Mirroring the enigmatic city of Beijing, the Temple Hotel is a heady mix of art gallery, restaurant, hotel and cultural curiosity that can’t be quite defined, like the Chinese capital itself.
Beijing’s Temple Hotel is not a hotel in the traditional sense. In fact, it’s not quite a hotel yet as the Temple is just now preparing to host its first guests. What it does contain behind its unassuming hutong walls defies categorization and begs to be discovered by the intrepid traveler.
With a storied history spanning 600 years, the Temple complex sprawls over a city block just yards away from the fabled Forbidden City. Stepping into its open courtyard, one is immediately greeted by the circle of bronze crouching men, barely 2 feet high but mysterious and unsettling in their perfect arrangement over the stonework. This is feng shui personified, and the first of many surprises one will encounter when experiencing the Temple.
An evolving space meant to change and serve the eclectic interests of its patrons, the Temple is at once an art gallery, restaurant, bar, museum, performance art space, conference center, architectural relic, and soon-to-be aforementioned hotel. The crouching figures are an art installation by celebrated sculptor Wang Shugang, and further within the complex one will find a gallery exhibiting works by other contemporary artists. For those with more classic tastes, there is currently a carpet museum showcasing woven 19th century works from Rajasthan.
Before you can pinpoint the Temple as a too-cool-for-school avante-garde experiment, note the comfortable bar and restaurant framing two sides of the first courtyard. With understated furnishings and great lighting (perhaps designed to soften the features of a world-weary and jetlagged traveler), the dining and social experience at Temple is meant to refresh rather than exhaust its patrons. On any given night you can hear soft trip-hop or contemporary jazz throughout the venue as plates of elegantly prepared food and desserts are offered. Chic yet casual, refined yet relaxed, the vibe at Temple’s restaurant and bar is homey and welcoming-yet distinctly international and perhaps even a tad glamorous. Ex-pats converge at the bar and share stories of past histories in the US and elsewhere abroad, while at a nearby table the unmistakable sound of vibrant Mandarin ebbs and flows with the music.
Take a walk deeper into the complex and you may be startled to find a formation of nine bright-red resin-cast robed monks lining the outside wall of the bar, each holding a fluorescent tube of white light (another of Wang Shugang’s nifty installations). Round the corner and you are rewarded with the complex’s crown jewel, the Zhizhusi temple relic.
Since the early 1400’s, a wooden structure rising out of the center of today’s complex existed as a printing workshop, churning out Buddhist sutras and imperial texts for the Ming Dynasty and its emperors. Some 200 years later, the Zhizhusi (or “Temple of Wisdom” as it is known), was constructed to become a Buddhist refuge and ceremonial court for scholars and emperors of the Qing dynasty. Eventually, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the temple slowly vanished as more modern buildings surrounded and enveloped it.
When the Temple Hotel team discovered Zhizhusi in 2007, it was in ruins. The original ceiling frescos and woodwork had deteriorated over time, but initial restoration revealed several Sanskrit paintings and even political & social slogans, written graffiti-style on the wall, during the Cultural Revolution. All this was left intact as a testament to the structure’s storied past; while most historic buildings refurbished by Chinese preservation societies are painted in bright traditional colors to signify complete and unapologetic renewal, the Temple remains as it was last seen, carefully repaired and delicately exposed to show respect for its past while embracing a future still aware of its complex history.
With modern amenities and elegant, contemporary flair, the Temple complex has become a destination for Beijing’s cultural pioneers and tastemakers, while its celebrated relics and deep reverence for ancient times have made it a must-see stop for architectural aficionados and adventurous travelers.
The Temple challenges visitors to make sense of its’ contradictions while at the same time celebrating them: the old vs. the new, the simple vs. the chic, the ancient vs. the modern, and the traditional vs. progressive. Such contrasts and contradictions are not unlike those found throughout China today, contained within unassuming walls and awaiting discovery.