With its ever-changing skyline, it seems like every day a new building is erected in Beijing, but the Chinese capital isn't populated with run-of-the-mill skyscrapers. Many of the city's weird and wonderful buildings resemble ubiquitous objects: a pair of trousers, a mountain range, and a giant egg.
These flamboyant buildings are a great leap forward from the city's traditional imperial architecture. When Mao Zedong rose to power in the mid-20th century, traditional sìhéyuàn (courtyard-style homes) that populated the city were torn down and replaced by drab workers housing, concrete Soviet-style apartment blocks, and vast boulevards. A few preserved hútòngs (alleyways) remain steps from grand roads that were once packed with bicycles and now in the shadows of architecture that pushes boundaries, gravity, and resistance against earthquakes.
As China prepared for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, the rise of wacky and wonderful architecture took off not only in the capital but across China. The world's most celebrated architects descended on China to push the boundaries of design in the lead up to the Games. The results became symbols of China's power and modernity.
In 2014, President Xi Jinping called for an end to qíqíguàiguài (strange or weird) architecture, which punctuates the skylines of many Chinese cities like the coin-shaped Guangzhou Yuan Building in Guangzhou and the Ring of Life at Shenfu New Town in Liaoning Province.
Then, in 2016, the Chinese government formally declared an end to architecture that is "oversized, xenocentric, weird." But even though the country had shifted to architecture that aims to be "suitable, economic, green, and pleasing to the eye," these buildings remain for the world to admire.
Halfway between Beijing Capital Airport and the city center, Wangjing SOHO is a trio of interweaving office and retail buildings and a trio of pavilions that resembles a futuristic mountain range. Designed by the late British Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid with Patrik Schumacher, the three towers, 387, 416, and 656 (200m) feet tall, are surrounded by a 196,850-square-foot public park in Wangjing, a tech business hub in northeast Beijing. The architectural marvel soars up to 43 stories, including three below-ground parking levels, one below-ground retail floor, two above-ground retail floors, and 37 office floors. Depending on the vantage point, the buildings appear to be individual and, at other times, connected. Wangjing SOHO, commissioned by SOHO China, China’s largest office property developer, is easily accessible for a shopping spree via the subway.
China Central Television Headquarters
There’s no missing the hulking silver-gray headquarters of China Central Television, which earned its nickname “big pants” because it looks like a pair of pants. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren of OMA, the $900 million building is 51 stories and soars 767 feet above Beijing’s central business district. The characteristic “pants” shape is achieved by the building’s two leaning towers meeting at a perpendicular cantilever “loop” 246 feet above the ground, mimicking the activities within. The building contains all of CCTV’s once-scattered offices, television studios, broadcasting, and production facilities. According to OMA, one tower houses offices and editing areas and the other news broadcasting with administration, which oversee the process of television-making, joining at the top. The building is off-limits to visitors, but admirers can get up-close and personal exterior views by exiting the Jintaixizhao subway station and glimpse the inside by watching the nightly news.
National Centre for the Performing Arts
Designed by the late French architect Paul Andreu, the National Centre for the Performing Arts resembles a giant egg. Adjacent to Tian’anmen Square, the titanium and glass ellipsoid is 698 feet long, 472 feet wide, and 150 feet high and contains a 2,017-seat concert hall, a 2,416-seat opera house, and a 1,040-seat theater. During the day, a 328-foot wide canopy allows the building’s interior to be lit. The stately $400 million arts complex opened in 2007, and thousands have entered the underwater entryway (the building is suspended over a shallow pool) to see luminaries like Chinese pianist Lang Lang perform. Private 40-minute guided tours are available by reservation for 200RMB (around $28.50). A restaurant, café, souvenir shop, music store, and bookseller are among the offerings for visitors and performance-goers.
Linda Haiyu Plaza
Situated along the East Fourth Ring Road in Chaoyang district, Linda Haiyu Plaza is s series of buildings that, lined up, resemble a fish. The 259,186-square-foot complex includes one 19-story office building shaped like a fish head, three 15-story apartment buildings, a 20-story hotel, and two five-story commercial buildings. Linda Haiyu Plaza, also called Linda Fishing Plaza, has a supermarket, a restaurant row, and a sizeable marine fishing park.
It took 30 months to complete Galaxy SOHO, a mixed-use futuristic commercial building in central Beijing. Designed by Zaha Hadid with Patrik Schumacher, the 1-million square foot office, retail, and entertainment complex is constructed with distinctive bands of white aluminum and glass, and bridges link its four continuous structures. The fluid design, devoid of corners, features interiors that boast massive courtyards, a nod to traditional Chinese architecture. The first three levels house retail and entertainment spaces, the top of the building features bars, restaurants, and cafes, and the middle floors are offices.
Nicknamed the Bird’s Nest thanks to its steel façade that resembles a bird’s nest, the 91,000-seat National Stadium became a symbol of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. It’s where the opening and closing ceremonies were held and is slated to host the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Designed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron in consultation with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the stadium is uniquely constructed. The elliptical red stadium bowl is separate from its iconic twisting steel façade and saddle-shaped steel roof. Some 41,875 tons of steel were used to build the stadium, which is part of the Olympic Green, where visitors can view Olympic exhibits, the Olympic torch platform, and stroll along walkways on the roof of the Bird’s Nest.
National Aquatics Center
Known as the “Water Cube” thanks to its blue “bubble” ethylene tetrafluoroethylene walls, the $143 million National Aquatics Center was designed by Arup. The 17,000-seat center is adjacent to the Bird’s Nest, which form the Olympic Green in northern Beijing. Soap bubbles inspired the rectangular blue building’s design, and the Water Cube acts as a greenhouse with natural light penetrating the walls, which not only provides light but heats the building and the pool water. The Water Cube boasts five swimming pools, a wave machine, rides, and a restaurant. The Water Cube is open to the public, who can see where world records were broken during Olympic swimming, diving, and synchronized swimming competitions. Guided tours in English are available with advance notice for 150RMB ($21).
People’s Daily Headquarters
Completed in 2015, the phallic People’s Daily headquarters located in Beijing’s central business district made headlines long before it opened to staffers of the daily state-run newspaper. Designed by Zhou Qi, a professor of architecture at Southeast University School of Architecture in Jiangsu, China, the 590-foot concrete and glazed terracotta tower has 36 floors, including three underground. Erected onto the capital’s skyscraper scene three years after the underpants-shaped state-run CCTV headquarters, the giant building was the butt of many jokes during its construction. Its designer said the building’s elongated form was meant to look like the Chinese character 人 for people from a bird’s eye view.