China as Architectural Testing Ground

China as Architectural Testing Ground
Photo by - Used under Creative Commons

The emergence of China on the global economic stage has been discussed at nauseum in myriad publications. But this emergence has had an impact on the world of architecture, providing a testing ground where architects can experiment with new ideas about sustainability and urban growth. These new ideas have been realized in recently completed structures, and more are just beginning construction or have been proposed for the future. More on these new buildings after the break.

Many of the recently completed projects in China attempt to test the limits of what modern steel and concrete structures can support. The most iconic, and most unsettlingly off-balance, of these is the CCTV building in Beijing designed by OMA. As OMA described it, the building is meant to be a “single loop of interconnected activity” that will allow for new and beneficial interaction between employees. This loop is achieved by a “seemingly impossible cantilever,” making the building appear as though it is about to fall forward.

Photo by rudenoon - Used under Creative Commons

Another building that attempts to push forward our use of structural materials is the Guangzhou Opera House by Zaha Hadid. With a beautiful and gravity-defying steel frame enclosing the asymmetrical auditorium, Hadid has used the unexpected forms of the frame to emphasize the stage of the Opera House. In addition to these structural acrobatics, the design attempts to discover a new way for the public to interact with the building. Besides just providing an exterior space that is dynamic and interesting to stroll through, Hadid wanted to create the Opera House as “a part of the city and you’re aware of the city even when inside.” To do this, she has used the sunken lobbies, with their large expanse of glass, to create a surreal image of the cityscape as it passes by.

Photo by kreep - Used under Creative Commons

The Horizontal Skyscraper in Shenzhen, by Steven Holl, also experiments with new ideas for urban interaction in a sustainable future. The building combines multiple programmatic spaces within one roof; instead of housing these spaces within a large tower, Holl lays them out over the landscape in a very democratic manner. While this carpet scheme would normally mean the building has a much larger footprint, the architect has instead “propped it up high on eight legs.” This move both reduces the footprint, and provides more green exterior space for the public to explore. The building, with a LEED platinum rating, incorporates these and other sustainable elements to create a “porous micro-climate of freed landscape” with the “hovering architecture” above.

© Iwan Baan

Another complex of buildings under construction now, also by Steven Holl, experiments with a “micro urban strategy” within a larger metropolis. The Sliced Porosity Block in Chengdu draws from both Western precedents like Rockefeller Center and the Eastern influence of poet Du Fu. The five mini-towers of the Block surround a public plaza and three large ponds, which are designed to “harvest recycled rainwater” and “create a natural cooling effect.” This combination of a micro-urban condition with cleverly integrated sustainable elements provides a good barometer for the possibilities of architecture in the future.

© Iwan Baan

Possibilities for the future are also being explored in proposals for the West Kowloon Cultural District and the Pearl River Delta. West Kowloon is an urban area in Hong Kong, a former dockyard that has been reclaimed and is the site of new proposals for development. These developments are aimed at bringing new cultural and entertainment venues to Hong Kong, and the most recent competition for the district included entries by Norman Foster and OMA. The winning bid, by Foster, is centered on introducing a public park to downtown Hong Kong, something the area was sorely lacking.

Photo by wyliepoon - Used under Creative Commons

The proposal for the Pearl River Delta is a bold step in the history of architecture and urban design, as it aims to merge nine cities into one Mega City. This new metropolis will contain over 40 million people, and is being proposed to unify the transportation and healthcare infrastructure for all residents. The merging of the nine cities, which include Guangzhou and Shenzhen, would allow for easier control and management of pollution, as well as improvements to hospitals and schools. The ramifications for this proposal are even larger; as more people move to cities and the urban footprint on the globe increases, the Pearl River Delta could be what the future city looks like. It will be an important testing ground not only for what role architecture plays in this new Mega City, but for what it means to live in an organism this large.

As China emerges as a global leader, it continues to build. The country’s willingness to experiment provides a wonderful testing ground for new architectural ideas, including those regarding sustainability and the urban condition. As we move into the 21st century, many of the ideas that were first tested in China will be adopted elsewhere. The architecture of the future will very likely resemble that which is being built in China today.

Photo by Bert van Dijk - Used under Creative Commons

Photographs: Iwan Baan, Flickr: Bert van Dijk, wyliepoon, rudenoon, kreep,

© Iwan Baan

References: OMA, The Guardian, The Telegraph, West Kowloon, Vanke Center, Steven Holl

About this author
Cite: Kevin Gerrity. "China as Architectural Testing Ground" 07 Sep 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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