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Grand Theater to Put New Face on Chang'an Avenue

If all goes as planned, sometime next autumn, Beijing's Chang'an Avenue, an area of architectural history spanning 600 years, will herald an unusual egg-shaped French-designed Grand Theater, further adding to its diversity.


The talk surrounding the building becomes noisier as the last girder of the steel framework of the theater was hoisted last week.


"Driving along the avenue will be even more amazing," said Martin Paske, an American architecture student who has been doing an internship in China for over a year.


"In five minutes, you get to see the glorious red-walled imperial Forbidden City, the century-old French-style Beijing Hotel, the solemn Great Hall of the People that can trace a Russian element and clusters of modern North American style plazas."


The 6.7-km Chang'an Avenue, known as the "First Avenue of China," is the axial line running east to west that cuts through the heart of Beijing, stretching from Fuxingmen to Jianguomen, flanked with at least 50 magnificent buildings.


"Lying behind the architecture is China's increasing acceptance of foreign concepts," said Prof. Dong Guangqi, advisor to the Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning & Design. "The rapid transformation of city skyline features a kind of cultural documentary of an era."


Prior to the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the cream-colored French-style Beijing Hotel built by colonists in 1900 was the landmark construction of old Beijing, standing out from rows of Chinese courtyards (siheyuan), on the then 3.7-km Chang'an Avenue.


Following the founding of the People's Republic of China, Chinese architecture tended to blend a Russian style with traditional Chinese elements, exemplified by the Great Hall of the People, opposite the Forbidden City.


"The scale and structure of the Great Hall of the People employs Russian style, but the decoration patterns on the marble poles and colored glazed tiles are a variation of traditional ancient Chinese style," said Dong Guangqi.


Domestic architects have explored new ways to express their ideas on Chang'an Avenue, producing the Cultural Palace of National Minorities in the north of the avenue.


In the past two decades, as China became more open to the outside, a host of modern architecture has filled both sides of the street.


The Oriental Plaza, at the intersection of the business street "Wangfujing" and Chang'an Avenue, is a complex with distinctive glassy exterior design.


American Ieoh Ming Pei, a prestigious Pritzker Prize laureate whose noticeable works include the expansion project of Louvre Museum, designed the Headquarters of the Bank of China.


Jean-Marie Duthilleul, with the French AREP design company who designed the Xidan Bookstore, chose the Forbidden City as his favorite work along Chang'an Avenue.


"The Forbidden City is a masterpiece that generations of architects have tried to learn from and follow," he said. "I never expected to be privileged as the chief designer for a building that stands on this avenue."


The design for the National Grand Theater has drawn attention worldwide. 44 entries from 36 designing institutions, including 20 from overseas, participated in the bid.


Beijing residents selected three designs in a five-day public review and passed the result to the evaluating committee composed of professors from top universities and government officials, who finally chose the one designed by French architect Paul Andrew.


Andrew was excited to find that Beijing was "brave enough" to accept his bold modern design. "It reflects a new outward-looking China."


"Elliptical architecture is likely to tone in with its surroundings," with traditional buildings as the Forbidden City built in the 15th century and modern buildings such as the Great Hall of the People, said Andrew.


(Xinhua News Agency December 22, 2003)

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