Beijing’s street names can be deceptive. Visitors to No 7A Small Arch hutong, just inside the city’s second ring road, might get a little more than they bargained for. Long gone is the stone gateway that once marked the entrance to this network of narrow streets. Now, it’s been replaced by a sinuous white arc, jacked 60m into the air, that loops and twists, connecting a cluster of vast egg-shaped buildings in an improbable acrobatic leap.
This alien arrival is Galaxy Soho, a 370,000 sq m complex of shops, offices and restaurants by Zaha Hadid Architects, recently bestowed with a top award by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). The judges heaped praise on its flowing bands of white aluminium and glass that “give the development an almost geological solidity and presence”. They hailed it as “a welcome democratisation” of the architect’s work, asserting that the public space that weaves between the complex “demonstrates a rare generosity in a country determined to outdo the west in terms of commercialisation”.
But others in Beijing beg to differ. The city’s chief preservation watchdog has written an excoriating open letter to the RIBA accusing the project of “destroying” the city’s built heritage, claiming that it has “violated a number of heritage preservation laws and regulations”.