The Five Most Spectacular Architectural Projects in China

After more than a decade of missteps and delays, Henry Tang, Hong Kong's chief secretary for administration and the chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural Authority announced architect Norman Foster's firm Foster + Partners as the winner of the competition to design Hong Kong's long-planned cultural hub, the West Kowloon Cultural District.


The precinct — which will spread over 40 hectares of reclaimed harbor-front and cost some HKD 21.6 billion ($2.8 billion) — will incorporate a major contemporary art museum, named M+, plus a range of other cultural venues including opera and concert halls and arts education facilities. The idea behind the district, first proposed in 1998, is to give a cultural heart to a city where an interest in culture has for many years seemed to come in a distant second to an interest in money.


But beyond Foster's ambitious project, international architects are viewing many different areas of China as design el dorados — places where bold projects have a chance to get off the ground. And Hong Kong is not the only city in China trying to re-brand itself with a big architectural statement. Here ARTINFO China rounds up our top 5 Chinese cultural grands projets.


1. The National Museum of China, Beijing
gmp: von Gerkan, Marg and Partners Architects
Cost: 2.5 billion RMB ($380 million)

This project is actually a re-design and expansion of the original combined Museum of the Chinese Revolution and Museum of Chinese History, which have flanked the eastern side of Beijing's Tiananmen Square since 1959. Behind the joint museums' Soviet-style façade there is now 2.07 million square feet of exhibition space, giving the building bragging rights as the world’s largest museum, just topping New York's Metropolitan Museum which clocks in at 2.05 million square feet. The project took three years to complete, with up to 8,000 builders working on the site, according to the architects. For Beijingers, jaded with the multiplicity of new buildings dotting their city, one of the best features of the new museum is that from the front it looks just like the old one.

2. Guangzhou Opera House, Guangzhou
Zaha Hadid Architects
Estimated cost: 1 billion RMB ($152 million)

Like its cousin Hong Kong, Guangzhou has often been unfairly dubbed a "cultural desert," populated and run by those interested only in making money. The Guangzhou Opera House, which will eventually be joined by a new museum next door, is intended to combat that image with what Hadid Architects describes as a "lasting monument to the New Millennium, confirming Guangzhou as one of Asia's cultural centers." The opera house, which boasts an 1,800-seat theater and a "twin bolder" design that gives access to both the Pearl River and its docks, features an exposed granite and glass-clad steel frame and took over five years to build. Finally opening last month, it has already won a place in popular culture, inspiring the fall 2011 collection of local fashion favorite Vivienne Tam.

3. Ordos (Erdos) Museum, Ordos, Inner Mongolia
MAD Architects
Estimated Cost (for cultural center including the museum): 502.5 million RMB ($76 million)

Ordos (Erdos) in remote Inner Mongolia has emerged as an unlikely contender in the destination architecture contest. It is home to the privately-funded Ordos 100 project, which back in 2008 invited 100 young architects from 27 different countries to each design a 100-meter-square villa in 100 days under the guiding hand of Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei. Even before that buzz, however, the local government commissioned China's most innovative architectural firm, MAD Architects, in 2005 to design the Ordos Museum. The project, which is due to be completed later this year, is being built in the Gobi Desert. In shape it is a "natural irregular nucleus" (MAD-speak for blob-like). It is clad in polished metal louvers against the sandy environment and draws light through a glazed roof. The museum will be at the center of a complex of cultural facilities, including a theater, conference center, and a gymnasium.

4. Nanjing Art and Architecture Museum (AKA: SIFANG Art Museum), Nanjing
Steven Holl Architects
Estimated cost: $5 million

Costing $5 million dollars and measuring 30,000 square feet, this museum is a modest contender on our list, but it beautifully embodies the efforts of both local and international architects to create buildings within a "Chinese" aesthetic. In a design statement that manages to be both descriptive and poetic, the architects explain that the structure aims to explore the "shifting viewpoints, layers of space, expanses of mist and water, which characterize the deep alternating spatial mysteries of the composition of Chinese painting." Steven Holl in partnership with Chinese partner Li Hu has been behind some of China's most innovative architectural projects, including the Linked Hybrid residential complex in Beijing and the so-called Horizontal Skyscraper in Shenzhen. The Museum, which is due to open in October, incorporates indigenous features such as recycled bricks from demolished courtyard houses and bamboo-formed concrete. It also commands views of the city of Nanjing, which still dreams of the days when it was the capital of China.

5. West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong
Estimated cost: HKD 21.6 billion (USD2.8 billion)

Foster's "City Park" proposal beat out competitors — Rem Koolhaas' OMA firm and local firm Rocco Design Architects — with a design that emphasized public space, a feature that won it support in a public poll conducted before the official decision. It was a rare kind of encore performance for Foster + Partners, as they won the same competition nine years ago, only to see their proposal scrapped following a storm of public criticism. The competition was re-launched stressing different criteria and Foster has been re-crowned. We can only wish him luck with the project, the first phase of which is scheduled to be completed by 2015. Foster has had an easier run with his other designs in China, which include the highly praised Terminal 3 at Beijing's International Airport, which opened in advance of the Beijing Olympics. At this stage there's not a lot more to say about this new bold project, which is not due to be finally completed until 2031. The director of ART HK, Magnus Renfrew, puts it well: the district is "part of the cultural ecology of Hong Kong that's been missing, a very strong non-commercial public cultural center. It has the potential to be hugely important, not just for Hong Kong but for the entire region."