Radial City


Beijing’s original radial design has evolved under the influence of the different socioeconomic and political scaffoldings. The center shifted to its current location during the Mongol rule of the Yuan Dynasty. Each subsequent empire has re-shaped or rebuilt major projects to suit their legitimizing narrative. Whether the contemporary history of China is understood as a further dynastic cycle or a rupture towards historical linearity[1], the basic organization of the city center of Beijing is structurally similar to previous periods. This centralized planning has been used largely as the framework for the impressively rapid growth since the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Above | Tiananmen Gate


National Center for the Performing Arts by Paul Andreu | Olympic Stadium by Herzog & deMeuron


Roof structure of a pavilion at the Temple of Heaven complex

1. Starr, John Bryan. Understanding China: A Guide to China’s Economy, History, and Political Culture.
“Because restoration occurred with such unvarying regularity, one might have expected it to occur once again when the authority of the Qing dynasty began to wane in the mid-nineteenth century. How do we explain the fact that the Qing was replaced, when it finally collapsed in 1911, not with another dynastic cycle but with a long, intensely painful period of linear change, a period that has yet to draw to a close?”
An interesting question is raised here, as clearly there has been a rupture with imperialism, in parallel with a yearning for the absolute radiating power system over the relativism of the republic. However, the imperialistic architecture remains.



Security & Image


Beijing is a urbanistically radial city, and thus the center of power in China, during the periods when Beijing has been the capital, is located at its imperial core. Although in the same vicinity, the center has changed in location from the ancient Ji or Zhongdu. The city was relocated to approximately its current position during the Mongol Yuan dynasty by Kublai Khan and was called Dadu. The domain of the royal family, the “Forbidden City”, was rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty when the capital returned to Beijing, in order to express and reclaim the dynasty’s Chinese-ness through architecture. (They also reconfigured the boundaries of the city itself.) The later Manchurian Qing Dynasty significantly maintained the palaces configured as they found them as a way to stake a claim to this Chinese heritage.[1] The center of the empire was located in the in the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

Following an opening-up of imperial sites from 1911-1949 during the Republican period, Mao declared the People’s Republic of China in October 1949 from the Gate of Heavenly Peace [1] where today hangs his large portrait at the head of Tiananmen Square. The demolition of the buildings south of the Forbidden City and the ancient city walls throughout the 20th century opened up an enormous public space in Beijing. While Tiananmen Square has had significant role in the creation of the Republic, its current dimensions were not achieved until the mid-1950’s. Later additions include the mausoleum of Mao which effectively divides the square into two parts, the northern of which has a more grand and photogenic appearance.


The Forbidden City viewed from Jingshan Park to the north


Tiananmen Gate

So where is the center of power under the Communist regime? Symbolically it rests with the people, in this public square. Pre-modern physical barriers (epitomized by the Great Wall just north of the city) have been breached. The city walls which are now fragmented and only iconic, such as at Qianmen or the Ming wall garden, are tourist attractions rather than boundaries.

Yet Tiananmen Square is anything but public; given the political environment of the PROC and the site’s history as a protest site, complete access is not desirable by the regime. During the student protests of 1989 images of the government crackdown spread by journalists via hidden rolls of film[2]. Today this seems absolutely quaint when every visitor carries a smartphone with camera (this is only forbidden inside the Mausoleum of Mao.)

Where once information was relatively easy to contain, the ubiquity of street journalism requires a containment of both real and virtual space. The cleverly-named “Great Firewall of China” attempts to restrict information going into and out of China. Barriers around Tiananmen create a maze of various conditions where bags are scanned and Chinese visitors may be asked to show their government ID cards. The square can be emptied when official events require. Most access is via underground passageways, and a couple guarded crosswalks. Although vehicles continue to circulate around the square, they cannot not stop to deposit passengers. Subway stations below the square do not exit into the protected enclosure (the subway system throughout Beijing has a similar protected condition, but this area is additionally sensitive.)

Where is the center of Beijing, of China? Is it in Zhongnanhai where top politicians live and the party makes its decisions? Is it in Tiananmen where tourists snap photos with Mao’s portrait? If the nucleus of the party is ideologically with the people, then the center may no longer one point, but diffuse within the virtual realm of discussion.


Zhengyang Gate, once the major southern gate to the city is protected by barriers.


Tiananmen Square closed for an official event.

