The spark of change

Atkins | 10 Jun 2008 | Comments

Chinese architecture is on the rise as cities compete to – literally – stand out from the crowd.

There was a time when China’s most famous design and engineering work was the Great Wall. These days, the People’s Republic has a few more engineering accomplishments to talk about. Many of these have sprung up in the past 20 years alone, and there are enough projects in the pipeline to make any engineer or architect lightheaded at the prospect.

Case in point: the six-star “Quarry Hotel’’ in Songjiang, the result of a private developer-sponsored international design competition for a new hotel project, due to break ground in 2008.

“The Quarry Hotel is unique,” says Atkins’ director of urban planning and design in China, KY Cheung. “It sits below ground level, butting up against a man-made lake in the bottom of an abandoned quarry. Most big buildings can be spotted a mile away, but you don’t know where this one is or what it looks like until you are almost on top of it. There’s a sense of expectancy and anticipation as you get closer. Other unique qualities include rooms below water level, and an exit system that takes you upwards to safety.”

The Quarry Hotel is one of a long list of architectural marvels that are either designed, planned or in the process of being built across the country. It is part of a remarkable surge in activity in recent years. But why this push for more and more noteworthy, if not groundbreaking, developments?

Thinking big

While the Beijing Olympics certainly set the stage for audacious building design, and the forthcoming Shanghai Expo in 2010 is encouraging a similarly precocious approach to landmark creation, that doesn’t explain the general move towards increasingly exceptional structures.

“First of all, China is massive,” says Cheung. “There is a constant demand for buildings and that means a lot of new projects. Until the population stabilises – if it ever does – there will always be a driver for new buildings, more so than anywhere in the West.”

At the same time, residential developments in China are getting larger and larger. As you approach the eastern seaboard, towards the major cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, urbanisation grows increasingly dense.

“Five years ago, most of the development was still focused on those three main cities. In the last few years, there’s been a very strong government initiative to develop what are called Tier-2 cities, in the west and centre of China,” says Paul Rice, director of design with Atkins in China. “These cities are enormous by European standards. Places like Wuhan and Chongqing are some of the largest cities in the world, with 15-20 million people. Developers are following this trend and heading for these secondary cities to keep up with population demands.”

Population considerations are only part of the equation, but they represent a hefty part – at last count, the country’s population topped 1.3 billion people, with cities of over a million common across China. The other part of the equation is old fashioned ambition, pride and healthy competition. It’s the same urge that prompted Paris to construct the Eiffel Tower and London to erect Big Ben.

According to Zhang Hongxing, co-curator of the “China Design Now” exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, as commercial development has grown, so has commercial architecture, and at a city scale. It has evolved to become a kind of cultural architecture as cities vie with each other to produce more interesting structures.

“As these cities find themselves in a competitive marketplace, so they must compete for business. Before the nineties, all apartments were state owned and limited in supply; now they are privately owned and the demand is being met. At the same time, local governments want their cities to stand out against the rest, while developers want to attract new customers and new business. These are the forces driving this process.”

“The cities are trying to compete for the most outstanding and innovative kind of work, something to put them on the map – and the developers are following suit,” adds Martin Jochman, the Atkins architect behind the visionary Quarry Hotel. “For marketing reasons, developers want to stand out. They want unusual shapes and ideas – the Quarry Hotel is an example of this. It was an opportunity to create something that had never been done before.

“It’s all part of the new atmosphere in China: the projects are exciting and when it comes to creating an initial concept, there are very few limitations. Opportunities are everywhere. Most of the larger cities are going through major rebuilding programmes, from the business districts to masterplanning and major hotels. Cities are in competition with each other to create better and more impressive landmarks.”

Architects themselves have also changed, Hongxing points out: “Until the early nineties, they weren’t allowed to set up private architecture firms. Now that they are able to do so, it has inspired a kind of development and design frenzy. Architects in China are also becoming more aware of global designs. Increasingly, architects are trying to draw on traditional forms and to see what they can do to combine them with global influences and concepts.”

