The Suzhou Bay Cultural Center is part of a series of emblematic projects initiated by the city's Wujiang Lakefront Masterplan. Located on the shores of Lake Tai, the deserted plain was discovered by Christian de Portzamparc in 2013, while rethinking the future city. It was then built so quickly, that the architect never ceased to be amazed after every visit. Alive, it is like a real Manhattan of towers organized through a grid of streets and avenues, bordering a central pedestrian axis that heads towards the lake. It was clear that the meeting of this pedestrian axis and the great lake would generate an exceptional place, and it was on this site, on each side, that the cultural center was to be implanted in the architecture competition.
Christian de Portzamparc: Long before this competition, Xu Ya Ying, the acoustician, took me to Suzhou (where I went back several times) to see the gardens which are a marvel of the landscape but also of urbanism, because of the way they are inserted between the walls, or in the habitats. The builders use the walls to create doors by multiplying discoveries, by installing several gardens that follow one another. It's wonderful urbanism and, of course, I understand that you're talking about what is only 9 kilometers away from the cultural center project.
ArchDaily (Hanshuang): What defines the shape of your design? What is the correlation between the local culture and Suzhou Cultural Center?
Christian de Portzamparc: The shape always comes from two basic elements: the program and the site. You can add to it the local context of construction. The two notions of program and site are very large, which is normal for a city with 10 million inhabitants (especially a recent city that has developed and grown at a very rapid pace). And this growth is immediately obvious, visible in the site of this new city. What I first saw when I arrived on this site was the great plain, the edge of the immense lake, and the sky. And then I saw the plan that Ning Wang, who was with me at the time, showed to me. It was the plan of the future city of Wujiang. It was impressive. A grid plan like a huge piece of Manhattan that was going to grow.
The great amazement today is about the incredible speed at which this city appeared. It's still under construction but already 50% of this city is built today, and we see a very important city taking place on the edge of this lake. In this plan, what I found to be interesting is the importance of the pedestrian axis leading to the lake. The heart of the city is thus marked by this large pedestrian avenue where everyone will be able to meet.
The position chosen to install the cultural center in the competition project was very impressive. It was at the arrival of the axis on the lake and it had two buildings on each side. I immediately thought that these two parts had to be brought together by something that would open the transparency towards the lake, otherwise, the cultural center would not be visible. That was my first impression of this remarkable site, which was still virtual at that time. And that is why I designed this ribbon that unites the two parts of the building for this perfect location chosen by the urban planners to install the future cultural center. It is a kind of arch that can be seen from a distance in the perspective of the axis. This ribbon opens onto the sky and the lake when the city gets to the water's edge.
ArchDaily (Hanshuang): The gigantic metal structure struck me when I first visited, how do you consider human scale in this project?
Christian de Portzamparc: It's really a response to a very particular site, with over 300 meters long, 40 meters high, to a very large program that is only normal for a big city of 10 million inhabitants. And it is essential that urban planning and architecture respond to the large dimensions of the city to make them perceptible as a quality that makes us measure the greatness of the community, of the inhabitants. We know that if we do not get the large dimension to bring places together, there is anxiety. Here, such an impressive place must become a symbol, or carry one. At the arrival of the city on the infinite sky, one must express the great dimension and lightness, transparency; the ribbon responds to this duality like a dance in space.
Your question about dimension reminds me of something I did not think of when I conceived this project: the cultural center has the same dimension as the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, built in 1937, and both have a central terrace. But in Paris the terrace is a rigid frame, it does not “dance”.
The ribbon allows this dialogue between the large and the small, between the quadrangular and material immensity of the city and the fluid immensity of the lake and the sky. Between the two, there is the dimension of our body, of our steps, of our wandering. The ribbon descends on the terrace to shelter people by enveloping the public space of the terrace to the arrival of the city. There, one can see the lake and the sky above them while being symbolically protected by the ribbon. Above the terrace, the ribbon also rises high in the same place and one can walk and cross the axis at 40 meters high to see the vast panorama of the city and the lake.
