Watch this space: The history and architecture of major Beijing art spaces

Beijing’s art galleries and districts are much more than the works inside

From art zones to art villages to the commercial twist of the arty mall, touring the galleries of the city is a lesson in Chinese development and architectural practice over the past 70 years. Get to know the history of some of Beijing's major art spaces and the architectural features to look out for.
798 Art District

798 Art District

The 798 Art District put Chinese art on the map. It should also be on the map, however, for its architectural significance as the largest Bauhaus-style industrial complex ever built – and the only Bauhaus factory complex in Asia. The area was designed and built in collaboration with the East Germans and from 1956 to the early 1990s, surrounded by what was then farmland, it was used clandestinely by the government to produce state-of-the-art electronic technology for the military.

The 798 Art Factory is perhaps the most intact representation of this era. It retains both this perfect German architectural functionalism, with exposed concrete sickle-shaped beams and window braces, and the political slogans of the day, which adorn the curving roof and rally the workforce behind the 'great commander'.

In 1995, Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) moved into one of the, by then, disused factory buildings. Many other artists followed for the cheap rent, large warehouses and high-angled skylights, providing consistent all-day light. In front of Pace Gallery Beijing you can best see the skylights nestled into the sawtooth-shaped roofs of the rows of factory buildings. Such a sawtooth shape is so fundamental to Bauhaus that Walter Gropius, the movement's founder, applied the motif to The Bauhaus Archive Museum of Design in Berlin – now the home and protector of the Bauhaus story.

After facing the prospect of demolition in the pre-Olympic 'upwards equals modernisation' drive, 798 was saved from the bulldozers through an award-winning regeneration project. Whilst the area's newfound popularity mean that much of the original grit and creativity have been replaced by big company commercialism, beneath faded adverts for exhibitions past, shambolic side extensions and wedding photographers lies an important slice of Beijing's architectural history.

Art villages

Art villages

As 798 grew established – and gentrified – rent prices soared, pushing artists out to villages on the peripheries of the city, the most architecturally and perhaps artistically significant of which is Caochangdi. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, the site was an elaborate imperial garden, but was transformed by Ai Weiwei when he moved to the area in 1999, designing not only his own studio but several complexes in the area.

The Three Shadows Photography Art Centre is perhaps the most notable of his buildings with its unique facade of undulating grey brickwork based on the shadows of the nearby trees. Here, the walls function both as metaphor for the gallery theme – photography being the art of light and shadow – and perhaps also a caution: although bricks and mortar have more substance than the ephemerality of shadow, few buildings, especially in China, can stand the test of time.

Throughout Caochangdi, Ai Weiwei plays with surfaces. Walking through the spaces of the Red Brick compounds, their simple planes, narrow corridors opening into empty spaces, and blank featureless facades are akin to a Windows 98 screensaver or a de Chirico painting.

These buildings all set the tone for the wider architectural language of Caochangdi as Ai Weiwei's fame encouraged others to build in his style. These shanzhai, or copycat, structures can sometimes be hard to spot, often located right next door to the original, and have come to be known as ‘fake FAKEs’ after the artist’s own studio, FAKE Design. His contribution to the architecture of Caochangdi has earned the approval of international critics and, quietly, local developers alike.

Mall art

Mall art

Away from industrial complexes and art villages, the glitz and glam of Beijing’s shopping malls provide another space to host art in the most commercial of settings. Parkview Green is one such place, created in 2010 by Winston Shu, who previously worked for renowned British architect Norman Foster. Reflective glass on inside and out, with sweeping steel highways, footbridges and raised walkways, this building constructs a whole cityscape in non-stop motion under its one, pyramid-shaped roof. Unlike the functionalist Bauhaus forms of 798 and Caochangdi's pared-back brickwork, here engineering is the statement: a futurist modernism with a Star Wars feel.

Artworks on display serve to enhance the same surreal, futuristic narrative. Currently, a huge silver shark hangs from the ceiling, a sea of acrylic paper planes descend over a footbridge and a light shaft constructed from neon orange thread beams down on a Buddha from the ceiling. These artworks have very little individual voice: art here functions as embellishment, an interactive photo opportunity and maybe even – if you pop up to the gallery shop on the top floor – a souvenir to take home.

By Helena Poole

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