemed surprised and impressed by the hypnotically curvilinear, first-of-its-kind Phoenix International Media Center, by Shao Weiping of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design’s Un-Forbidden office (known as BIAD UFo). The firm has applied new “parametric” software to create a building that looks like a spherical pouf turning in on itself, with its diagonal steel structure swelling, and then falling into a hole, the lines bending out of sight. The form draws inspiration from the mysterious mathematical topographies of a shape whose exterior skin turns itself outside in.

Capital cities normally benefit from all the government buildings—embassies; palaces; bureaucratic headquarters—that confer on them the stately quality of being a capital. But Beijing is not content to reign, like Washington, simply as a capital. It has thrown its hat into the ring as a commercial hub of the country, erecting high-rise structures mile after mile, many of them with iconic shapes that draw on every available inspiration—from imperial hats to Euclid.

Under construction not far from the Phoenix building is Hadid’s Galaxy SOHO, a commercial and office complex with one-third more square footage than the Empire State Building. The curving forms spin off bridges in a delirium of turns and counterturns that evoke the mysterious and irrational visions of Renaissance architect Giambattista Piranesi.

Still, with a long history of imported design influences, it is Shanghai that continues to be China’s main architectural stage. The Shanghai Oriental Sports Center, by the German firm Von Gerkan, Marg & Partners Architects, is an acropolis of colonnaded buildings set in picturesque lagoons and sheathed in a membrane of panels whose grid lines stretch like rubber. Almost too pretty, the crowd-pleasing buildings are nonetheless impressive, vaulting acrobatically over huge interior spaces. Farther outside town is Shanghai’s second recent architectural masterpiece, the campus of Giant Interactive Group’s headquarters, by Los Angeles– and New York–based architect Thom Mayne, of Morphosis. Mayne has riffed on the open landscape to create a twisting, swooping, two-and-three-story sod-covered building whose backbone heaves like the spine of a dragon on the hunt, leading to a head that cantilevers over a lake; this is where the CEO’s offices and boardroom are located. The zigzagging forms of the building dig into the landscape, hunkering into the ground.

Not to be outdone in the architectural sweepstakes of China’s competing city states, Guangzhou (the former Canton) has welcomed several elegant towers in its new central business district that confirm the world-class sophistication of the country’s building culture. On the north shore of the Pearl River, British firm Wilkinson Eyre Architects designed a super-tall structure, the Guangzhou International Finance Center, with a twin or at least a partner planned nearby. The two will bracket a huge plaza occupied by the city’s new opera house and museum, themselves a study in contrast and a postcard of cultural ambition.

The very cubic new Guangdong Museum, with an irregular, Mondrianesque pattern of punched windows deeply set in the façade, was designed by Hong Kong architect Rocco Yim and faces, on the opposite side of the plaza, the very organic Guangzhou Opera House, by Zaha Hadid Architects, another masterpiece in China’s new and growing collection. Hadid won the competition for the opera house when she presented paired structures, the main stage and a smaller black-box hall, as rocks smoothed over by a stream.

On the opposite bank of the Pearl River, the visually stunning and structurally ambitious Canton Tower, briefly the tallest completed tower in the world when it topped out in 2010, offers a rooftop observation deck with a drop-dead panorama. Designed by Dutch architects Mark Hemel and Barbara Kuit of Information Based Architecture (IBA), together with Arup, the international engineers, the building’s LED lights create rainbows of shifting color.

Under construction nearby is another exercise in acrobatics, a vast commercial and office block of daringly cantilevered floors, all set askew, by Andrew Bromberg of Aedas Architects in Hong Kong.

China’s huge population has required huge buildings, but there are Lilliputian efforts in the country’s architectural Brobdingnag. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma led a group of architects in the recently completed Sanlitun Village, in Beijing, inspired by the city’s courtyard houses and low-rise hutong neighborhoods. The shops, a collection of minimalist cubes, encircle depressed courtyards—one cube has a façade of oversize polka dots.

Beijing’s up-and-coming MAD Architects added the stainless-steel Hutong Bubble 32 to the corner of a traditional Beijing building, breathing fresh architectural air into the courtyard complex and the otherwise uneventful neighborhood. The jewel is hidden deep within one of Beijing’s still thriving hutongs. In a trendy, though out-of-the-way arts complex in the Yangpu district of Shanghai, Philip F. Yuan of Archi-Union Architects built a back office for the firm that he calls “the teahouse,” with curves of concrete and spaces that reimagine the ancient tradition of a teahouse.

Wang Shu, the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner, also started small, establishing a boutique practice, Amateur Architecture Studio, and operating outside the expectations of most architects hired to construct China’s large-scale trophies. Working with craftsmen and with materials recycled from buildings lost to China’s tsunami of modernization, Wang has cultivated an architecture inspired by the country’s ancient traditions of calligraphy and scroll paintings, which venerate nature. He designed the classroom and dormitory buildings at the Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art, outside Hangzhou, as Modernist garden pavilions, notable for their use of raw concrete, natural woods, and generous interior spaces, all conceived poetically as microcosms of the larger landscape. At his powerful, moving, and even mysterious Ningbo History Museum, Wang used rubble throughout his design, with full confidence in his unorthodox and contrarian methods.

Wang may represent the shifting of the tide: China, which has been a net importer of architecture, may be on the verge of its first architectural exports, an emerging group of Chinese talents aware of their own unique roots.