Chinese heritage group "offended" by
Zaha Hadid's RIBA Award for Galaxy Soho

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Chinese heritage group "offended" by Zaha Hadid's RIBA Award for Galaxy Soho

News: a heritage group in Beijing has written an open letter to the Royal Institute of British Architects saying it is "disappointed and offended" that Zaha Hadid's Galaxy Soho complex has been given an RIBA International Award.

The letter from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center attacked the RIBA's decision to award the 330,000-square-metre retail, office and entertainment complex in Beijing, which it labeled a "typical unfortunate example [of] the destruction of Beijing old town."

"The Galaxy Soho project has violated a number of heritage preservation laws and regulations," said the letter. "It has also caused great damage to the preservation of the old Beijing streetscape, the original urban plan, the traditional Hutong and courtyard houses."

The letter urged the RIBA to "have a deeper understanding of the current situation in modern Chinese society." It claims the award could encourage developers and authorities to continue with the "destruction of cultural heritage sites", which it says has "been a very common offence committed by many of the growing rich and powerful."

Zaha Hadid's Galaxy Soho complex photographed from the surrounding streets by Hufton + Crow

The building is also one of three projects nominated for this year's RIBA Lubetkin Prize, alongside Gardens by the Bay by Grant Associates and Wilkinson Eyre Architects in Singapore and an affordable housing project in New York by by Dattner Architects and Grimshaw.

"These cutting-edge schemes show the leading role that architects play in delivering visionary new thinking about urban issues," said RIBA president Angela Brady on the announcement of the shortlist last month.

Completed in October last year, the Galaxy Soho complex comprises four domed structures fused together by bridges and platforms between curving floor plates.

Check out more photos of the structure taken from the surrounding streets here and take a movie tour through the complex here.

More about architecture and design by Zaha Hadid »
More about architecture in China »

Here's the full letter from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center:


An Open Letter to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) on Its 2013 RIBA Award for Galaxy Soho

To Whom It May Concern at RIBA:

From the recent Weibo (Sina miniblog) post by the Honorable Ambassador of the United Kingdom, we have learned that the Galaxy Soho project, designed by British Architect Zaha Hadid, has won the 2013 RIBA award. Many of us in China were very shocked when they learned this news. The Galaxy Soho project has violated a number of heritage preservation laws and regulations, including the Measures for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks of Beijing, The Beijing City Master Plan, and Plans for Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks of Beijing. It has also caused great damage to the preservation of the old Beijing streetscape, the original urban plan, the traditional Hutong and courtyard houses, the landscape formation, and the style and color scheme of Beijing’s unique vernacular architecture. During the land acquisition process, the legal rights of the original hutong residents were also grossly disregarded. The Galaxy Soho Project is definitely a typical unfortunate example on the destruction of Beijing old town; but, not withstanding, it has been selected as a winner of your award. Many of us in Beijing are very disappointed and offended.

The destruction of cultural heritage sites and the violation of the public cultural rights have been a very common offense committed by many of the growing rich and powerful in Chinese society. Some developers work hand-in-hand with some corrupted officials to encroach upon the precious cultural heritage which should be enjoyed by the entire society, while they accumulate their own personal wealth. Due to the incompetence of law enforcement institutions, this kind of destruction is growing quickly, and the deliberate neglect is epidemic.

Many residents of Beijing, including us, sincerely wish that your institution would have a deeper understanding of the current situation in modern Chinese society, the severe challenges facing cultural heritage preservation in China, as well as the indecent conduct of many greedy developers. We strongly believe that this award by your institution will only encourage these developers and authorities to continue to commit the wrongs they have done and will increase the difficulties of cultural heritage preservation in China.

We sincerely hope that RIBA will understand this sorrow and concern of the Chinese people and take action to help make up for the negative impact this award has caused.

Earnestly,

Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP)

  • David

    This should at least give the RIBA pause for thought. Although there’s little the RIBA can influence in China when it comes to how the Chinese develope their cities, the architects that accept such commissions should be more mindful.

