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Giant Campus by Morphosis, Shanghai, China

Intended for Giant’s health division, the innovative form of the new headquarters in Shanghai is more emblematic of the game designers who occupy it now. Photography by Roland Halbe

Giant is one of China’s biggest corporate groups. Morphosis Architects’ sprawling 24,000m² headquarters in Shanghai was intended to house its health division. But there was an early realisation that this building, however suitable for corporate functionaries, was actually more suited to creative electronic games designers working in teams. The general requirements were much the same - big spaces plus cellular offices for about 600 people working at computer screens. Untypically for China, or anywhere else for that matter, extensive social amenities for the staff, including hotel rooms for visitors, were also among the specifications.

The building’s cutting-edge form appears more emblematic of state-of-the-art digital technology than healthcare itself. Arguably, it belongs to a new typological strand of commercial buildings that, to steal Aaron Betsky’s term for something different, we might call the landscraper. That’s not to say it takes the form of a tall tower on its side, but a building that responds successfully to the programme and makes a positive statement about the way architecture inevitably obliterates the reality of the ground over which it is built.

Giant Interactive sprawls from east to west, across a three-hectare Shanghai site, like a giant green mat. Architects speak about buildings sprawling, but this one literally does so. When its grassy part-covering reaches chest height by the middle of summer, obliterating the sharp edges, it will look even more mat-like than the current photographs indicate. It crosses a local side road, lifting here and there to reveal irregular glimpses of curtain walling, and peels back to allow the thrust of an awkwardly profiled extrusion of offices to cantilever over the lake that borders the southern edge of the site.

Meanwhile, back on the other side of the dividing road, a small range of hotel rooms hangs over a wildlife pond that meanders under and around the western section of the building. Here, on this western side at ground level, in and below the swooping landscape, are several entrances leading off the road, together with major social spaces: indoor sports, gymnasium and swimming facilities on several levels, and an outdoor plaza with stepped seating above. Over on the east side of the road lies ground-level parking, a library, an auditorium, an exhibition space and a café with three levels of the narrow gutted offices snaking above.

The whole building plan is not quite as simple as at first appears, not least because this is an architectural terrain, rather than orthogonal city architecture. And through this terrain is threaded an internal pedestrian route, connecting disparate levels and elements of the plan. This is architecture as interactive topography, landscape as active participant rather than a decorative found ground plane. As Morphosis itself puts it, ‘familiar distinctions between city and landscape, site and non-site, imagined and real, bleed into one another’.

The building can fairly claim the role of current top marker in that architecture-segueing-into-landscape phenomenon that has been an undercurrent in later 20th-century architecture: a ‘wet palimpsest’, as Morphosis cryptically describes it. With its origins rooted amid underground buildings and green roofs, the building surely owes something to that memorable burst of designs for disturbingly surreal but formal subterranean architecture, half dug into the landscape by Emilio Ambasz. It also draws on later underground-like built essays, in which the architecture is buried or half-buried under grassy banks.

This type of architecture has hitherto been half-hearted, I suspect, because its task is not necessarily to be self-effacing. But Giant Interactive is not an underground building any more than its earlier cousin Foreign Office Architects’ Yokohoma International Port Terminal, which has a roof that is an undulating, walkable surface. Here at Shanghai, walking on the grass is prohibited. The volume gives the impression that a giant spade has temporarily prised up the turf, while accommodation is slid almost randomly at ground level into the ragged slot, before it is allowed to settle back, draped over the insertions.

Questions have recently been raised by academics about whether this is architecture or landscape design. Think of snow-bound medieval scholars locked up in mountain monasteries, pondering angels and pinheads. But this is not a simple matter of either-or thinking. Rather, as the interiors demonstrate, it is the result of tout ensemble design. Under the soon-to-be shaggy carapace, each of the spaces has its own presence, sometimes making visible the exposed structure of the roof, and sometimes inhabiting its own enclosure. These are not spaces left over after the roofing process, but considered architectural events, although their meaning is not always immediately apparent.

For instance, the western section of the building has an inconsistent grid of ceiling-height piebald egg-like shapes that are sometimes structural, sometimes enclose service runs and sometimes fill with light or simply hang suspended from the ceiling. But the exact functions of the egg-like shapes are enigmatic. Morphosis people slide away from anything other than practical explanations. Maybe they also act as a kind of secondary ordering system that helps to ground the big interior spaces in which they are set - like those red structures marking the intersections of the grid overlaying Le Corbusier’s Parc du La Villette landscape.

There are other internal enigmas. Why are the floors to the private hotel rooms made of glass? And so too the floor to the conference room, with its glass table and Vitra chairs, cantilevered out at the end of the snaking offices on the other side of the building? Both have either a pool or a water feature beneath them, so occupants’ modesty is unlikely to be compromised - although the image of a row of frogman-goggled voyeurs lined up among the rushes below the hotel rooms is difficult to dislodge. These characters and the giant eggs, along with the apparently deliberate gaucheness of some of the external form, speak of an excess of architectural bravura engendered by the scale of the project and the open-mindedness of the client. But such quibbles pale into insignificance when they accompany the emergence of a new building type.

Architect Morphosis, Los Angeles
Associate architect SURV, Shanghai
Structural engineers Thornton Tomasetti Group, MAA Engineering Consultants
Landscape architects SWA Group, TOPO Design Group

Visit the AR Archive to see more work by Morphosis, including Government Offices in San Francisco (AR 2007 April) , housing in Madrid (AR 2008 February) , and plans for a museum for vintage cars in California (AR 1992 September)

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Readers' comments (1)

  • "like those red structures marking the intersections of the grid overlaying Le Corbusier’s Parc du La Villette landscape."

    Is Tschumi experiencing indignation or a glow of pride?

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