architectural marvels in Beijing: Palaces turned into parks, a great hall built to celebrate the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and a subtle architectural argument against censorship—all places that you can’t miss in Beijing.
Earlier versions of the descriptions of these buildings first appeared in 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die, edited by Mark Irving (2016).
1: Summer Palace-architectural marvels in Beijing
Beijing’s Summer Palace, also known as Yi He Yuan, is a captivating complex of lakes, gardens, palaces, and pavilions. Emperor Qianlong commissioned its construction in 1750, and it later became the imperial summer residence. Despite being attacked and destroyed during the Opium War in 1860, it was rebuilt and eventually transformed into a public park. The Summer Palace boasts remarkable structures such as the Yiledian theater, the Leshontang residence of Dowager Empress Cixi, and the elaborate 17-arch bridge called Shiqi Kong Qiao. Its harmonious blend of natural and artificial elements reflects the profound aesthetics of Chinese garden design.
2: Great Hallof the People
Situated on the western edge of Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of the People was constructed in 1959 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This grand venue hosts Communist Party meetings, events, and conferences. Its central block features bronze doors and a colonnaded portico, while extensive wings extend from it. The main doors bear the emblem of the People’s Republic of China—a red shield. The building encompasses over 300 conference halls, assembly rooms, lounge areas, and offices. The central auditorium, capable of accommodating up to 10,000 officials, is where government speeches and annual meetings take place.
3: National Grand The ater of China
The National Grand Theater, designed by architect Paul Andreu, is an iconic structure that exemplifies the audacious architecture of its time. Located near the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, this theater has sparked debates due to its unconventional design and controversial location. It consists of a globular glass and titanium shell housing three separate venues—a 2,461-seat opera house, a 2,017-seat concert hall, and a 1,040-seat theater. The glass exterior wall allows the inner structures and spaces to be visible at night. The building appears to float in an artificial lake, with access provided through underground walkways.
4: China Central Television Head quarters
The China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters building in Beijing’s Central Business District has generated polarizing opinions. Its unique design has led to various nicknames, from “a naked woman on her hands and knees” to “the underpants building” to “twisted and hollow.” However, some argue that the building serves as a covert political statement criticizing the state monopoly of media. The CCTV Building stands on a concrete plinth and features a 755-foot (230 m) tall structure with perspective-distorting legs and a bridge top. Its irregular network of steel cross-bracing, etched into the skin of the building, creates a visually striking appearance.
5: Beijing National Stadium
The Beijing National Stadium, also known as the “Bird’s Nest,” has become a prominent landmark in the city. This extraordinary stadium rises from the flat plain of north Beijing and is set on a gently sloped plinth. Its design showcases massive steel columns and struts that form a continuous and intermeshing roof structure. The absence of a strict outer facade creates transitory spaces, blurring the boundaries between the interior and exterior. With seating for up to 91,000 spectators, the stadium’s concrete bowl exhibits a sculptural quality. Its tectonic qualities and striking use of color, such as silver-painted steel, dazzling red concrete, and matte black interior elements, make it a remarkable architectural masterpiece.
These five architectural marvels in Beijing highlight the city’s rich history, cultural significance, and innovative design.