If the cute, coy cigarette girl in a flowered cheongsam is Shanghai's design icon, then Beijing's equivalent is something much more utilitarian: the city's traditional grey brick, used for hundreds of years to build its courtyard houses and hutongs. If slippery Shanghai is yin, then Beijing is yang: harder and altogether tougher. Lacking Shanghai's ease with foreign ideas and influences, Beijing has been left behind in recent years when it comes to creating directions in design and architecture for a fast-changing China. But in certain situations, that has proved a blessing in disguise. Where Suzy Wong-esque Chinoiserie swamps the eastern seaboard city, draping countless nightspots in rich red, yellow and orange silks, and offering solid opium beds for an increasingly befuddled clientele, Beijing remains grungy, aloof, solidly proletarian. But, after a struggle, it has managed to trump Shanghai with its inspired answer to the pressing question: what is contemporary Chinese design? Arguably, Factory 798, in Dashanzi district, broke new ground with its Bauhaus-style complex, modelled out of a former electronics factory and housing thought-provoking art galleries and other creative, design-oriented work and exhibition spaces. Let Shanghai croon its sweet ditties and chase the dollar, Beijing was going to raise a ruckus in favour of a sharper, hipper, more challenging creativity and, facing constant threats from local authorities, go eyeball-to-eyeball with the political realities that permeate the nation's capital. The recently opened RBL Icehouse - a restaurant, lounge and blues bar - reflects the same themes as Factory 798: a lack of surface glamour and practical, almost political, constraints. Squeezed next to the three-star Huafu hotel, near the Forbidden City, RBL - the acronym stands for 'restaurant bar lounge' - is an excellent architectural example of making a virtue out of a necessity, something Beijing, the capital of a nation in the throes of dramatic change, knows all about. Long, narrow and pokey, RBL's space appeared more like a subway station when Venezuelan architect and long-term Beijing resident Antonio Ochoa-Piccardo first saw it. A claustrophobic, four-metre-wide tunnel, 30 metres long and an echoing five metres high, the space was a huge challenge. Even more testing was that the bar part of the entertainment complex, located at the back of the structure in a former ice-storage block, was a giant, 20-metre by 20-metre, poorly built brick and concrete box. Some say it was built in the Qing dynasty, although that is disputed by others who say it was a product of the early communist government and probably supplied ice to the leaders in Zhongnanhai, on the other side of the Forbidden City. But if it was a challenge, it was one the architect relished. 'I love this kind of situation. If you give me a site with no restrictions, it would be very complicated to imagine a shape. Would I go square, round, long, short? But when the site is restricted, it puts your imagination to work and it gives you a reason to do things,' says Ochoa-Piccardo, who is tall, ponytailed and dressed entirely in black. Entering RBL through a milky glass door next to the gaudy, Forbidden City-esque facade of the Huafu hotel, the visitor experiences the first of many dramatic contrasts. Doors slide open onto a long narrow room - the lounge - lined on both sides with soft, chocolate brown sofas. The corridor-like room is tiered, with wooden steps raising the level of the floor in stages, drawing the visitor gradually upwards. At the back of the room, a staircase leads upstairs to the restaurant and another downstairs to the bar. The main challenge, says Ochoa-Piccardo, was to find a way to draw customers through the lounge and upstairs to the restaurant, on the second floor. Taking into account the height of the building, that meant either a long, arduous flight of steps - made more treacherous after a couple of the lounge's excellent margaritas - or a creative solution. 'I had to get people in the mood to climb four metres to the restaurant. So I came up with the idea of [the tiered floor in the lounge] going up and up and up and up, so you ... rise and don't notice it.' Ochoa-Piccardo preserved the full five-metre glory of the restaurant's ceiling. Its clear lines and uncluttered look radiate cool, as do the muted grey-and-white colour scheme and the striking, white tulip chairs that line a pathway through the middle. To soften the starkness, white curtains fall the full five metres and tables are full-skirted. One level up, in the kitchens - which are overseen by head chef Max Levy, a native of New Orleans - the roof is significantly lower. Returning to the lounge, one descends another short flight of steps to reach the bar; the ex-icehouse. Access is through a long, narrow white corridor, which has a dark grey stone floor. Far from any source of natural light or fresh air, it's a little claustrophobic. Ochoa-Piccardo planned to expand upon his designs for orientation with a dipping corridor that would negate the height differentials between the restaurant, bar and lounge, but he was thwarted. The investors - led by Chinese-American lawyer Handel Lee - reportedly ran out of money and when the cuts began, the corridor was one of several targets. The boxy icehouse now contains a long, mirror-backed bar on one side and on the other, a stage for a band. 