The ‘sliced porosity’ of Steven Holl’s Chinese mega-project is a graphic presence implanted in the pulsating heart of Chengdu
Renmin Road − People’s Road − is a six-mile long, dual carriageway that runs through the centre of Chengdu. It is 10 lanes wide (or 12 if you allow for the tendency of Chinese drivers to ignore road markings) and south of Mao’s statue in Tianfu Square, it’s as straight as an arrow. Even though this main arterial route − like most roads in Chengdu − is a thick sea of honking congestion, the local street scene is actually as pleasant and urbane as New York and as lively and crowded as Delhi.
On either side of the 50-metre-wide highway, the tree-lined pavements are a bustle of activity. While the road traffic chugs through the middle, a flotilla of e-bikes invades the pavement with no intention of slowing down. The pavement is a casual mix of traffic and children. Its urban frontage of residential and commercial, of offices and eateries, means that there are always crowds: chatting, strolling, spitting, playing mahjong or dodging motorcyclists.
One of the busiest intersections of Renmin Road, at the South Section Ring Road, is the location of Steven Holl’s latest creation in China. The 120-metre-high concrete angular blocks are a recognisable Holl presence, looming over the main thoroughfare. But by setting the buildings back even further than the neighbouring blocks, the pedestrian flow at street level is allowed to thin out and as such, the design incorporates a pedestrian level engagement that belies the height of the main structures and blends well with the human scale and the urban context.
On a balmy January afternoon, construction workers and office staff alike laze on the seating surrounding new sunken gardens, fountains and pools. Chengdu’s self-promotion as the ‘laid-back’ city of China seems to be reflected and celebrated by this urban scene − a place of gardens, open space and public congregation. Holl’s building, a series of linked towers, encloses a procession of tiered public piazzas. Again, the link with the street level frontage is a subtle enticement to enter. What might have been a rather foreboding structure actually presents an accessible ramped (or travelator) entrance into the heart of the complex.
Holl’s ‘trademark’ corner entry points play with the parallax views of the towers, especially so on the moving walkway. And the front elevation balustrading at first-floor level provides an opportunity to look out over the frantic street life from the relative calm of the interior, or to glimpse the Tai Chi pensioners in the gymnasium opposite, but it also acts as a lure.
On Google Maps, this site still shows up as the location of the Sichuan Provincial Museum, home to artefacts ranging from the Neolithic to the Qing Dynasty (and including famous revolutionary heritage relics of the Red Army’s Long March to Yan’an). However, the museum was demolished and its contents placed in storage five years ago, because the area was earmarked for redevelopment into what the tourist information maps call, the city’s ‘Amusement Zone’.
Promoted under the ethereal but architecturally literal title ‘Sliced Porosity’ − more of this later − this building is, in fact, the Raffles Shopping Centre and gaudy logos adorn many of the elevations. As part of the deal to replace a public museum, the developer (CapitaLand, one of Asia’s largest real estate companies based in Singapore) was required to ensure that public access was prioritised, hence the centrality of the piazza concept. Steven Holl’s 300,000-square-metre shopping mall, with commercial and residential above, is the first major building on the site. In essence, it is a mixed-use development comprising apartments over a podium block. The shopping mall design and fit out − which has obviously had no expense spared in marble flooring and sandstone cladding − was done ‘by others’.
Construction started in 2007 and the apartments are still being fitted out. That’s quite slow for China, but this was a complicated build even by Chinese standards. Huge excavations; 9am to 5pm working hours to minimise noise impact on neighbouring housing; and a tight site that meant that the compound had to be within the boundary of the site itself and lifted as the building came out of the ground. Added to this, strict building codes that were implemented in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake − the devastating tremor registering 8.0 on the Richter scale, that killed approximately 70,000 people in 2008 (as Steven Holl released the first press release about the works commencing) − which had its epicentre just 50 miles from this site.
If this building is merely viewed as the embodiment of the spirit of genuine regional reconstruction in China then it is a remarkable achievement. Such economic and social resilience puts Western risk aversion into stark relief. Build quality was a high priority in this project. The internal construction standards are a little shoddy, with badly fixed insulation (but at least there is insulation) and no vapour barrier or meaningful cavity closers. However, Holl’s insistence on the quality of the external finish deserves mention as, remarkably, the exterior of the building is fair-faced concrete which has no surface treatment. The intense whiteness of the building, the sharp arrises, the smooth appearance, the vertical lines are simply testament to the quality of the workmanship and the relentlessness of the quality management. It is no mean feat attaining either in China.
