Monday, March 05, 2007

Pulling Up Architecture By the Boot

OMA’s 'fun palace' in the Central Business District

UPDATE: Some initial thoughts on the building's demise, and a lengthy meditation on the entire project in the National.

While the twisting, otherworldly shape of Beijing’s new Central Business District landmark, the CCTV Tower, took months of head-scratching effort by engineers and designers to develop, the look of its lesser-known sister structure, the Television Cultural Center, or TVCC, was reportedly birthed in a eureka moment. On a trip in Italy in 2002, Rem Koolhaas, the famous lead architect, faxed a quick sketch of the design—resembling a dramatic, angular boot—to the Rotterdam headquarters of his Office of Metropolitan Architecture. His design team quickly got down to work. But ironing out the details of the building, which will house a luxury hotel and various public functions, would turn out to be a challenging affair to rival that of its physics-defying sibling.

“In a way, TVCC proved more challenging to the team than CCTV,” says OMA's Yao Dongmei, the buildings' project manager. While the careful geometry of the CCTV building, which is thought to be one of the world's most complex buildings, afforded little modification, TVCC's relatively free-form design and various practical needs gave way to bouts of head-scratching. "The building has so many functions, and putting them together in a way that looks chaotic but with actually considerable logic, that was very hard.'

Adding to the challenge, Yao notes, was the firm's special brand of perfectionism, and the pressure that comes with building next to one of the world's most highly-anticipated buildings. 'It was a case of OMA fighting against itself, of trying to create with an equivalent sense of quality or perfection as CCTV.'

Challenges aside, the building was always meant to be a more lighthearted, pleasurable affair than its hulking sibling next door. Nicknamed the “fun palace” by OMA for its orientation toward public cultural events, the TVCC will house a 300 room luxury hotel (the developer is said to be in talks with Mandarin Oriental), restaurants and spas, recording studios and a 1,500-seat theater that can be used for televised events.

Most of the functions meant to serve the people are housed in the strange geometry of the first four floors, while the 'leg' of the boot contains a central 20-story tall atrium and the hotel's suites. Each room protrudes from the building's facade like randomly-arranged shoeboxes--a scheme, according to co-architect Ole Scheeren, inspired by a termite’s nest.

While its central concrete section was completed in January, workers will spend the months until the building's opening late this year applying finishing touches and adding the structure's unique outer skin. For that section, which craws across the building from east to west, the architects chose titanium zinc alloy, a material that will rust with a certain dignity, giving the building a bronzy, matte surface and providing a protective layer. "This will endure time better than other metal buildings," says Yao.

Already, the building is a starkly iconoclastic addition to the otherwise conventional skyline of the Central Business District. To its designers at least, it’s provided a much-wanted thrill. "It's almost a miracle, after four years of hard work, to see the building stand up against the skyline," said Yao. And while it may not be able to compete with CCTV in terms of sheer drama, the shape of the building should eventually prove to be a welcome, more expressive complement to the strong geometry of its serious older sister.

While CCTV won't be finished by the time TVCC opens, in December 2007, it is expected that the larger building's main structure will be finished by the Olympics. ‘The current plan is that during the Olympics, you would see the CCTV building stand in complete fa├žade,” Mao says. While time will tell what the TVCC’s experimental design will mean on an everyday level for those inside the building, one thing is clear: the view is certain to be awesome.

From tbjHome, Spring 2007

A City Within A City

Architect Li Hu's Mega Hall Moma project emphasizes public spaces and green design

Beijing is vanishing, the architect Li Hu said one recent evening. It might have sounded like a sensational statement you would expect to hear from one of China's leading architects. The partner-in-charge of Steven Holl Architects in Beijing slid over to the window at his office at the Mega Hall Moma, a luxury apartment development near Dongzhimen, and peered into an empty courtyard.

“There's no coffee shop near here,” the 33-year-old architect said. “The office can't just go out after work for a drink. There's a massage parlor, and that's it.” The firm's office comes rent-free from its client, which owns the development, largely because it can't be rented. “No one wants to work in a gated community,” he says. “And nobody want to live in one either.”

The rush in recent years to buy upscale property around the Central Business District, or anywhere near the city center, over once-popular suburbs like Shunyi, may prove his point. And yet, he explains, in a city growing at the speed of over half a million people a year, the word central has started to lose meaning. “Beijing's turning into a giant suburb,” he says, lamenting the street life that's vanished in the process. “Everywhere in China, the city is disappearing.”

Li Hu's not being sensationally gloomy, nor does it seem, could he be. This is his statement of purpose. When he and his partner and mentor, the American architect Steven Holl, were asked to build a sibling to Mega Hall Moma, the architects might have just mimicked the successful enclave of sleek luxury towers. But Holl and Li Hu set their sights higher--or, more precisely, in-between, as in the spaces that separate buildings, and separate buildings from people.