    I’m not sure what damage is done by this particular building, but the hutongs and courtyard houses are a treasure and an oasis in Bejing that have huge merit in themselves. Unfortunately there’s money to be made by knocking them down and overseas architects are unfortunately partial to (a small) but important slice of the cake.

  • Marilena

    Couldn’t agree more! What’s happening in Asia for some time now is what happened to Athens (and other cities) in the 60s. Money killed tradition and beautiful buildings and created monstrosities with no respect to the history and architecture of each place.

  • Nicolaas

    The heritage group in Beijing’s ideal of a city adapted to modern concerns is the preservation and maintenance of a medieval infrastructure… sounds stupid. I’ve seen the same thing happen in Lisbon where architects and designers aren’t allowed to even fart without having some conservative sico whip out the most pathetic arguments.

    Not all cities can be like Venice; cities need to grow and evolve. The first time I went to Venice, I swear to god it felt like I time travelled, that’s a pretty sic and extravagant concept for a city, come on let’s time travel to Venice! Sounds more like kitsch nightmare to me.

  • @Khosi_Mthethwa

    I’m a Zaha Hadid fan. Sometimes she gets it right and sometimes she does get it wrong. Having looked and the building and it’s context I’d say this venture joins the #ZahaGetsItWrong pile. Long Live ZHA nevertheless!

  • blau

    Hi Nicolaas – there is no specific mention of the heritage group’s insistence of …”the preservation and maintenance of a medieval infrastructure” – an insensitive comment on your part.

    The hutong districts of Beijing are a highly adaptive fabric and the heritage group are voicing legitimate concerns that should have seen the limelight a decade ago.

    Heritage concerns and reinvention and progressive development can be overlaid. From memory AMO did an interesting heritage study of Beijing that offered solutions that you could refer to for alternatives to your sweeping assumptions of “stupid” heritage concerns that need to be addressed in their contexts, Lisbon’s in theirs and Venice in theirs and Beijing’s in theirs.

    Suzhou’s heritage strategy is a decent contemporary chinese example you could also look at. We also haven’t touched on the former residents’ trampled rights in this equation either.

  • Bilby

    Nicolass, there is zero chance that Beijing is ever going to offer the possibility of feeling like one has ‘time travelled’ to China’s cultural past. So much has already been destroyed, it is absolutely crucial that any remaining built heritage is retained.

    The city is now at risk of becoming culturally irrelevant as it loses all traces of its own heritage and history. Modern cities can quickly become ‘kitsch nightmares’ too – just take a look at Dubai.

  • Desk

    This is a joke by their heritage protection center. It is a tad too late!

    Pay attention to at all the CRAP they’ve let through or had no power to stop from happening – why pick on something that complements their skyline and can be easily green-screened out if a film-maker’s intention is to recapture the past in a movie.

    There is really so much rubbish built in China designed by mediocre architects locally and internationally on extravagant construction budgets but hiring/paying bad architects on low fees. The result is what you get mainly. The developers are by the way SOHO, who did the original Commune by the Wall. They really know what they are doing when seeking out good architects and have a tradition of doing so – they don’t settle with low grade design.

    • acm

      The people behind those communes and “designer city block” choose famous architects. Right.

      Then they change the original concepts into developer friendly lower cost and cheap material versions and whoops – after three years they don’t look nice and need to be renovated completely.

      The commune at the great wall has lost completely its flavour of the first three months when it was completed – a big international hotel chain gave up after some others failed to run as well. It is just not working, and it is in a desolate condition.

      Where is the responsible attitude of the initiators towards their brain child. It’s gone. They can’t make any profit out of it, and so leave it to its destiny. Go visit Beijing and look at projects of the developer you praise that much and see their low grade building responsibility.

  • http://twitter.com/scarlett_fu @scarlett_fu

    There is a difference between evolution and revolution; same applies here.

    Retaining the heritage is a crucial part in maintaining the understanding of history and tradition for the future generations, yet looking towards the future is also important for the future generations. Whether or not new developments are being created, there will always be complaints from different angles on either requiring new infrastructure to accommodate the growing population/economy or wanting to retain the heritage.

