Chinese capital makes old sites new and new sites bold

The Baltimore Sun

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

These changes largely were spurred by the 2008 Olympics but will leave a lasting mark. 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 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. 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. 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 soon.

Qianmen Street, with its small shops, teahouses and theaters, was the commercial heart of Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Now, the district, just south of Tiananmen Square, is becoming a pedestrian mall, with a free tourist trolley and underground parking. When work is complete, 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.

Early last year, 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 state-of-the-art facility, designed by Baltimore-based architectural company 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.

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 under way 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 being renovated by the government and 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 Confucius Temple, moved to a new contemporary building near the Muxidi subway stop in western Beijing. With five floors of handsome galleries, it is an essential stop for travelers. 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. There is a re-created hutong neighborhood on the top floor, featuring gates, guild halls and windows overlooking modern Beijing.

You can't help but do a double take when you see the National Stadium and the National Aquatics Center, known as the "water cube," both built for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Beijing spent about $650 million on these stunning structures, two of 12 new facilities being constructed for the Games. Both are on the main Olympic Green about five miles north of the Forbidden City, soon to be connected to central Beijing by subway. The 91,000-seat stadium, designed as a mesh of twisting steel beams by Swiss and Chinese architects, already is a Beijing landmark, affectionately known as the "bird's nest." The water cube next door on the Olympic Green has a translucent blue Teflon skin to optimize sunlight while minimizing heat.

Susan Spano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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