That might sound odd to say that but Beijing is not one of my favorite cities to travel to.
I have been to Beijing a couple of times and now we are in a love/hate relationship. Firstly, the notorious air pollution that basically covers the city with smog the majority of the year. Secondly, it’s just so, so highly-populated and so, so huge that makes getting around (at times) extremely frustrating. If you are going out on a Friday afternoon, you might end up stuck in an agonizing traffic jam that you have no choice but to return to where you started mid-way. Subway could be overloaded, cabs could be impossible to hail, and cycling could be difficult. Lastly, the attractions are usually immensely crowded (in Chinese – “People Mountain People Sea”) which could be difficult for one to quietly enjoy the beautiful sights.
Yet, the ancient capital of China is filled with magnificent monuments and historical sites: the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan), 13 Ming Tombs, and more… that I believe are worth the pain of getting trapped in the crowd and witnessing the fascinating Chinese art and culture before communism.
There was a day that I was in town and the sky was blue; instead of visiting the heritage sites, I spent the day getting myself soaked in modern art and architecture. Since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the capital city was under rapid development. Cutting-edge infrastructure sprung up everywhere in the city, it has become an arena for world-class architecture firms. Art galleries and art districts are growing and blooming which makes the cultural hub of the country intriguing for art lovers. I named Asia’s modern art scene an “Instagram” series because I found these contemporary art pieces always create interesting and unique Instagram-able moments.
Beijing’s Modern Architecture
Check out these modern city developments. It was marvelous to see these buildings’ peculiar shapes, sharp lines, and formidable scale.
Some of the most spectacular architecture in Beijing that needs to be seen:
- Beijing National Stadium (Bird Nest): Herzog & de Meuron
- The National Aquatics Center, Beijing (Watercube): PTW Architects
- National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) (National Grand Theater): Paul Andreu
- Beijing Capital International Airport: Foster + Partners
- Central China Television (CCTV) Headquarters building: Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA)
- National Library of China (North Extension): KSP Jürgen Engel Architekten
- National Museum of China: Gerkan, Marg, and Partners
- Digital Beijing Building: Studio Pei-Zhu, Urbanus Architecture & Design
- Cadillac Center (originally Beijing Wukesong Culture & Sports Center, then LeSports Center): Gu Yonghui
- Linked Hybrid: Steven Holl
- Olympic Green Tennis Centre: BVN Architecture
The National Centre for the Performing Arts (a.k.a. Beijing Opera House) is a Giant Egg-shaped Modern architecture designed by the famous French architect Paul Andreu. Nothing much going on during the day without shows, but the tranquil and serene atmosphere offered the locals a great place to spend the afternoon playing badminton, skateboarding, kite flying, or simply having a picnic, as for me, appreciate the beauty of art in front of me.
Red Brick Art Museum
One might be surprised that there are actually quite a few contemporary art spaces in Beijing that showcase artwork created by local artists. While the themes and topics may not have a wide and free diversity like any other art gallery in other places in the world. The museum itself has certain unique aesthetics that are worth appreciation.
Red Brick Art Museum is located on the outskirts of Beijing city yet it gained fame and popularity with its unique architecture and garden. Not to mention it is very Instagram-friendly 🙂
The museum features two sprawling exhibition halls and numerous smaller spaces; apart from a few impressive permanent art pieces supported by up-and-coming Chinese and international contemporary artists, they host temporary themed art exhibitions in various forms and formats from paintings, photography, installation art, film screenings, to regular live performances.
The museum has a cafe and a restaurant in the garden that makes it possible for visitors to chill out and unwind for a day.
Beautifully sculptured Chinese garden, the juxtaposition of concrete, brick, and trees frame a good picture, and it’s a good test of your photo-taking skills. Explore different angles, play with colors, and work with the environment to see how they best complement your outfit and pose.
Today Art Museum
While the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) is now under renovation and will come back 7 times larger than the original. Today Art Museum is a private, non-profit art museum that supported the development of Chinese contemporary art since 2002. The museum hosted numerous temporary art exhibitions and it has been the place for new artists to express and present their work before they moved onto the world’s stage. Yue Minjun’s self-portraits are part of the museum’s permanent collection and are displayed right at the entrance!
798 Art Zone
798 Art Zone is the district a little bit away from the hustle-&-bustle that I could easily spend a day or two in Beijing. The district is a 30-minute walk away from Wangjing South station and the district is a cluster of art galleries, high art boutique stores, cafes, and art museums. The district was established by a small group of artists in the late 1990s, who were all looking for new working space to set up their art businesses. The area’s quality of artwork eventually gained international media attention in the early 2000s and the government declared 798 a protected art district. Apart from the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), another highly recommended contemporary exhibition site in Beijing, sites like Beijing Commune, Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, Mountain Art Beijing & Frank Lin Art Center, Asia Art Center (Beijing), Linda Gallery, PIFO New Art Gallery, PACE Beijing, Loft 3 Gallery, Enjoy Museum of Art, Whitebox… host temporary themed exhibition through the year and most of them excitingly – free! I had a great day wandering in the district (as most of the area is pedestrianized), sipping coffee, and doing some shopping – I did buy a bunch of magnets of contemporary artworks by famous Chinese artists for my friends!
Some of the best galleries and art spaces in the 798 Art Zone that are worth a visit:
- UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) Art Gallery
- Hive Center for Contemporary Art
- PACE Beijing
- Faurschou Foundation Beijing
- M WOODS
- Pinacotheca of Korean Mansudae Art Studio
- Iberia Center for Contemporary Art
- Mountain Art Beijing & Frank Lin Art Center
- Asia Art Center (Beijing)
- Linda Gallery
- PIFO New Art Gallery
- Loft 3 Gallery
- Enjoy Museum of Art