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UNLOCKING CHINA

What's new? Beijing

Sports venues are being built or renovated. The CCTV Tower, museums and a theater have popped up as historic sites get a face-lift.

September 16, 2007|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Everywhere in the Chinese capital, it seems, something new is on the rise -- or something old is being renovated.

These changes were largely spurred by the 2008 Olympics but will leave a lasting mark on the city. Here are some of the things visitors will find going up around Beijing.

A third terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport, about 15 miles northeast of the city, is scheduled for completion by the end of this year. It was designed by Norman Foster, the architect responsible for London's Stansted and Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airports, and it is expected to welcome 43 million passengers a year.

Even better, it will come with a light rail line linking the airport to the city center's Dongzhimen station in 18 minutes.

The 6,000-seat National Grand Theater has brought a bold, head-turning splash of modernism to the Tiananmen Square area, making the Great Hall of the People next door seem hopelessly stodgy by comparison.

The glass and titanium inverted-bowl-shaped building overlooks a reflecting pool and greenbelt. Inside are an opera house, a concert hall and a theater set to open at the end of this month.

Qianmen Street, with its small shops, tea houses and theaters, was the commercial heart of Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Now, the district just south of Tiananmen Square is being turned into a pedestrian mall, complete with a free tourist trolley and underground parking garage. When work is completed, visitors will be able to stroll along the tree-lined, marble-paved thoroughfare and visit more than 80 renovated shops selling a variety of wares -- steamed buns as well as antique porcelain.

Qianmen Street will soon be joined by a glitzy entertainment complex in the former U.S. Embassy compound, a part of the old Legation Quarter at the southeastern corner of Tiananmen Square.

It will have restaurants, bars, galleries, theaters and nightclubs.

Upscale shopping centers such as Oriental Plaza near Wangfujing and Shin Kong Place in the Central Business District have become commonplace in Beijing. But the Place, a new mall on the western side of the Central Business District, has something more than Adidas and Gucci: a 98-foot-wide LED screen suspended high over the courtyard, showing movies, promotional videos, satellite TV and shoppers' own digitally uploaded photos.

Early in 2006, the China National Film Museum opened in a still somewhat rural area about a 45-minute drive northeast of the city. But it's worth the trip because the massive, state-of-the-art facility, designed by U.S.-based architectural firm RTKL, has an Imax theater, four cinemas and a permanent exhibition on the history of Chinese film. Among its fascinations are a segment from "Conquering the Jun Mountain," featuring the Peking Opera, and a display on the cinema during the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese film industry "met with complete and comprehensive destruction," according to an explanatory note.

Ongoing restoration of some of the major sights in the Forbidden City, such as the Meridian Gate and the Hall of Supreme Harmony, has intensified in preparation for the Olympics. Less apparent is work underway on the northeastern side of the palace, where Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong built a retirement retreat consisting of four courtyard enclaves connected by winding passageways, moon gates and rock gardens. Closed and virtually untouched for decades, Qianlong Garden is now being renovated by the government, with the help of the New York-based World Monuments Fund.

It will take until 2012 to complete the work, but the lodge, with an exquisite private theater, is to open next year.

In 2005, the Capital Museum, formerly near the Confucius Temple, moved to a striking new contemporary building near the Muxidi subway stop in western Beijing. With five floors of handsome galleries, it is an essential stop for travelers interested in the history and culture of Beijing. The Peking Opera exhibition has a performance stage and displays on how classical opera changed after the founding of new China. Collections of ancient porcelain and Buddha statues are small but distinguished. Best of all, there is a re-created hutong neighborhood on the top floor, complete with gates, guild halls and windows overlooking modern Beijing.

The city's newest and most noteworthy avant-garde architecture -- including Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas' CCTV Tower -- clusters in the Central Business District along the Third Ring Road on the eastern side of the city. Besides the Koolhaas-designed tower, which looks more like the Starship Enterprise than an office building, the district is now home to SOHO New Town and Jianwai SOHO. These two huge office, retail and residential communities blend resources for work and play. Farther west, SOHO City, a similar development, is on the rise. It was designed by acclaimed Iraq-born architect Zaha Hadid.

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