Zhu Pei is in a cheerful mood, hurrying around his office, scribbled sketches in hand. The Beijing-born architect has reason to feel upbeat. He's fast becoming a leading light in the design world, with a reputation for the innovative use of textures and locally developed materials. Perhaps the highest-profile of his projects is Digital Beijing, the data and communications centre for the 2008 Olympics. Zhu says he designed the building - inspired by a computer motherboard - to reflect modern Beijing and 'to provide a new architecture of our time'. The complex will feature a kind of frosted fibreglass Zhu spent six months working with a local manufacturer to create. Resembling translucent jade, it will be used for flooring on the ground level. Zhu plans to project digital images onto the surface. 'I realised it could also be used as a screen,' he says. As in many of his innovations, the inspiration is Chinese. With the fibreglass, Zhu wanted a material that replicates the quality of light he recalls from growing up in Beijing. 'One of my earliest memories is of waking up in my family's courtyard home and looking outside but not seeing clearly, because I was looking through paper shades [on the windows], not glass,' he says. 'You saw shadows and not images.' His parents were allocated public housing when Zhu was seven, but he never forgot the luminous light. He tried to recreate this glow with the Kapok Hotel, a 1950s office building he converted into boutique accommodation, and the frosted fibreglass was a result of his quest. Zhu received a master's degree from Tsinghua University, and went on to do another in architecture and urban planning at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a student of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. After working in the US for several years he returned in 2001 to join Urbanus, a leading mainland architectural firm. Two years ago, he set up Studio Zhu Pei in a converted factory space in the Beixin district and now leads a team of 25 young architects from around the world. He has since won a contest to build an art pavilion for the Saadiyat Island cultural district in Abu Dhabi - the only mainland architect to feature in the US$27 billion plan to create a cultural centre in the Middle East. At Urbanus, he was a principal architect behind the firm's award-winning design for the Shenzhen Urban Planning Bureau head-quarters. Even then, his design philosophy was defined by the importance of public space and buildings engaging with the environment. 'I focus on the effect of the surroundings and try to reflect Chinese ideas and customs.' Zhu kept that in mind when he was commissioned to create the Kapok, on one of the city's oldest streets, near the Forbidden City. The original building was a 'tumour' in the historic district, he says. Rather than demolish the building and start anew as many architects in Beijing tend to do, Zhu kept the basic structure but completely gutted the interior. The makeover reflects his preference for working with the past - and a nod to its setting in an old neighbourhood of hutongs and courtyard homes. 'Chinese cities and buildings develop horizontally,' he says. 'Like the Forbidden City, [the layout] reveals itself layer after layer.' By incorporating his translucent fibreglass into the hotel's facade, Zhu has converted the grim, Soviet-style structure into a hospitable spot. Lit from within, the hotel, which opened in February, glows like a traditional Chinese lantern. Zhu sought an iridescent material that allows passersby to see in, making it a public space. 'I wanted the building to be welcoming to guests, adding energy and light to a dark area,' he says. Perhaps most importantly, Zhu tried to reinvent it in terms of what he calls Beijing's 'urban carpet' of courtyard structures built on an intimate scale. His grandparents still live in a courtyard home, and his design for the hotel reflects his respect for that layout, with a bamboo garden in the centre surrounded by iridescent curtain walls that section off different areas. But Zhu's experience has been marred by serious disagreements with Kapok's developers. 'I will never go back to the hotel,' he says, dismayed by what he found on his last visit. The clients had 'totally changed' many aspects of his design to halve the completion time and save money, he says. As a result, some rooms seem unfinished and the lobby bar - which he describes as clumsily put together - is a travesty of his vision. He had designed a beautiful salon with flowing shapes and welcoming seating, but 'the clients did something completely different and didn't even tell me'. The collaboration on his Olympics design has been much more successful. 'Because of the importance of the project, there has been a lot of pressure,' he says. 'But the relationship is respectful. Although they changed my original plan to use a facade of recycled aluminium, there was discussion and consultation all the way.' Sited on Beijing's fourth ring road, the complex is fast taking shape. Digital Beijing is due to be completed by the end of the year. Already, the irregular panels carved into the side of the building are clearly visible. In place of recycled aluminium, Zhu will be encasing Digital Beijing in lightweight aluminium that resembles stone but costs a fraction of the price. His Olympic commission will give confidence to the new generation of Chinese architects, he says. 'They can see that we can compete in an international arena. China is moving forward in every single way because of the Olympics, including architecture.' For all his zeal in relating his work to Chinese sensibilities, Zhu is leery of design with overtly Chinese characteristics and symbolism. 'There are still many Chinese architects who have a strong desire to create nationalistic architecture that echoes the past. But you can't go back,' he says. Zhu loathes the trend towards faux heritage construction, although he's an advocate of conservation. 'I'm really against the kind of development between Tiananmen Square and Wangfujing, where whole neighbourhoods have been torn down only to be rebuilt in the same style with courtyard houses and hutongs,' he says. 'It's not truthful. You should preserve the past, but you can't just rebuild it in the style of the Qing dynasty.' Despite nationalistic protests over the spate of big projects in Beijing awarded to foreign architects, Zhu isn't part of the resistance. 'It's good that foreign architects are sharing their knowledge and ideas,' he says. Some place too much emphasis on image, creating big, flashy buildings out of synch with their surroundings, he says, citing French architect Paul Andreu's egg-shaped, glass and titanium National Theatre. Despite the jumble, he holds great hopes for Beijing's architectural future. But where some of his counterparts dream of a city showcasing dramatic architecture, attractiveness is less of an issue for Zhu. 'I'm more fascinated with how the city develops rather than whether it's beautiful.'