“How to bring back the street life of the old city under a new modern design, that was our idea,” Li Hu says, with unfriendly words for the very “super block” zoning and hutong-killing development that makes his building possible. “There are certain things we can't change,” he explains, including the placement of the actual buildings, which were planned by a different architect. But to make the best of the situation, the 210,000 square-meter site beckons the public not only with shops and cafes, but a patchwork of green space, becoming what the architects call a city within a city. “We're injecting a different system onto the existing grid.”

No wonder the Linked Hybrid, or “Modern MoMA” as it's been branded, looks unlike any apartment building in Beijing - nor anywhere else for that matter. Its eight 20-storey towers of apartments and commercial space are connected by gently sloping footbridges, which allow free circulation between shops, cafes, a health club, and exhibition spaces. The elevated plaza in the middle features a reflecting pool, a series of gardens, a four-screen cinema with an outdoor projection and a hotel, from which anyone can enter the bridge loop.

Brochures call the design “filmic,” which somehow captures the dramatic sweep of the buildings, with their silver facades and colorful film-frame windows, as they swirl around in a walk-able storyline. But the non-linear design emphasizes surprise and disjuncture too, the random relationships and occurrences more typical of a city than a standard Beijing apartment block. “It's not just about convenience,” Li Hu says of the building's connectivity, “but about the connection between people.” In that sense, the building vaguely resembles a ring of dancers celebrating the public space at their feet.

Still, considering that the apartments' current price tag (RMB 7.3 million on average) is over three hundred times greater than a typical Beijinger's yearly income, some might wonder if the dancers are merely trampling on everyday Beijing rather than cheering it. Li Hu doesn't just acknowledge the irony of a luxury public space in a city like this; he sees the mix of public and private uses as the project's central challenge, and its raison d'etre. Mention the building's sex appeal, and he gets uncomfortable. His architecture is not “sexy,” he urges - it's social.

Li Hu's and Holl's other big project, a mixed-use development in Shenzhen that will house the offices of Chinese mainland real estate developer Vanke, embraces a social role too. The snaking, cubist aluminum structure, what Li Hu calls a “horizontal skyscraper,” floats above the ground on pillars, creating a large public space beneath. At a time when public space is competing with private development, Li Hu sees such designs as vital. “How do you convince private developers to make a social contribution?” he ponders.

Similar questions prompted him to start his own firm with his wife, the architect Huang Wenjing, in 2002. For now, Open Architecture Studio's affordable and modular housing designs remain the subject of research, though Li Hu speaks of actual construction (and of future full-time work on his own firm) with a sense of urgency. “Architects tend to only serve the top classes,” he says. “We're trying to make architecture available to everyone.”

With the Linked Hybrid, the architect's ambitions are no less grand: “We want to change how people live, react, relate, and interact with other people.” It was an ambition that the developer, the Modern Land Group, didn't exactly share. At certain points, everything from the bridges, which test the limits of building code, to the mix of commercial and residential space to the project's openness, was questioned. “There was no desire, no activity, no support for this,” he says of the client, and a campaign of “educating and fighting” ensued. Even as costs have risen, Li Hu says he's not made a single compromise in the design. Still, he adds, “we're still trying to convince them today.”

Such determination is one of the biggest clues to Li Hu's background. After graduating from the architecture department at Tsinghua University, he left his hometown of Beijing to spend ten years abroad, first at Rice University in Houston, then in Princeton and in New York, working for Steven Holl. The experience in the U.S. and New York in particular (where he lives part-time) not only heightened his appreciation for good urban design; it raised his suspicions of government planning boards and demanding clients - two staples of China's architectural scene. “They criticize me for not knowing their way of working,” Li Hu says of pesky apparatchiks. “And I don't want to work that way.”

One thing that both architect and developer could agree on from the start was that the building should have a light “environmental footprint” (impact). Green space covers almost every flat surface, from the roof gardens to the seven mounds of the central plaza. The pond water there is constantly recycled along with the building's wastewater, and displacement ventilation ducts embedded in apartment floors circulate fresh air and reduce heat loss while pipes in the concrete slab ceilings provide super-efficient temperature control. Underneath the site sits one of the world's largest geothermal systems, an array of hundreds of 100-meter wells that draw heat to the apartments in the winter and pull heat out in the summer, eliminating the need for boilers or electrical air conditioners.

The green focus has garnered a nod from Popular Science and earned the building a coveted US Green Building Council LEED pre-certification, one of a handful in China. “We did everything you can imagine in one residential building.”

But Li Hu is less interested in the technology inside the buildings than the life in-between them. The Linked Hybrid's “city within a city” approach not only reorients the urban scene to a human scale, but also attempts to make cars obsolete for its residents. “Saving the environment,” says Li Hu, “that dimension is much larger than a geothermal system,” he says. “It's about density, and public transportation, and your lifestyle.” He hopes that the building's philosophy will soon provide a low-cost model for future low-cost housing in the city.