    As long as architects and developers are mindful about this the least they can do is to take the considerations into account and minimise the uproar from all corners.

  • Cody

    I think the problem here is that the Chinese are failing to see the similarities between Hadid’s Soho Complex and the Imperial Palace of Beijing. Zaha has payed homage to the Forbidden City whilst bringing the architecture into the 21st century.

    There is a reason why Hadid’s architecture is internationally acclaimed. She is a luminary much like Steve Jobs, however her work will only be appreciated after her death as was the tower of Monsieur Eiffel.

    • Bernie Bernake

      You are sadly deceiving yourself, Cody. Hadid has parachuted another one of her blobs into a foreign country, without regard for context, townscape, history or environment. To identify the problem as being China’s inability to appreciate Hadid’s genius is just plain crass.

      Rest assured that her one briefing criteria was to produce something that would make as much money as possible.

      Luminary, no. Opportunist, yes. She is one of the International set and, along with Libeskind and Gehry, has carte blanche to design trophy buildings with zero regard to the culture or context of the destination.

  • sam

    This has nothing to do with progression and modernisation. It is about corrupt and greedy developers and government officials trying to line there pockets at the expense and disregard towards the people who live there and their local heritage.

    Disturbingly this happens all too often around China. Millions of citizens are relocated every year without any say in order to build expensive shopping malls or empty designer apartments.

    As a standalone project the building is well designed, but great architecture needs to value context and local tradition, and I can’t name a single Zaha work which does this. She should be ashamed to have taken part in this project.

    It’s refreshing to finally see someone stand up to this corruption, so a round of applause to the CHP!

  • LaureR

    I could not agree more with you. What the CHP is doing is standing up for future generations. I find that smart and courageous as well.

  • LaureR

    I find your arguments quite dishonest here. It is not like she is a genius whose work does not get the recognition it deserves. For god’s sake, she is the starchitect par excellence! And although she must employ tons of geniuses in their own right, it is always her own name that is retained like she made this or that building all by herself!

    If Steve Jobs is your reference in that matter, then we really do not have the same moral standards, cause full blown narcissists who exploit to death workers in asian fabrics don’t get my admiration. And, if any, I think that, after their death, what will remain, once their sphere of influence has vanished, is that they were terrible people.

  • Edward

    Zaha Hadid and Patrick Schumacher; turning the architectural profession into a joke with the use of irrelevant parametric design resulting into modern day Rococo.

    I currently reside in Beijing and have seen this monster up close; I haven’t based my critique of this building via the use of fancy online, wide-angle, long-range photos, and have noticed the poor build quality and workmanship applied to this building.

    RIBA should be awarding architecture that is based not only on inspiring and original design; none of which can be said of Galaxy’s generic “cutting edge” repeated floor plates with “connective” bridges, but on the final end product showcasing care and attention to build quality.

    If projects like this continue to win awards, in China particularly, this will only encourage more developers to build these monsters using cheaper and less thoughtful building contractors. This is another example of the hypocrisy that runs within RIBA right now.

    • Jos

      I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Zaha Hadid always uses a local architect to deliver and manage the construction of overseas projects.

      So in this case, the quality of detailing and constructions is a result of low skilled local contractors and architects. It is a well known fact that international architects working in China have a nightmare when it comes to construction because of the poor workforce. You should really do your homework before making misinformed criticisms. Just saying.

      • acm

        If a star architect knows that his projects can’t be realised at the standard they are designed for with the addition of greedy developers, it would be wise just not to build them! That would be respect of your own portfolio.

  • bassel

    Just because a neighborhood is old it does not mean that it’s an archaeological heritage site. Growing cities need to shave off the ill-planned baggage of decadent eras and not let stop the wheel of progress.

    Maybe I would’ve related to the sentimentality of such street urbanity if I was Chinese. I’m sorry but I don’t see any architectural or cultural merit to the rundown shacks surrounding the SOHO development.

    • pipo

      Wow, what a display of ignorance! Or are you trying to be ironic?

