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When function fails to follow form

China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-02-02 16:13

When I first moved to Beijing, weekends were spent wandering around the city, and I was surprised to encounter so much architectural variety. From brutalist 70s-era housing to upscale (and not so fancy) shopping malls, to industrial sites repurposed as art zones, Beijing has a lot to take in.

Critics are quick to point out many of the capital's buildings are nondescript products of off-the-shelf design, replicating residential and commercial sites across the city to the extent that it's hard to tell some districts apart. But there are still plenty of quality designs from different eras to break up the monotony of the everyday architecture.

On my first few months in the capital, I remember stumbling upon the sight of the splendid National Center for Performing Arts, approaching via a hutong from the south and being blown away by its scale, beauty and juxtaposition with its more antiquated surroundings. No wonder it's nicknamed the "Alien Egg".

I recently had an architect friend come to visit and was keen to show him some buildings and found myself suitably impressed by his knowledge and insight.

I met him at a swish new hotel overlooking the CCTV headquarters. Designed in 2000 by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas as a stylish "alternative to the exhausted typology of the skyscraper", it's an imposing piece of architecture and one designed to impress with its gravity-defying structure and stark dark exterior.

But from the 23rd floor of the hotel some flaws were apparent. The exterior hadn't aged well and it looked difficult to keep clean due to all those angled edges and beveled surfaces.

A walk through Beijing's CBD leads us to the Norman Foster-designed Parkview Green mall, a very different architectural proposition.

A smaller building designed for commercial use, Parkview is a very different architectural proposition altogether. A modern mall housing a cluster of towers under a central glass atrium, the building is a refreshing blend of air and light, with interconnecting walkways offering various ways to access the different levels of shops, boutiques and eateries. Peppered with modern art pieces and dashes of color, Parkview offers visitors a pleasant place to spend time.

Onward further still, we caught sight of another edifice designed by leading developer Soho China in the distance. The massive retail and office space designed by late architect Zaha Hadid, Soho Galaxy is an impressive blend of parametric designs and landscape forms which draws inspiration from the contours of Chinese rice terraces.

It's a dramatic building but as impressive it is, there's something lost on you until you get up close. A wander around the complex reveals the stunning natural forms set off by a crisp white cladding. But the hotch potch of coffee shops, convenience stores and pet grooming centers temper the illusion somewhat and leave you wondering whether this was ever part of Hadid's plan.

And a recent trip to Guangzhou, Guangdong province, to see its stunning opera house designed by the same architect did not see it so diminished by commercial necessities. But while its exterior also seemed to suffer signs of aging, I'm assured its interior is still as dramatic as originally intended.

I suggested my friend use his final day in the city to see the Lama Temple, which seemed to pique his interest as a fine and rare example of architectural antiquity in the capital - perhaps because its purpose remained as faithful to the original intentions of its creators back in the late 17th century.

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