Steven Holl Architects inspire Chinese developers to raise their game and create a mamouth groundscape above a new public park. Photography by Christian Richters
Steven Holl’s Beijing-based partner, Li Hu, describes the Vanke Centre as the firm’s ‘greatest and most ambitious building’ to date. Educated in China and America before working in Steven Holl Architects’ Manhattan office, Hu returned to his native country four years ago to find a much-altered civic situation. ‘I realised immediately how much things had changed,’ he says, ‘as the quality public spaces I remembered had almost entirely disappeared, replaced by a fenced-off, gated, and overly privatised form of urbanism.’ This focused Holl and Hu’s ambition for the vast private development they were tackling: a 120,000m² mixed-use campus for China’s largest residential property company, Vanke.
The practice’s aim was to provide an exemplary form of new urbanism that prioritised the provision of fully accessible public space. While specifically related to this place and this brief, the scheme also incorporates architectural strategies tested on other projects, merging and morphing ideas about circulation and connectivity seen at Holl’s student residences at MIT (AR January 2004) and the pedestrian-orientated Linked Hybrid complex in Beijing (AR July 2008).
Occupying the airspace between a new public garden and a site-wide height limit of 35m, an 80,000m² extrusion was proposed to sit on eight concrete cores. Employing steel cable-stay bridge technology to achieve the interstitial spans, the Vanke Centre’s regular cross section forms a buckled figure that sits on a south-west to north-east orientation.
Five subsidiary arms extend from this figure, defining tapering courtyards and addressing the site’s south-westerly coastal views. The decision to suspend the accommodation above ground serves two principal purposes. Firstly, in response to the climate, it provides shelter and shade from extremes of rain and shine, allowing the region’s coastal breeze to permeate the entire site. It also liberates land for the undulating landscape garden, into which are buried restaurants, hotel service and support spaces and a 15,000m² conference centre.
Although it responds to a very specific physical context, the development’s economic context was far less easy to predict. As a result, the building was designed with inherent flexibility; even now, with the structure essentially complete, the client remains unsure as to the precise allocation of space. Four potential accommodation types, however, have been identified.
A hotel occupies space at the north-eastern end of the site, where the elevated figure descends to the ground, with a condominium at the centre of the principal range. An element called SOHO comprises larger-scale live-work units and Vanke’s own offices occupy the two-pronged range at the plan’s south-western extreme.
Linking these together is ‘a semi-public path’ that threads its way up through the building’s linear plan, providing a sequence of contrasting spatial experiences. Hu says: ‘Along this path visitors will experience constantly shifting treatments of light.’
In what Hu bluntly refers to as a ‘monolithic tube’, it is this path that brings specificity. When close to the base, the path is lit from below. When close to the perimeter and roof, the path is lit from the side and the top. And, when locked in the middle of the section, definition is given in a more sculptural way, creating a conduit that the architect rather vaguely describes as ‘the tunnel of morphing typologies’. Where this condition exists, the influence of Holl’s MIT building is clear, with interaction between levels promoted through the carving out of cavernous, eccentric canyons.
The Vanke Centre’s somewhat familiar and fashionable expression is a disappointment, reflecting the relative neutrality of the building’s flexible interior. Its elevations bear little relationship to specific spaces; they respond to orientation alone, with clear glass to the north, horizontal blades to the south, and fixed perforated panels to the east and west. But this is not necessarily a bad thing, rendering the building more background than icon. Holl’s trademark use of colour is saved for the figure’s underbelly, bringing character to the spaces beneath.
Gauging the response of the client, users and everyday passers-by, Hu is confident that the practice’s ambition to produce successful public realm has been fulfilled. ‘During the design stage, everyone was fixated by the building’s striking form and the eccentricity of the plan.
Now, people comment on the spaces it defines and the views it frames.’ With 75 per cent of the site area reconfigured as an open landscape, the practice’s strategy has been extremely well received. The Vanke Centre has also achieved more measurable targets, qualifying as one of China’s LEED Platinum-rated buildings.
Architect Steven Holl Architects, Beijing, China
Project team Steven Holl, Li Hu, Yimei Chan, Gong Dong, Garrick Ambrose, Maren Koehler, Jay Siebenmorgen, Christopher Brokaw, Rodolfo Dias, Eric Li
Associate architect CCDI