1. Haw, Stephen G. Beijing – A Concise History.
2. http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/03/behind-the-scenes-tank-man-of-tiananmen/



Collective Beijing


Much has been written about the parallels between the aggregation of the hutongs in Beijing, the Imperial palaces of the Forbidden City, and the city structure itself. The general principle is an aggregation of smaller parts which create a larger neighborhood gathering[1] of both positive figures and negative spaces. The reading of figure ground in Chinese architecture is particularly interesting. What is described as a gate is often spatialized, and the interaction of enclosed spaces into larger groupings is compelling.

Above | Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid


Yong He Gong Buddhist Temple | Traditional roofs


Ai WeiWei projects in Caochangdi: Galerie Urs Meile | Red Brick Gallery


Riken Yamamoto SOHO Project | 22 International Art Plaza

To a great extent, contemporary architecture today is approached as an agglomeration of smaller elements. At a large scale this can be seen throughout the new urbanizations of China where developers take advantage of economy of multiples in building large swaths of housing blocks and whole neighborhoods of unrelenting repetition.

In more nuanced approaches architects have used this strategy to create communities where common amenities and shared spaces provide added value. At a small scale this can be seen in the projects in Caochangdi many designed by Ai WeiWei which take inspiration from the small courtyard groupings to instigate a neighborhood of avant garde artist studios and galleries.

The company SOHO China (Small Office, Home Office) is particularly successful with this approach not only providing rentable spaces but retail and amenities. Their attitude is similar though the style varies widely from Riken Yamamoto to Hadid. Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid is likewise a grouping of towers which allow the opportunity for unique moments in the skybridges. Even CCTV is both one iconic building, and two buildings symbiotically bracing each other.


Wang Jing District in Beijing


Wang Jing SOHO by Zaha Hadid


OMA’s CCTV tower


Galaxy SOHO by Zaha Hadid

1. Chakroff, Evan. “Scalelessness: Impressions of Contemporary China,” Architectural Guide: China.



Chinese Picturesque


Above: Ruins of Yuan Ming Yuan | Beida University

In addition to bringing back luxury goods including silk and tea from China to Europe, travelers also transmitted impressions of the landscape and built environment of the country. Thus, the Asian influence on the Picturesque in England is clear. “The style of Chinese gardens, described by the Jesuits in their letters sent back to Europe and in other accounts, had considerable influence in the Occident during the eighteenth century. The pagoda built in 1761 and still standing in Kew Gardens is but one small reminder of this.[1]”

An important element of the picturesque English garden was the folly, often a small pavilion or artificial ruin of some exotic style. Yuan Ming Yuan, the (old) Summer Palace was a particularly admired garden which included a number of buildings in the Occidental style with Chinese motifs. Sadly it was the English and French who would destroy Yuan Ming Yuan in 1860, leaving these western buildings in artful ruin.

Of course the transmission of ideas on planning did not run only from East to West. The old campus of Tsinghua University can clearly be seen to have influences of Jefferson’s scholastic planning, with a large domed building at its head.


Jeffersonian Tsinghua University


Two of the Ten Great Buildings built for 1959: Beijing Railway Station | National Agriculture Exhibition Hall

The upturned roof profile[2] (which for many Westerners is immediately associated with the romantic imagery of the Oriental) persisted even as the construction methodologies in China were modernising. It can be seen in several of the 10 great projects of 1959 built to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the PROC. Although these projects might be described as Sino-Soviet in style, they are essentially post-modern interpretations of the tiled roof, a trope that can be found up to the present day, often much less successfully.

As a counterpoint to the literalism of these “typical” upturned roofs are contemporary projects which present evocative rooflines without post-modern reductionism. Amateur Architecture has taken two approaches to the in the China Art Academy in Hangzhou, in one case an almost Corbusian roof in rough concrete, which hints at a traditional profile while being completely modern. In another example they adopt the structural excessiveness and exuberance of the dougong in the structural idiom of the roof truss.

Chaoyang Park Plaza by MAD is directly inspired by Chinese landscape imagery more or less literally. The Wangjing and Galaxy Soho projects by Zaha Hadid while not as literal, also evoke the naturalistic mountain range.


Buildings by Amateur Architecture at the Hangzhou China Art Academy


MAD’s Chaoyang Park Plaza | Wang Jing Soho by Zaha Hadid

1. Haw, Stephen G. Beijing – A Concise History.
2. This term is used very loosely because the upturned roof, while stereotypically Oriental, actually takes on different formal and material “dialects” in various regions and periods.



Impressions – Beijing



Plan | Longevity Hill, Summer Palace


Imperial Palace


Long Corridor, Summer Palace


Great Wall at Mutianyu