'I insisted on a very long bar, which you don't really have anywhere else in Beijing.' And the mirror? 'In a bar, the privileged are really the barmen, because they look out. So the mirror passes on that privilege to the customer. I wanted to do a really classical bar in terms of functionality,' says Ochoa-Piccardo. Designing a blues bar, the architect chose to play with the colour blue, with blue-washed photographs of old Beijing, blue-coloured wooden panels and blue cloth squares covering the walls. 'At the beginning, I didn't have a feeling for the space. It was good, of course, inside. It was open, big and that's something rare here, it was very pure. But it was not very inspiring. So I thought, 'Keep it industrial'. But the quality of the building was poor, making it impossible to expose the original concrete and red brick. Then I thought, 'We should [make] a strong gesture'. Make everything blue.' Why blue? 'Because of the blues!' Exiting the Icehouse after a night of the blues, the customer is in for the final perceptual shock. The bar can also be approached from the north, from Xila hutong. Exiting through the Icehouse's doors into a hot, humid Beijing summer night, tourists will experience culture shock, while residents will feel as though they have been flung back in time. This narrow, dusty hutong, or lane, lined with the city's traditional grey brick walls, is quintessential Beijing and the area, so close to the Forbidden City, is steeped in history. No19 Xila Hutong was the home of the pre-1949 mayor of Beijing, He Siyuan, who married a Frenchwoman and lived there with their four children, one of whom was killed in an assassination attempt on He's life in 1948, reportedly undertaken by nationalists outraged by his closeness to the communists. On a summer night, residents sit along the hutong on low stools fanning themselves, heads swiveling in curiosity as the doors to the Icehouse swoosh open, expelling a blues-kissed, well-fed and well-watered customer. RBL Icehouse is a puzzling space but some questions are answered when it is understood the restaurant and lounge space originally had been nothing more than an alleyway between the Huafu hotel and the building next door, with the icehouse tucked away at the back. The alleyway was covered over when the hotel decided to expand - the space being earmarked for bedrooms. At that point, the entrepreneurial Lee stepped in. 'I had been looking for a space for The Courtyard extension,' Lee explains, referring to his well-known art gallery-cum-restaurant a stone's throw away to the west. 'I heard about this place seven years ago and I thought, 'There's no way this old icehouse [will work]',' says Lee, who is also behind Shanghai's celebrated Three on the Bund. 'So I forgot about it. Then, last year, I was looking for a place again and a guard at The Courtyard said, 'Why don't you check out that old icehouse?' I came over. It was the dead of winter, freezing cold, and I stood in this place with these columns, pillars and slab floors. I thought it would be a great restaurant because of the dimensions, a great place to do something real.' RBL Icehouse is an adventurous project and it is leading the nascent rejuvenation of Beijing's long-neglected downtown area. Notoriously, China's capital lacks any real city centre. Located just off the central shopping street, Wangfujing, Lee believes RBL will help bring some style and focus back to the inner city, which has long been abandoned by residents to tourists. The entertainment and dining hub is currently in the city's east, in the Chaoyang district, where many upmarket hotels and downmarket bars are located. 'There's nothing in this area,' says Lee. 'The urban downtown is not a popular area but it is a place that oozes Beijing. There are pedicabs, hot-food stalls. This is three-star Beijing, it's Beijing and it couldn't be anywhere else. You're downtown.' Lee is reportedly negotiating with the Huafu hotel to turn the popular backpacker destination into a boutique hotel. And, in a sign the downtown rejuvenation may be gathering pace, Ochoa-Piccardo says he was so taken with the challenge presented by RBL, he has leased a similar space on the other side of the hotel, where he will open a restaurant. To be called the Garden of Delights after Hieronymus Bosch's luscious, surreal 16th-century painting, the Latino-American restaurant's first big event will be to host the 10th anniversary party of SOHO China, the trendsetting development group led by Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi. Six metres wide, six metres high and 60 metres long, the Garden will have an arching, wood-and-glass roof and a chef from the stable of Edgar Leal, a rising Venezuelan star who runs the renowned Cacao Restaurant in Miami. 'I love the proportions. They are perfect,' says Ochoa-Piccardo.