Whether Beijing can embrace an approach to development that's just as holistic and hybrid, will depend on the collaborations of city planners, developers and architects, he says. “Saving the city is not an individual effort.” What role he and his building will play ultimately depends on the city's biggest interest group: the public. “If you create a space that works, there's a potential for people to use it,” he says. “And then it will not be doomed.”

The Front of the Bus

Beijing buses a move

The traffic in Beijing is so bad, it is said that even its most efficient denizens can only accomplish one task per day. Hoping to change that local wisdom, the Beijing Municipal Committee of Transportation managed to do a few things one day in late December: it announced new bus fares, a reorganization of the bus network, and a massive increase in public transit spending, all aimed at transforming Beijing’s uncomfortable but necessary relationship with the bus.

While much hullabaloo has been made over the city’s future (and perennially under-construction) subway lines, which have received as much as 80 percent of transit spending in recent years, the city has decided to place unprecedented emphasis on the city’s buses, which have long been a symbol of Beijing crowdedness and inefficiency. Though Beijing’s buses serve 10 million passengers per day, 3.5 times more than the subways, traffic-weary officials are desperate to make bus riding more common—or even, somehow, cool.

“We are trying to make using public transportation fashionable for Beijing citizens," Liu Xiaoming, a transportation bureau spokesman, told reporters.

Since last month, Beijing bus riders have only needed to fork over 1 yuan (12 U.S. cents) per ride, instead of the distance-based fares that once set riders back anywhere as much as 4 kuai. In addition, the transportation bureau announced that over one hundred overlapping lines within the third ring road will be axed; the 1,500 buses currently driving those routes will be relocated to connect the more than 300 communities that lie outside Beijing proper. The city will also be injecting 1.3 billion RMB (166 million dollars) into Beijing’s bus companies this year.

Perhaps the city’s most controversial decision under the “buses first” plan—-to eliminate the city’s half-century-old bus passes—is supposed to make way for two new electronic smart cards: a monthly pass allowing commuters 140 trips for 45 RMB and a deposit card that offers a 20-percent discount on bus trips. But the death of the bus pass, instituted as part of the city’s social welfare system in the 1950s, might as well have been an attempt to shed the bus’s rusty image.

“In the past, bus transit has been viewed as an inferior transit system compared with subway and light rail,” said Jin Fan , director of the China Sustainable Transportation Center.

The new attempt to pump life back into the bus system also comes after a decade of what many experts agree has been a dramatically unbalanced approach to the city’s transit investment, with its large focus on building roads for the city’s exploding car traffic. “The Chinese central government now recognizes the urgency to restore balance to this equation,” Jin said.

Just how much a change in that equation will affect Beijing’s increasing love for the car is even less clear than the air over the 2nd ring road on a spring day. Some wonder, for instance, whether lowering the bus fare by a kuai or two will really attract those who can already afford to drive. Ten days after the fare reduction, sources at bus companies said the number of passengers had not increased dramatically.

Meanwhile, the transportation bureau estimates that the cost of the fare reduction will be at least 1.3 billion yuan—money, some experts argue, that could have been better spent on more crucial improvements, such as bus frequency and quality. If it hopes to get through its transportation bottleneck, experts agree that Beijing must take a holistic approach to public transit, after a model like Singapore.

“They’ve focused on the quality of their transit service, the timing, the punctuality, comfort, and implemented a set of complimentary policies to entice people to use transit rather than cars,” said Song Yan, an urban planning expert. Such measures include gas taxes, a congestion pricing system for cars entering the city center, and a quota on imported cars. Though Beijing already places a high tax on foreign imports, officials say they have no other plans to reduce cars in the city. “When you have one policy, even when implemented to a full extent, it wouldn’t necessarily do that much,” Song says. “You need a whole package of policies.”

One policy officials hope will make bus riding more attractive is bus rapid transit, or BRT. Increasingly popular among city planners and environmentalists alike, such a system simply relies on dedicated lanes with few stoplights and sleek, double-length buses. “It is as fast, reliable, comfortable and easy-to-use as a rail-based system, but is more flexible and can be built more quickly at a fraction of the cost,” said Jin Fan. Reducing traffic for buses also increases fuel efficiency and reduces the idling that leads to nasty emissions. Last summer, the World Bank reported that the single BRT line that Beijing currently operates, running south starting at Qianmen, can shave over 20 minutes off what would otherwise be an hour-long commute. The city is building three more lines.

Officials have also announced plans for a series of transportation hubs and low-fee parking lots to make transit connections easier and discourage car use within the city. “This is just the first step of our reform,” said Li, the transportation director. “We will make adjustments as we implement the plan.”

In other words, like much else in Beijing, solving the city’s public transit will take much longer than a day.