The terrace gives access to all public areas. In its center, the ribbon shelters a small shopping square below, which is in line with the strolling of the walkers. The terrace is a remarkable stage of entry into the city for these walkers of the lakeshore, who are already numerous. The facades of the buildings on this promenade will have stores all along this walk.
ArchDaily (Hanshuang): What is the relationship between Suzhou Cultural Center and the city? Except for its function, what does this architecture bring to the citizens? What does it mean to the city?
Christian de Portzamparc: A huge cultural center is, or should be, a symbol in a city because it is a place for meetings, for public events. It must therefore be visible, recognizable, and be a landmark that allows people to find their way around the city. Eventually, if it is successful, it may become an image of the city. The remarkable site chosen in the master plan for the cultural center helps us a lot here. It gives us half the answer to these wishes because the arrival of this axis of the city at the water's edge is a symbolic place in itself, and the architecture must express it; it must not ignore it but speak with the city and represent what the city will transform when it arrives at the edge. It transforms its concrete, aluminum, steel, parallelepiped, and towers into free and musical movements in the sky. So, there is a call to the sky.
Here, the ideas of dialogue, of the meeting of the sky, the lake, and the universal city, of the current modern architecture of Wujiang have guided my work. In order for a dialogue to work, two elements must exist, in a duality. The international parallelepipeds of the modern city were not to be taken up here, but something had to be brought in that would allow this passage, this transformation from straight lines to fluid lines.
I have a deep admiration for the urban planning of Suzhou, the art of the landscape artists who designed these gardens, but they belong to another urban context. In Suzhou, we are in the quadrangular grid and the gardens are held within their walls. Here, at the Cultural Center, on the contrary, we are in the exit of the quadrangular space of the city, we arrive at the edge of the lake and the impression of breathing, of greatness and almost infinity, appears. This is what I wanted to celebrate here, this idea of the infinity of the water and the lake that meet when the city comes to touch them.
ArchDaily (Hanshuang): What are the technological breakthroughs or innovations in the structure?
Christian de Portzamparc: This ribbon is made of two fragments of Moebius strips. The Moebius strip presents a principle of continuity that changes direction at each location. There is no stability, there is no more ground but a permanent flight. The idea of continuous change has been discussed with the Yi QING (I Ching). I believe that the ribbon belongs to this idea of Ying and Yang even if it is a little too often used. But this constantly changing structure is a constructive challenge that we solved with Ove Arup, Andrew Luong, and LDI. The China State construction company did a remarkable job.
ArchDaily (Hanshuang): A lot of Chinese cities have built large scale museums visited by very few people. Knowing that Suzhou already has a cultural museum and a Suzhou museum, were you ever worried that the Suzhou Cultural Center will become a white elephant? If so, what intervention did you take to prevent it?
Christian de Portzamparc: We have no action on this except to create places that will make people want to go to and, of course, that respond to their functions. The future life should be very active because the program that the authorities wanted is a great mix of activities in the cultural center. Regarding the theaters, there is the large theater with its stage and stage cage, there is the Chinese opera and the 180-degree movie theater; above it is the future conservatory and a restaurant overlooking the lake thirty meters away. On the other side, there is the entire educational part with its museums and youth education center, and the congress, meeting and event center. But the whole complex is accompanied by numerous shops, which will bring constant activity to the already busy lake.
ArchDaily (Hanshuang): The theatres are in multiple scales, how does public space balance between functional spaces?
Christian de Portzamparc: The word “scale” was used by Violet le Duc, but although it is a magic word for architects, it doesn't mean anything clear. It is better to talk about the relative dimensions between space and humans. Speaking of dimensions, I have discussed here the coexistence of the large and the small. I spoke of a man who walks along the pedestrian axis or along the lake and arrives on the terrace where the ribbon makes him look up to the big sky and the lake, and where there is a sheltered area, doors that take him into the foyers of the museum and the opera houses, escalators that take him down to a square, and stores. With regard to the two halls, they are very different in size. The design of the Chinese theater was made by Xu Ya Ying, with whom we visited the beautiful Chinese opera center in Suzhou and who mastered the acoustics of these halls.