by Lisa Chow
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Morning Edition, July 18, 2008 ·
Most of the buildings in Tiananmen Square, beneath the famous portrait of Mao Zedong, are monumental structures, with rigid lines and large columns. They look dynastic, part of post-revolutionary Communist China.
But not far away is a striking new building, radically different from those in the Square.
The new National Grand Theater is an enormous titanium and glass dome surrounded entirely by water. The entrance is underground.
The building is probably the most controversial structure built in Beijing in the past few years, costing more than $300 million.
"A modern building in an existing place is disturbing. That is a fact," says French architect Paul Andreu.
After winning the design competition, Andreu met with China's then-premier, Zhu Rongji. He says Zhu knew there was a risk the public would disapprove of the design.
"He told me 'your building is difficult. This place is gold for us. Take care. But we selected you and if we have 51 percent or 52 percent of the people pleased, that's a first success,'" Andreu says.
Besides Andreu's building, the Chinese government has awarded some of its biggest projects to foreign architects. The Bird's Nest stadium was designed by Swiss architects, and a Dutchman designed the new headquarters for China's state television network, CCTV.
The government not only spent $1.5 billion on these buildings, it broke rules to make them happen.
Architect Rem Koolhaas, says China's soaring ambition helped him realize his unusual design for the state TV headquarters.
"To reinvent institutions, reinvent laws, reinvent a society and trying to find organs that express and make it work — that is of course unique to this moment here," Koolhaas says.
The structure Koolhaas helped create includes two L-shaped high-rise towers leaning inward and linked at the top and bottom. It seems to defy gravity.
The structure has been touted as the second-largest office building in the world, after the Pentagon.
Breaking The Rules, Creating New Ones
"There is nothing like this anywhere in the world. And there is no precedent," says Rory McGowan, chief engineer with London-based Arup, which designed the CCTV building.
McGowan says that because of the building's shape and size, it broke all of the building codes. So China brought together its top engineers to help come up with new codes.
But, McGowan says, what really set this project apart were the building criteria that CCTV presented to the architects at the start.
"The brief was to have the entire workings of the national media company on one site," he says. "That is unparalleled brief. It's never happened before and it will probably never happen again."
He says the site — where 10,000 people work — will house everything from mobile broadcasting trucks to a hotel, conference facilities, broadcasting studios and management.
Koolhaas points to another factor behind the lofty goal for this building: age.
He says in American cultural institutions, decision makers are 70. In Europe, they are 50 to 55 years old.
"The average age of decision maker here [in China] is 30, 35," Koolkaas says. "And that in itself ... simply statistically means that we're talking to people in the beginning of their life and therefore have the thrust and sense of adventure."
'The World's Bird Capital'
Yet many younger people in Beijing aren't particularly drawn to the flashiness.
"I don't like it," says Luo Qing, 32, who has watched the CCTV towers go up across the street from her office. "I can't deal with such a modern-looking building. I still prefer more traditional Chinese architecture."
Qing's colleague Sun Peng, also 32, agrees.
"I think Beijing should construct buildings that reflect the city's history and culture, especially for important landmarks such as the CCTV tower," Peng says.
One of the strongest critics is Xiao Mo, a retired professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
"There is bird's egg in the south, a bird's nest in the north, a bird's tree on the east and a bird's cage on the west," Mo says, referring to the National Grand Theater, the CCTV building and the Olympics basketball stadium, designed by Swiss architects.
"They've turned our beautiful Beijing into the world's bird capital," Mo says.
"I do believe that culture is important," architect Andreu says, standing in front of his egg-shaped theater, what he calls a "cultural island in the middle of a lake."
"We have all these ancestors and all these ideas behind us, and all these centuries of culture behind us, but what is required from us is to live our lives, not to look back," he says.
And at least for now, the Chinese government agrees.