Architect Zaha Hadid accused of 'destruction' of Beijing old town with futuristic swirling shopping centre Galaxy Soho

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A Chinese heritage group has accused the architect Zaha Hadid of “destroying” Beijing’s old town after a futuristic new development created by her practice was honoured with a top award by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

Galaxy Soho, a panoramic 330,000 sq. metre entertainment and office complex in the heart of Beijing, is a typically avant-garde design by the British-Iraqi architect responsible for the Olympic Park’s Aquatics Centre.

RIBA recognised the spectacular construction, designed to project “an internal world of continuous open spaces”, by giving it its International award.

The Institute has also shortlisted Galaxy Soho, Hadid’s first shopping complex, for the prestigious RIBA Lubetkin Prize, awarded in September to the best new building outside of Europe.

However the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre said it was “shocked” that RIBA had chosen to honour Hadid’s complex.

“The Galaxy Soho project has violated a number of heritage preservation laws and regulations,” the organisation said in a letter to RIBA, published by Building Design.

“It has caused great damage to the preservation of the old Beijing streetscape, the original urban plan, the traditional Hutong and courtyard houses.”

The scheme was a “typical unfortunate example of the destruction of Beijing old town”. RIBA was “encouraging” developers to carry on with the “destruction of cultural heritage sites”.

The letter said: “Many of us in Beijing are very disappointed and offended. We strongly believe this award by your institution will encourage developers and authorities to continue to commit the wrongs they have done and will increase the difficulties of cultural heritage preservation in China.”

A spokesman for Zaha Hadid Architects said: “Throughout the design process, ZHA worked with the Local Design Institute (LDI) to ensure the project complies with all government building regulations and planning requirements.  When ZHA was appointed to the project, no buildings existed on the site which is adjacent to large scale commercial/civic buildings and one of Beijing’s busiest motorways.”

Hadid’s scheme, featuring her signature curving forms, was designed to reflect Beijing’s architectural heritage. Its four oval domed towers “have a curving and organic shape without corners, a concept derived from the traditional Chinese courtyard.”

In its Lubetkin commendation, RIBA said: “The light and airy public spaces are truly innovative in a sprawling, dense urban context – cities in the West could learn much from this project.”

Hadid, 62, has become an architectural “superstar” in China. Her work is taught in design courses and when she gave a talk in Beijing, 15,000 architects, artists and fans attended.

Her asymetrical Guangzhou Opera House won acclaim in 2010 and designs like her Wangjing SOHO towers complex have been “pirated” and produced in carbon copy forms by construction firms in southern China.

However Hank Dittmar, special adviser to Prince Charles’s urban building foundation, argued that cities like Beijing, in seeking statement buildings to project their new global capital, are in danger of becoming “architectural trophy rooms” for star architects like Hadid.

He said: “Addressing the lowest common denominator effect by reflecting what was destroyed in the abstract, either formally as in Galaxy Soho’s courtyards, or through interpretation, is merely writing an obituary, not keeping the culture alive.”

If Hadid triumphs in the Lubetkin, it would be the second year in a row that a Chinese project has won the award. Last year Wilkinson Eyre won for its Guangzhou International Finance Centre and the practice is again listed in 2013 for its Cooled Conservatories Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.

In 2009 the Lubetkin went to Herzog & de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest in Beijing, the centrepiece of the 2008 Olympics, despite complaints that the infrastructure required for the Games had been built at the expense of the city’s historic quarters.

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