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Zhu Pei worked with a manufacturer of fiberglass-reinforced plastic to develop a translucent fiberglass block for his Blur Hotel in Beijing. The architect wanted the building, which will sit near the East Gate of the Forbidden City, to glow like a Chinese lantern. (Courtesy of Architectural Record)

Say the words “new Chinese architecture” and what springs to mind? Ambitious skyscrapers, soaring apartment blocks, Olympian designs in central Beijing by celebrated international architects, and the unbridled kitsch of suburban estates like Thames Town, a bizarre mock-English development near Shanghai.

But even while great – and likable – tracts of old Chinese cities continue to come tumbling down in the names of change and modernisation, the country’s up-and-coming practices are developing intelligent new forms of specifically Chinese design, even if they do draw from the west from time to time. Whatever other glamorous projects these talented young architects are beginning to scoop up, it is mostly housing for ordinary people that concerns them – that, and a desire to change the direction of Chinese architectural development, all too often a soulless juggernaut ripping the hearts from old towns and cities.

Zhu Pei is one architect at the forefront of this new wave. In his busy Beijing studio, Zhu shows me ideas for the redevelopment of one of the city’s “hutongs”. Made up of tangling alleys brimming with workaday life, Beijing’s hutongs are fast disappearing. “This is the type of district most people lived in before the towerblocks arrived,” says Zhu. “Naturally, many people were happy to move out to new apartments because the hutongs were old, poor and often unsanitary. But the hutongs are built on a human scale and can be very beautiful. What we propose is reconstruction: adding gentle modern buildings where necessary, to improve them and make ordinary people like them again. We want the present to connect with the past – we want to perform an urban acupuncture on Chinese cities.”

This isn’t easy. As Zhu knows, it is far easier to design ambitious new museums and sporting venues than it is to construct modest, modern homes in age-old city courtyards and alleys, especially when such sites are being hungrily eyed up by state-sponsored property developers. Educated at Tsinghua University and the University of California, Zhu – who set up Studio Zhu Pei in 2005 with architects Wu Tong – was the man behind Digital Beijing, the all-but-completed control centre for the 2008 Olympics, as well an origami-like art pavilion in Abu Dhabi that will stand alongside monuments by Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry. He is also working on designs for the Guggenheim Beijing and created the city’s Kapok hotel, with its translucent screens and shimmering courtyards.

The Guardian