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Beijing Blog

Notes from Clifford Pearson, Deputy Editor

Landing through the brown haze that seems perpetually parked above Beijing, I experience the city as a sprawling, indistinct place. Nothing stands out. Sand storms blown in from the Gobi Desert had blanketed the capital just two days before and a yellow dust still hangs in the air and clings to everything. Try not to breathe, I tell myself.

The next day, the sky is clear. Okay, not clear by Montana standards, but pretty damn good for Beijing. I can almost see a bit of blue up there above all the construction cranes that rise from hundreds of sites around town. Two partners from Arup’s Beijing office—Michael Kwok and Rory McGowan—are showing a group of editors from Architectural Record and Engineering News-Record a few of the projects they have under construction.

The guys from Arup take us to CCTV, which is coming out of the ground across the street from their office. After all the controversy and talk of delays, OMA’s radical rethinking of the office tower is taking shape with remarkably few changes to its design. Instead of seeing the modern office building as an exercise in height, Rem Koolhaas and his partner Ole Scheeren organized the building as a continuous loop connecting all of the functions of the state-run media conglomerate, creating a pair of towers with arms that cantilever out 70 meters (230 feet) and meet high above the street. The building’s giant concrete platform, poured in one continuous effort over 48 hours, is finished and the steel towers are beginning to rise.

After chugging through Beijing’s traffic, we get to Norman Foster’s Terminal 3 at the city’s airport. A monumental project, this building stretches 3.5 kilometers long and 800 meters (2,600 feet) wide! Its colorful space-frame roof (ranging from yellow to orange to red) already hovers above the land, supported by a forest of steel. When it is completed next year, it will be able to handle 66 million passengers a year.

Next, we go to the site of the 2008 Olympics to check out Herzog & de Meuron’s National Stadium and PTW’s National Swimming Center. We watch a crane hoist into place a five-story assemblage of curving steel elements. The so-called “bird’s nest” comes together before our eyes. Next door, work crews have framed out the “water cube” and are ready to start installing its skin of air-filled EFTE “pillows.”

Any one of these amazing buildings would be a major addition to the architectural landscape of a place like New York or Chicago or Paris. That four of them are moving forward at one time in one city represents a remarkable achievement. No, it’s not just the smog that takes your breath away.

Our tour of major projects sets the stage for a three-day Global Construction Summit organized by McGraw-Hill Construction and the China International Contractors Association taking place in Beijing this week. Around 400 architects, engineers, contractors, owners, and consultants are meeting to discuss the business, design, and cultural context that makes international projects such as CCTV, Terminal 3, and the Beijing Olympics possible. On the second day of the event, we hand out the inaugural Business Week/Architectural Record China Awards to 16 teams of architects and clients. The projects range from a small elementary school and community center in Lijiang near the foothills of the Himalayas to highrise housing in Shanghai. Winning architects come from China, Japan, the United States, and other parts of a flattening world. Along with big players such as SOM, Sasaki, and EDAW, an emerging generation of talented Chinese architects take the stage representing firms like MADA s.p.a.m., Atelier Deshaus, and Atelier Feichangjianzhu. Remember these names; they’re going to be designing the next wave of spectacular buildings here in China and abroad.