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BERT DE MUYNCK
Bert de Muynck (BE) is architect, writer and director of movingcities.org. He holds a Master in Engineering / Architecture and additional degree in Cultural Studies. Since 2006, he has lived and worked in Beijing. He is a regular contributor to several architecture magazines in China and Europe. movingcities' main focus is to understand the role architecture and urbanism plays in the contemporary city. No better place to investigate, debate and visualize that than the rapidly changing Chinese city of Beijing.
It is no secret that Beijing has transformed its appearance drastically over the past decade. The evolution from hutong to high-rise, including demolition, renovation and reconstruction of its history, the realisation of iconic buildings by now well-known architects and the addition of an impressive subway network improving accessibility all help to make Beijing a unique land that leaves no person unmoved.
 
This development has left little space for reflection and has affected the city in a dramatically overwhelming way. Within this huge territory new projects are mushrooming at rapid pace. Large shopping, commercial, office, leisure and art malls are the new landmarks which benefit from inspired clients who realize that in today's architecture world branding is business. Here is a short overview of the latest project and the ones in the making.

Just outside of the walls of the Forbidden City, near the East Gate, a trendy hotel cluster is in the making. Last year architect Zhu Pei completed his Blur Hotel which is characterized by its façade composed out of translucent fibreglass blocks. And recently Graft, with offices in Berlin, Los Angeles and Beijing, completed the Emperor Hotel, China’s first urban Design Hotels™ member. In the proximity of such a sensitive location Graft opted for an interior of synchronous historical and space-age design. The hotel has 46 rooms, eight suites and one Emperor Suite and a rooftop which includes a meeting room, spa and terrace overlooking the roofs of the Forbidden City.

Beijing’s notorious 798 art district is in full preparation for the Olympics. But this has not come without drawbacks. Until a couple of years ago the area was home to artists of all stamps, today the focus has changed and it is now the beating heart for art consumption with artists forced out to make way for galleries. While some lament the loss of the creative character, much effort has been expended to transform the district into the city's premier art exhibition location. As such this once dilapidated factory has become in no time one of the capital's most popular tourist sites. Recently the Chinese architecture office, Approach Architecture, added the Iberia Centre for Contemporary Art to this art island.

This represents the first art centre established in China by the International Art & Culture Foundation (IAC) of Spain. The Iberia Center, a white-box style renovation of a factory decorated by a new semi-transparent brick façade, covers an area of about 4000 sq m. It houses an exposition area, film & video archive, mediatheque, visual studio, library, centre of public education, publishing house, magazine, auditorium, cafeteria and art shop. Coinciding with the opening of the 2008 Olympic Games, on August 8, is also scheduled the opening of the Pace Wildenstein gallery in 798. The new gallery, called Pace Beijing, is designed by Richard Gluckman, a New York architect whose work includes the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the recent expansion of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. The gallery will be housed in one of the Bauhaus inspired factory warehouses.

SOHO China is a leading Chinese property developer spearheaded by Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, (justifiably known as “the patron of cutting-edge architecture”), and focussing on the development of Beijing's Central Business District (CBD). SOHO in the Chinese context stands for Small Office Home Office and with a combination of landmark buildings and international architects, SOHO China has been acclaimed since its notorious 2004 Jianwai SOHO project by Japanese Architect Riken Yamamoto. In the design of SOHO Changdu, a shopping and residential complex in the heart of CBD, they attracted the Australian office LAB Architecture Studio. SOHO Changdu has a shape that is “inspired by the forms and patterns which have built the natural world” but results in a play with obscure, yet pleasing, geometrical forms. In close proximity to SOHO Changdu sits Chaowai SOHO, a 150 000 sq m shopping and office complex designed by the South-Korean firm Iroje Architects and Planners. The base of the building houses a shopping mall and is formally fluid and circular featuring a void inside from which a 25 storey glass tower of offices rises.

Currently the Guanghualu SOHO project is under construction, and will be ready before the Olympics. The mixed office and shopping building, featuring four internally connected twisted towers, has a total area of about 75 000 sq m. The towers are formed in a row and wrapped with a perforated façade. The design is by Danish architect Søren Korsgaard and Chinese architect Qingyun Ma from MADA S.P.A.M. Guanghualu SOHO was 96% pre-sold by year end 2007, before construction even began. The most recent project of SOHO China is Sanlitun SOHO, a 470,000 sq m mixed-use project located in Sanlitun, the most famous and busiest bar area in downtown Beijing. Sanlitun SOHO will be one of the largest commercial and residential complexes available for sale in central Beijing. The project is designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and Associates and scheduled to open in 2009. Close to Sanlitun SOHO, construction of the Village at Sanlitun is well underway. A sprawling 120,000 sq m entertainment archipelago with retail and a hospitality complex based on a masterplan by the Oval Partnership (Hong Kong) and featuring designs by architects LOT-EK, ShoP Architects, Keiichiro Sako, Yohij Sasaki, and BMA. The constellation of architecture seems to be more a potemkin project as each firm was given a predetermined concrete structure with a 3 metre wide allowance around the exterior. It is on these 3 metres that architecture was draped around.

With development at rapid pace and characterized mainly by large and repetitive housing blocks (aside from the different Olympic Stadia) it is interesting to note where an investment of architectural creativity is placed: in shopping, office space and leisure environments. These target the ever-growing middle class of Beijing and create a new network in a city beaming itself up, in less than a decade, into the modern age.