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Chemical Plant Offices in Huai'an City, China by Álvaro Siza

Set against a tough industrial landscape, Alvaro Sizaʼs new trophy offices for a Chinese chemical plant disdain context through surreal abstraction

It turns out that golf networking really pays off. After Alvaro Siza designed the Taifong Golf Club in Taiwan last year, the client − a wealthy chemicals magnate − asked him to design a new office building for his commercial plant in Jiangsu Province in eastern China. To characterise this particular commission, it is safe to say that of all Siza’s many solid works, there’s now a hole in one.

In fact, it is a horse-shoe shaped office building with the open central void bringing light deep into the interior. Hovering over a water pool, it displays the lightness of touch that characterises the architect’s work and will undoubtedly add to Siza’s quiet, unassuming untouchability. Constructed in white concrete, with a limited palette of colours, simple interior materials and a thoughtful play of internal and external spaces, it is a classic, poetic design and a beautiful addition to Siza’s oeuvre.

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Site plan

This is Siza’s first foray into mainland China (Taiwanese political sensibilities notwithstanding). Within a year of getting this project, he gained two more commissions: one for a Bauhaus Museum in Hangzhou (where the university has hundreds of original artefacts to display as part of the art college’s historic acquisitions) and another museum on the coast at Ningbo

‘At least Siza denies the client’s claim that the building evokes a life-like dragon elegantly poised over the water, but a similar kind of mysticism seems to be reflected in the ahistorical, non-contextual sculpturism of the architecture’

The chemical plant is located in Huai’an City, birthplace of former premier Zhou Enlai, and currently a backwater. Its official website boasts of major investments in ‘an ecological breeding project of pigs’, for example. Yet parodies aside, Huai’an has ambitions to develop rapidly to become ‘an important central city of the Northern Jiangsu’: a national garden city and a model city of environmental protection with major transport links planned. At the moment though, the most convenient access to the site is a two-hour taxi journey from Nanjing passing through flat agricultural farmland and rudimentary industrial settlements, over endless motorways and unmetalled tracks. This isn’t the promenade experience that a Modernist classic promises.

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The sculptural embrace of the curve is bisected by bridges, from one side to another, connecting the levels and volumes

Depsite the rural backdrop, the official launch was a grand affair with all the pomp and ceremony of a presidential visit. ‘Please now take photos of the Master Architect’, we were instructed. Siza looked characteristically humble and suitably embarrassed.

The welcoming party included a battalion of young female attendants in little black dresses (who, two hours later, were changing back into overalls to go back to work on the production line), and the guests included Chinese dignitaries and industry officials, including Carlos Castanheira and Alexander von Vegesack (founder of the Vitra Museum, and the man who had been instrumental in match-making Siza and the client).

So while the event was auspicious, the guests prestigious, the building propitious, there was something very odd − almost specious − about the whole thing. In close up, the project is spectacular, but if you pull back a little, to get some distance, the setting − the context − becomes faintly absurd. At least Siza denies the client’s claim that this building ‘evoke(s) a life-like dragon elegantly poised over the water’, but a similar kind of mysticism seems to be reflected in the ahistorical, non-contextual sculpturism of the architecture. Indeed, the building could be seen as an anti-modern statement; displaying a rejection of the machine aesthetic (that has been contrived to fade into the background) while the organic, naturalised form takes centre stage

‘While the launch event was auspicious, the guests prestigious, the building propitious, there was something very odd - almost specious - about the whole thing’

To critically engage with this building, it requires a little grounded perspective and therefore maybe shouldn’t be photographed by a professional architectural dream-maker. Unfortunately, Siza seems to be currently in the midst of creating a personal brand; a mythology. For example, he recently completed a three-week Asian odyssey with tame photographer Fernando Guerra that culminated in an exhibition in Macau. This kind of ‘photographic narrative’ does for Siza what Samuel Remington did for the gunslingers of the Old West. In this portrayal, Siza is the quiet man; the Clint Eastwood of architecture. Quick to draw.

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Angled planes slice up the space, enhancing the subtle choreography of light and shadow. Balustrades are typically and exquisitely minimal

That said, there is a necessary calm to this latest building, tactfully isolated from the relentless humming, steam and whistles of the industrial complex behind it. The site is the Shihlien Chemical Industrial Jiangsu Co set in Huai’an’s New Salt Industrial Park, built within the province’s vast salt mines and flats. It is a processing and manufacturing plant for soda ash and ammonium chloride for the glass industry: a huge complex of smokestack factories, storage units, power plants, pipes and warehouses. It smacks of Middlesbrough. On a bad day.

The gridline of the main plant is maintained as a roadway over the pool with a right-angled bridge leading to the main entrance of the new two-storey office building. The pool upon which Siza’s building floats is a 10,000sqm water reservoir used for cooling purposes and to supply the manufacturing plant with non-potable supplies. The floating motif is achieved by cantilevering the concrete slabs and walkways 2 metres over a grid of supports that project 600mm above the waterline. There are some fine details and Siza’s reputation for a sensitive interplay of mass and ethereality is much in evidence.

The building is a convoluted shape that has evolved as a way of ‘opening its arms to the water’, Siza claimed at the inaugural event in August. The design process involved sketches and many physical models to ‘move from doubt to conviction in search of a good answer’ to this intended embrace. Quite a way into the design, Siza says: ‘we realised a big problem. The design meant that the corridor was too long, that we needed to introduce connections across the middle’. It might seem like a schoolboy error only to realise this so late in the design process, but its resolution has been handled with scholarly aplomb. Now the building has a Möbius strip effect where corridors evolve into a horizontal bridge or into a ramp from ground to first floor levels. The circulation is simple and yet mysterious, creating interesting spatial relationships with the outdoors, the water and the enclosed volumes; and it is Siza’s use of light and shade, enclosure and openness, views and tunnels that orientates visitors.

‘This building’, he said, ‘is in many ways simple, in many ways complex [whereby] simplicity means that it is a deeply studied building [while] the difficulty was in making the structure look simple.’ As Charlie Chan once said, ‘Envelope, like skin of banana, must be removed to digest contents.’ Siza: ‘Every detail is important, even if it seems not so important.’

In fact, this is a finely detailed and well-built structure with high-quality surface finishes. Within the opening-day-whiteness of the interiors, the fixtures, carpeting, work surfaces and furniture are either black, white or grey; shadow gaps are immaculate, trims are neat, and the balustrading is ultra-simple (to the point of its structural integrity being suspect). As someone who tinkers and changes things endlessly, Siza says that it is time to stop designing when ‘I go home and I can walk around the building in my head. Then I know that it is finished’.

With his artist’s eye, Siza has created a stunning work of elegant simplicity. For the client, Mr Por-Shih Lin it ‘will be an inspiration for future industrial plant designs in the country’. As a functional object, it is undoubtedly a pleasure to be in and raises the bar for office environments both within heavy industrial areas in China and around the world generally. But as a piece of architecture, Siza’s promise that ‘it is a building (that is) detached from context’ makes it surprisingly typical of Chinese renderings where commissioned designs are always surrounded by nothingness. More than that, it leaves you with the sense that it is a beautiful design with a hole at its centre.

Chemical Plant Offices

Architect: Alvaro Siza with Carlos Castanheira

Photographs: Fernando Guerra FG + SG

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