Three hundred wall sample panels were made, inspected, rejected and perfected to engender the required standard of finish. With 1,400 people working on the project − at one time − in the last few months, the project manager deserves special credit. In fact, here in China, where so many projects are handed over at detailed design stage with no concern, or control, over the finished performance, the pristine appearance of this building is not far short of miraculous. Inevitably, the pollution, the ever-present threat of rain and this building’s pseudo-Modernist lack of external drip cills will undoubtedly cause streaking in the not-too-distant future, but for now, the building looks very sharp indeed.
Two recesses in the building contain the ‘pavilions’. The one designed by Lebbeus Woods and artist Christoph a. Kumpusch, is a spatial array of fluorescent tubes. Rising over three floors, there is a simple metal staircase in the centre that allows people to walk through it and out to cantilevered viewing galleries. The sculpture lights up at 6pm to create what Woods suggested would be ‘one that gives us the opportunity to experience a type of space we haven’t experienced before’. Having experienced the sculpture several times, there is something arrogantly fatuous and, at the same time, incontrovertible in that statement. Actually, the botched manufacture of the light boxes jars with the fine work of the overall building, but it was ‘interesting’ to see how a relatively ungainly sculpture − when viewed from outside − looked quite jaunty, from within, when the lights were on.
The second pavilion is a Gehry-esque Corten enclosure (that is actually open to the elements) containing a small auditorium of tiered seating in locally harvested bamboo. Originally promoted as a history museum (as a guilty memory of the demolished Provincial Museum), it is now more likely, say the developers, to be a corporate events gallery. It is situated on a flat roof cut out of the main block and is one of the more interesting, although publicly inaccessible places. Overlooking the 1950s Mao-era concrete residential blocks on the north side and into the pavilion piazzas to the south, it has a commanding presence and is a slightly superior sculptural and architectural rival to the Lebbeus Woods pavilion opposite.
Form follows daylight
In its simplest form, Holl’s building is essentially an engineering model writ large:
a straightforward reflection of the structural forces at work. Uncompromising diagonals are positioned at the most structurally efficient locations regardless of their slightly disjointed aesthetic. Rather than extending from corner to corner of the square window grid, many are off centre, which results, in places, in tiny triangles of glazing arising from the structural logic. These little quirks tend to humanise the grid somewhat. Ironically, this humane element is thus derived from not intervening, consciously. Or maybe, by not consciously intervening.
Holl has said that he tries to ‘come up with a concept that has a deeper meaning than just a form’. In an interview with Joseph Masheck in 2002 he noted that: ‘The very first thought, the meaningful first diagram, the “concept” for the building, is a combination of eye and mind and hand, and, one hopes, the spirit.’ A decade later, Holl’s initial watercolour sketches for ‘Sliced Porosity’ are proof that he is still engaged at a human level with his architectural concepts. But one man’s ‘distinctive oeuvre’, is another man’s creeping laziness in the generative use of form follows function.
So, for example, while the structural frame represents the output of an engineer’s software package, the overall layout of the building is the culmination of a sun-path analysis. The local building regulations demand at least two-hours of sun per day for the piazza area and surrounding apartments. This shouldn’t be difficult as the building is on a north-south axis with the western edge exposed to the wide street and low-level buildings beyond.
However, the architect claims that rigorous analysis of sun-path diagrams resulted in the final form. (Funnily enough, Chengdu has one of the lowest number of hours of sunshine in China and locals told me that ‘in Chengdu, you never see the sun’.) No matter: the towers were apparently sliced away in heliodon model tests as the maths took over − the cutaways represented by glazing in the actual building; uncut walls represented by the concrete grid. One online wag noted that ‘Steven Holl totally knows how to put a foam-cutter to good use’.
Even though this sun-path explanation isn’t totally convincing (because it refers to the sun angles on just one day of the year), there is something relentlessly logical about this building. And there’s the rub. As the culmination of evidence-based design, maybe, the effect has been to create something more clinical than spiritual. Admittedly, the spaces are agreeable, the shapes are fine, the landscaping is reasonable, the overall effect is pleasing.
Lebbeus Woods’ sculpture is ‘interesting’. Undoubtedly, the public, if and when they decide to populate this space, will enjoy it. What can I say? It’s ‘nice’.
Architect: Steven Holl
Project: Porosity Block
Photos: Iwan Baan