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Building boom transforming Beijing cityscape

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  • A series of futuristic landmarks will greet visitors to the Olympics
  • Scores of traditional homes and drab apartment blocks have been razed
  • Some architecture experts question the future relevance of the new designs
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BEIJING, China (AP) -- This ancient capital city, long known for the architectural splendor of its centuries-old palaces and temples, is getting a new look that could have been plucked from science fiction.

A series of landmarks, notable for their futuristic design, will greet visitors to the Olympics. They include an Olympic stadium that looks like a giant bird's nest, a swimming venue literally built of bubbles and a pair of black office towers that lean toward each other at a 10-degree angle.

"This is the hottest place on Earth in terms of architecture," said Rory McGowan, a Beijing-based director of Arup, the British design and engineering firm, which is involved in several signature projects in the city. Architects and designers "are flocking over here in the thousands to look at Beijing."

As China's economy started taking off about 20 years ago, a similar transformation began changing the face of Beijing. Scores of traditional courtyard homes, factories and drab communist-inspired apartment blocks have been razed in recent years to make way for high-rise buildings with names such as "Fortune Plaza," "Soho" and "Park Avenue."

Now, with the Olympics coming, the construction has turned into a round-the-clock frenzy as the host city seeks to convey an innovative and forward-looking image. Such projects could change Beijing's image as a stodgy city, particularly compared to cosmopolitan Shanghai, where foreign architects first gravitated a few years ago.

The "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium was designed by Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron, known for turning a hulking former power plant in London into the Tate Modern art museum. It's a 91,000-seat bowl that will host the opening and closing ceremonies along with track and field events. The stadium's nickname comes from an exterior of steel "twigs" that form a massive, curving nest.

Motorists regularly disrupt traffic on an adjoining highway as they stop to snap photos.

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Across from the Bird's Nest is perhaps Beijing's most whimsical building: the Water Cube, the swimming venue for the Games.

Builders used material similar to plastic wrap to create 4,000 translucent bubbles, which were filled with air and bolted to a metal frame. The material allows sunlight to filter in and the sounds of splashing water to flow out.

China Central TV's new headquarters was planned by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who designed the Seattle Public Library, the Prada store in New York and the Casa da Musica concert hall in Porto, Portugal.

Its two 37-story towers of black glass on diamond-shaped steel beams bend toward each other and are joined at the top by a sloping horizontal section that ranges from nine to 14 stories. It looks like a pair of bermudas, and Chinese have dubbed it "Big Shorts."

Not everyone likes the city's changing look.

"Most of the venue designers are foreign, and they don't know Chinese culture well enough," said Zhang Song, a professor in the college of architecture and urban planning at Tongji University in Shanghai. "They tended to focus mainly on surrealism, avant-garde style and postmodernism. These things are very good for a short time, but as times passes by, I wonder if they will last as classic design."

Beijing's other new buildings include a gargantuan airport terminal, with slanted skylights atop an arching roof, meant to mimic scales on a dragon's back. In the heart of the city is a glass and titanium dome nicknamed "The Egg," the sprawling national theater entered by walking under a clear-bottomed moat.

The change is dizzying -- many of the structures have opened just within the past year -- but city planners shrug it off.

"I don't think it's anything to make a fuss about," said Tan Xuxiang, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Planning Commission. "It's like a growing child. I'm a 12- to 14-year-old kid. If you see me after two years and I haven't grown, then I definitely have some kind of illness, right?"

Some, though, lament the loss of old Beijing. While the imperial Forbidden City and other tourist sites remain, many of the old courtyard homes -- nestled amid the city's "hutongs," or alleyways -- have been lost.

The days when hutong dwellers filled the streets in the evenings are giving way to a more modern and anonymous urban lifestyle.

"When people think of Beijing, they should also understand the traditional aspect of Beijing -- the Forbidden City, the numerous hutongs," said Hu Xinyu, managing director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center. "That's the real Beijing."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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