Modern Chinese Architecture: Design & Styles

Instructor: Megan Criss
In this lesson, we will look at modern-day Chinese architecture using real-world examples. We will also discuss the characteristics of both the style of architecture as well as the design, and why buildings are built differently in the modern era.


Chinese architecture has taken on many looks throughout history. Many of us are familiar with the traditional Chinese styles that included colorful ornamentation, sweeping roofs, screens, towering wood columns, and symbolic sculptures of figures such as the dragon. While traditional Chinese design will always remain beautiful and sacred to the history of China, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, designs began to change. After the beginning of the Opium Wars in the 1840's, Chinese architects began incorporating more Western architectural characteristics into their style and designs.

Traditional Chinese Architecture


Modern Chinese architecture takes on a very sleek and futuristic style. Buildings appear more open concept and streamlined. Open concept simply means that the floor plan and overall design make use of large open spaces (rather than several small, sectioned-off spaces). The National Grand Theater of China in Beijing (colloquially known as The Giant Egg) is a prime specimen of modern architecture in China. It has a seamless curvilinear design and peaceful aesthetic while still functioning as an event space.

Another great example of this style is the CCTV (Central China Television) Headquarters, which was completed just in time for the broadcasting of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The style of the building showcases clean lines and innovative expression of form. Six horizontal and vertical structures link together to create a square loop, and an expanse of glass windows on every façade reflects the backdrop of the city.

CCTV Headquarters in Beijing

Styling of modern Chinese architecture can be very playful with shape and expression. A great precedent of this playful yet modern look is the National Aquatics Center, also known as the Water Cube, in Beijing. This building was constructed for use in the 2008 Olympics, but now functions as a public aquatics center, spa, and shopping center, not to mention a fun architectural statement. The Water Cube, as its name implies, is very modular in shape, but is broken up on its faces with bubble shapes, playing on the primary use of the site as an aquatics center. The Water Cube also changes color in the evenings and becomes a lively gathering space for visitors.

Interior of the Water Cube. The bubble-like design can be seen in the ceiling and back of the room.


This style of Chinese architecture has also come to adopt more Western applications, such as incorporating restaurants, bars, clubs, shops, and businesses into one building. This multiuse of buildings is very different from traditional Chinese style, which had separate and defined uses for each building. The Water Cube was designed with this mindset, taking on an identity that is more than just a place to recreate, but is also a place to shop, eat, and socialize.

There is also a lot of verticality in modern Chinese design. The reasoning behind the design of such towering structures is the country's massive population. China is the single-most populated country in the world, and cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai are extremely high-density in terms of the number of people per square foot. With a booming population and limited space, architects are forced to build upward and not outward, creating powerful skylines and cityscapes.

Shanghai skyline at night with the Oriental Pearl Tower in the forefront

While the designs of many modern Chinese structures look effortless and almost organic in form, they are more meticulously planned and engineered than ever, with intricate geometries and layers.

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