Past forward in Nanjing

Past forward in Nanjing

New meets old – take a tour of the Chinese city’s most beautifully innovative architecture from past to present.


Nanjing means southern capital in Chinese and has served as the political centre of the nation during ten dynasties and most recently as capital of the Republican era China until 1949.Despite no longer being the capital, Nanjing today is a bustling metropolis with its eyes very much on a bright future. Yet, in areas like Yihe Road Enclave and Laomendong there is an increasing appreciation of old architecture. And this is also reflected in the buildings being thrown up with the skyscrapers; along with a growing awareness of the need for buildings to be greener as China battles its pollution problems head on.

Traditional Qing style

Located in the shadow of Nanjing’s 600-year-old Ming city wall, Laomendong houses a collection of restored and rebuilt Qing Dynasty buildings. Lai Yard, buried away in an alleyway, not only functions as an office for Minggu Design but doubles as a showcase for chief architect Jaco Pan’s work.

The interior of restaurant Waku matches ­traditional style with elements of modern design.

“Modern construction is functional, but my design is aimed to connect people in harmony with nature,” says Pan. For his work on the Lai Yard, Pan won the 2017 FX prize, the only Chinese designer ever to win the prestigious UK interior design award. Inside the multi-purpose wooden-framed building old broken wapian roofing tiles are repurposed into use as a wall.

Pan has been influenced by the styles of the Song and Ming Dynasties, in particular by literati architecture. About one-third of the restaurants in Laomendong are designed by him and many others, such as Waku, designed by a friend, match traditional style with elements of more modern design employing liberal use of glass.

Modernising Ming style

Thousands of light bulbs with ever-changing colours dot one of the exhibition rooms at Baoen Temple

Just outside the main south gate Zhonghuamen, lies the Baoen Temple Heritage Park. The temple was famed for its Porcelain Tower, an imposing colourful building made of gleaming porcelain. Sometimes included as a wonder of the medieval world, it garnered a mention in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Garden of Paradise but was destroyed during the 19th century Taiping Rebellion. Today’s incarnation is a modern interpretation made of glass and steel supported on a concrete base, domed over excavations of the original foundations. Directly above, rising to a total height of 108 metres is the tower which at night is lit up with multi-coloured LED lights.

Chinese-style church

The wooden Wanjing Garden Chapel in the snow.

The city’s proximity to the Yangtze River is one of the key reasons for Nanjing’s importance. The Wanjing Garden Chapel, located by the river, seems to be a thoroughly modern looking wooden building, but even here elements of traditional Chinese design creep in. With religious buildings light plays a key element. “Light falls through the skylight strip right above the alter axis into the centre of the hall as well as penetrates through the holy cross on the wall,” explains the designer Zhang Lei, from AZL Architects. Completed in 2014 it unfortunately has yet to see regular use.

Greener tomorrow


Just across from the chapel is Jiangxin Island – a long narrow strip in the river – designated by the government as a showcase for sustainable development. Part of this project is the 24,000 square metres Nanjing Eco-Tech Island Exhibition Centre. Completed in 2014, one of the most important features is the cantilevered roof with light cannons to funnel daylight into the building.

The main atrium of the Nanjing Eco-Tech Island Exhibition Centre

Estimated energy savings are 67 per cent which equates yearly to 869.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Features like the rooftop garden and terraces along with landscaping reduce the need for irrigation by over 30 per cent and allow for 48 per cent permeable ground surface.

Further showcasing the city’s desire to go green is the currently under construction Stefano Boeri-designed vertical forest in the Pukou District. Slated for 2019 completion, it is the first such project in Asia following the architect’s successful Milan demonstration. A special façade will hold 600 tall- and 500 medium-sized trees along with 2,500 plants on the two towers. These will absorb 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year while pumping out 60 kilogrammes of oxygen per day. This will further cement Nanjing as capital to some of China’s most innovative architecture.

Text Mark Andrews
Photos Tuomas Harjumaaskola


Related Posts