Middle class in the Middle Kingdom

The rising middle class in China is perhaps the biggest influence in the country’s ongoing architectural evolution. “It goes without saying that soon enough there will be more millionaires by international standards in China than anywhere else,” points out Cheung. “The country’s population is so huge that even if only a tiny percentage achieves millionaire status, that’s still a lot of people.”

As the economy in China has shifted from low-cost labour and high end manufacturing for foreign clients to developing and designing its own brand of products and services for the world market, income, savings and wealth have grown. And with this new wealth comes an ever greater demand for things to spend it on – hotels, holidays, cars, housing and so on – as well as the desire to attract even more growth.

“A lot of cities in China are still developing,” says Rice. “They’re still catching up with the rest of the country, if not the world.

“As a consequence, there’s a sudden urgent need for things like hotel accommodation because it simply does not exist in a lot of places.

“Add to this the fact that many of the developers in China are doing this for the first time,” he points out. “For example, there are companies that have made money in other areas and industries, and have acquired a land bank, or they have property that needs redevelopment. They find an architect to design for them, but they don’t have any preconceived notions about what they should be doing. They come to things with a very fresh mind. Quite a few of these developers are fairly young and they have a very different agenda than your standard commercial developer, who is usually much tougher and more practical.”

The result is a professional environment where architects must balance governmental regulations about things like seismic concerns with clients’ burgeoning sense of limitless possibility. It’s a heady atmosphere and remains very new territory for everyone.

“There’s also a cultural aspect in the way we approach the work, an inherent symbolism that is essential to Chinese design,” says Jochman. “This can be a very direct, and in some cases literal, symbolism within the design. Very often, this works best when it’s on a number of different levels, with subtle references to other aspects of the culture and all very well integrated. This has to be quite sophisticated, with real substance to it and, in a way, real poetry.

“This all means that, before you have even begun to design, there’s an emphasis on contextual analysis as well as cultural, historical and geographical research. You need to demonstrate that you have been through this process and that your design relates to the local culture and brings something specific to the project, as well as that particular client and location,” says Jochman.

“Quite simply, there’s a huge difference between the type of work we might do in the UK, for example, and the work we do in China,” he adds. “The scale of the work and initial freedom within any concept, even the process of generating a concept – it’s completely different.”

Lilypads & symbolism

Faced with the challenge of designing a five-star, 350-bed hotel as the centrepiece of Lingang New Town, near Shanghai, Atkins turned to a symbolic lilypad shape, reflecting the hotel’s position on an island in a circular lake.

This is part of the Lingang new town masterplan, which has created a perfectly circular 500-hectare lake as its centrepiece.

“The client’s brief called for a striking landmark, but limited the height to only 15 metres,” says project manager Shen Yufeng. “Our winning design adopted the image of a natural form, such as a lotus flower, that could be thought of as an object floating in the lake.”

The central drum, containing the reception and lobby, also connects the five leaves, containing either hotel rooms, restaurant spaces or meeting rooms.

“The leaves reach out into the landscape, allowing unblocked views of the lake or gardens from every room,” says Shen. “The inner space of each leaf is designed as an atrium space allowing natural light and ventilation into the heart of the public spaces.”

Win-win designs

“One of the major challenges that China faces – and this is the same as for the rest of the world – is sustainability, which has been written into the government’s building regulations,” explains KY Cheung. “We have to train ourselves in this new field of carbon critical design, to find sustainable systems and products that are commercially viable, and to convince developers to use them, not only for their own benefit but as a way to comply with government requirements.

“Sustainability represents good design for all levels of society. The government bids on the open market for its energy needs – carbon critical design saves energy, so this is a good thing for the government. Likewise for the consumer: if I don’t have to pay as much for my electricity, I have more disposable income for myself and my family.

“Developers can use this feature to sell any build to the government and the consumer. Local developers are smart – they want their projects to be distinct, they need to compete against other housing developments and want something unique to market their projects. Carbon critical design gives them that.

“It’s a win-win-win situation, but it’s also one of the few cases where architects must polish up. If they can do this, then the government, the developer and the consumer will love them.

“Throughout Atkins, there is substantial experience in sustainability consultancy and engineering support. We will be gearing up in the near future, hopefully before the end of this financial year. Ideally, we want our own team in place to address these issues.”

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