    • Wall

      Do you really travel and walk around the town? How can you be so confident that Hutong is not well planned? Do you really understand the Chinese culture, the beauty of courtyard house and streetscape?

      Urban planning is not about trying to re-plan the whole city. It is more to do with an integration of human behaviour, daily routine, culture and finally building.

      Archaeological heritage site doesn’t need dramatically changing – it progressively changes. This phenomenon also explains why the Eiffel tower took so many years to be accepted.

      To be honest, the photo itself doesn’t really represent any significant identity to the local. It is just a gimmick and tries to get attention from the public. For those that really love architecture, please respect the natural setting and not following certain famous architect’s works blindly.

      To above, I assume that you are not an architecture student. If yes, please don’t involve in any architectural works. I worry you will destroy another world heritage site. Thank you.

      • Bassel

        If Galaxy Soho truly replaced an architectural treasure then how come nobody spoke for it before? With such a high profile architect and a media covered design process, why didn’t these so-called preservationists wait until the project was awarded? They just want the spotlight by the most shameful way. You guys should really find better things to do than rant over an awarded success. Shame.

  • Ruben

    Totally agree, the hutong neighborhoods in Beijing are beautiful areas which are more and more often replaced by greedy developers. Despite this, the process is part of a modern and developing society. It doesn’t mean that people can be relocated out of their most often family inherited home and placed in depressing tombstone-like residential towers where their cultural routes are minimised to the feng shui North-South axis.

  • som

    This letter is a very interesting insight. It illustrates what little regard western architects have for a sense of place – and how low RIBA have sunk.

  • JayCee

    I think this is also a sad indictment of the RIBA awards today when it is a shopping mall in China that wins.

  • Marti

    Ok, it’s pretty much obvious what’s going on here. If you want to be heard, you need to attack something that is known. So for that Galaxy Soho is most suitable.

    To claim that Galaxy Soho is destroying the old Beijing Fabric is the most ludicrous, untrue statement I’ve read in a while. It is East Second Ring Road for christ sake.

    I know people who are fighting for heritage protection in Beijing. But those people are not dishonestly picking an unsuitable project to make their point. This organisation should be ashamed of themselves. Pick on the government instead if you have the balls.

    • Leona

      Sorry but can you explain a little bit more about why the claim is ludicrous? Is it about the location? I just can’t understand. Thanks.

      • Duh

        People are commenting don’t have the slightest clue about the surroundings of the Galaxy Soho site. This is evident from the comments.

        The Heritage group should know and does know better, but they are using the building to gain publicity for themselves.

        I lived in Beijing for more than 4 years and I’ve been involved with heritage groups. I’ve never heard from these guys before. So congratulations to them, they are now recognised through telling lies about this project, which Westerners uncritically eat up as they do anything anti-China, and architects eat up anything anti-Zaha.

  • jed

    The point is, it not only destroys the original cityscape, the work itself is just a piece of ugly curved buildings with no quality of response to the culture, history, or urban setting to the surroundings.

    Simple rule: If this thing can be placed anywhere in the world, it’s not a suitable thing. I wish it had been built in the desert.

  • Beijinger

    As someone who’s been to this building, it’s empty and quite simply impossible to clean considering the haze that lingers in Beijing. Additionally, typical of China, it looks great on the outside but very shoddily made on the inside.

  • muduri

    This is a tough issue. I live about 300 metres from Galaxy and of course the destruction of the hutongs is tragic. On the other hand, the disadvantage of these tight-angle photos is that you get the impression Galaxy might be the only modern building here. It’s exactly the opposite – that site was almost the only hutong within two blocks of East Second Ring Road, everything else having been demolished in the last 30 years to create corporate buildings of indescribably banality. I wouldn’t want to encourage tearing down hutongs, but for the 80 or so being demolished this year, I wouldn’t mind showing the developers that Stalin c.1950 and Arquitectonica c.1980 are not the only rewarding building strategies.

    • HK

      Hello GH … My sentiments exactly.

  • blobface

    Who cares about the opinions of these peasants when Zaha’s ego is happily boosted with these nominations?