Even without the Olympics China is producing some of the finest architecture on the planet – with a little help from the Brits. Martin Spring chooses 10 of the best

1. Guangzhou Opera House

Credit: Virgile Simon Bertrand

Zaha Hadid’s projects seem to grow in size the further away they get from Britain, and at 70,000m2 in area, the Guangzhou Opera House is her largest yet. Due for completion by the end of the year, this international competition-winner takes the shape of two immense rounded boulders lying on the bank of the Pearl River. The larger boulder contains a 1,800-seat opera auditorium, while the smaller one is a 400-seat multifunction hall for chamber music, theatrical performances and fashion shows. The irregular triangulated structure bears comparison with Herzog & de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest Stadium, except that Luo Zhiyong, the project manager, proudly claims that it’s even more irregular, with no beam, column or connection the same as another.

2. Guangzhou TV & Sightseeing Tower

Credit: Arup/Zhon Ruogu Architecture Photography

Spiralling to a giddy height of 610m, this tower is destined to break the record as China’s tallest and the world’s second tallest structure after Dubai’s 808m Burj Dubai. In the competition-winning design by Dutch architect IBA and UK-owned engineer Arup, much of the height is taken up by a 56m TV mast, as the tower contains only 37 storeys of TV and radio facilities, observation decks, exhibition spaces and restaurants. The complex twisting lattice structure narrows at the waistline and is made up of slightly leaning columns and diagonal braces in tubular steel. Completion is due at the end of 2009 in time to serve the 2010 Asian Games, which will be held in Guangzhou.

3. Beijing South Railway Station

If they don’t arrive at Foster + Partners’ new airport, those millions of spectators flocking in for Beijing’s Olympic Games are likely to arrive at Beijing South Station, designed by Terry Farrell & Partners with Arup as structural and services engineer and Atkins as railway engineer. Due for completion just before the games, the station hovers like an immense flying saucer. To cope with up to 30,800 passengers an hour, the 226,000m2 structure has been separated into four levels. The main concourse has been given primacy at ground level, with 24 high-speed inter-city platforms lifted above that and the road access just below the roof.

4. Linked Hybrid Building, Beijing

American architect Steven Holl and Davis Langdon & Seah have come up with the wheeze of linking a cluster of eight residential towers by a continuous ring of bridge structures high up on the 20th floor. The bridges were Holl’s answer to the eruption of standalone megatowers all around it. The bridges serve the adjoining 700 luxury apartments with cafes, dry cleaners and other communal facilities. The 150,000m2 development also has one of the world’s largest geothermal cooling and heating systems, which dispenses with boilers and air-conditioning units by drawing ground water from 100m deep bore holes.

5. Lijiang Ancient Town, Yunnan Province

Far away from the headlong rush to throw up ever higher skyscrapers, Atkins is helping conserve Lijiang, which has been billed as China’s last “living” ancient town. The centuries-old town centre is suffering from indiscriminate modern development, earthquakes and mass tourism. Unesco, the Global Heritage Fund and the town council have between them restored more than 174 timber-framed homes, demolished 240 modern buildings and preserved the town’s canals and waterways. Most recently, Atkins has won a masterplan proposal for a 48ha extension to the old town based on traditional narrow streets and squares.

6. Thames Town

There is some corner of Shanghai that is forever England. Or at least for as long as Songjiang New Town’s half-timbered Tudor houses, classical covered market and gothic church remain standing. They are all designed by Atkins and make up one of nine mini towns that the Shanghai municipal government has built to “exhibit the exotic cultures of selected foreign nations”. Beyond the mock villages, Songjiang New Town reverts to hectic Chinese development that includes an industrial zone and university city. It has so far attracted more than £10bn of foreign investment, and 80,000 residents.

7. Shenzhen University Town Library

As it snakes its way across an ornamental lake, Shenzhen University Town Library looks more like a roller-coaster than a hushed refuge of study. Yet architect RMJM justifies the wavy 480m-long roof as echoing the surrounding hills, while the contemporary metal and glass forms “reflect the erudite language of education and knowledge”. The recently completed building also stands as a “gateway icon” between the town of Shenzhen and a clutch of three universities and a technology institute, all of which share the library, as well as the entrance plaza, park, lake, bridge and roof garden.

8. Shanghai Expo Axis

China’s next global architectural extravaganza after this year’s Olympics will be Expo 2010 in Shanghai. The central spine to this instant city of pavilions will be the 1,000m long Expo Axis. As designed by SBA Architects of Stuttgart, some 250,000m2 of pedestrian concourses, restaurants, bars and other amenities have been arranged over four floors, two of them underground, with a translucent tensile fabric roof to top it off.

Six spectacular glass “sun valleys” will funnel sunlight and daylight down into the underground floors. Shanghai Jianke is project managing and the Shanghai Construction Group is the contractor.

9. Songjiang Hotel, Shanghai

The ultimate in brownfield sites, a disused quarry near Shanghai, is to be made good by a five-star 400-bedroom hotel, due for completion next year. And in the hands of Martin Jochman of architect Atkins, the human-scarred landscape has been transformed into a nature-inspired sculpture of sheer green hillside embracing a waterfall. The hillside, in convex and concave forms, contains 18 floors of hotel bedrooms, while the central waterfall is a clear-glazed atrium stretching up the full 100m height of the building. All that is visible of the hotel from the surrounding countryside is a flat green roof and the glass lid of the atrium. At its base, the hotel plunges below the water line with a restaurant that invites its guests to enjoy an underwater dinner without getting wet.

10. Shanghai Centre

Shanghai’s newest – and tallest – kid on the block is the proposed 580m-high Shanghai Centre designed by Gensler for a trio of Chinese developers. Nicknamed “the Dragon”, it threatens to kick sand in the face of Kohn Pedersen Fox’s 492m Shanghai World Financial Centre, now nearing completion, and the 421m Jin Mao Tower of 1998, designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill. Gensler beat Foster + Partners in an international competition with a design for a gleaming shaft of transparent glass with elliptical floor plans that twist round as they rise up. The tower’s 114 storeys are divided into 14-storey banks of office and hotel space separated by two-storey layers of sky gardens and public areas.