Beijing - China's massive building boom, powered by its rapid-fire economic ascendance and explosive expansion of its megacities, has forced architects across the country to scramble to keep pace.
Super-speed urbanisation is transforming China, with 20 million peasants marching into the cities each year, according to Jeffrey Johnson, who heads the China Megacities Lab at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture in New York.
"China is evolving into a construction superpower."
- Fang Zhenning, architect
Some are inducted into construction crews that race the clock to build for the nouveau riche who have emerged since class struggle was abandoned in favour of free-market reforms a generation ago.
“China is evolving into a construction superpower,” says Fang Zhenning, a scholar who lectures at the architecture school of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.
The country is expected to account for one-fifth of worldwide building by the year 2020, Fang says.
In the battle to build ever-faster, some architects have resorted to digitally cloning designs that can be replicated time after time. To shake off the image of generic skyscrapers and cities, the Chinese government since the turn of the century has been commissioning the globe's leading avant-garde architects to design iconic works like the titanic titanium dome of the National Center for the Performing Arts, the glowing red and silver Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium and the surreal sculpture-like CCTV Tower in Beijing.
A new contingent of elite, experimental architects is emerging in China, with sophisticated designs that mix cutting-edge engineering with innovative forms. One of these new Chinese architectural icons is currently being exhibited at the Venice Biennale, the world's most important architecture festival that takes place in Italy every two years.
Built to impress
The China Pavilion of the exhibition in the ancient canal-crossed Italian city features five designers and artists, but the spotlight shines on the Phoenix Media Center.
Its structure, which is now being built in eastern Beijing, resembles a DNA-like double helix whose tips have been fused into a circular loop. Glimmering steel bands crisscross the building.
“We used the most advanced digital architecture software to design and engineer this building,” explains Shao Weiping, its chief architect. Each steel band and every plate of glass incorporated into the cool curves of the façade have been individually designed with an extreme level of precision, he says.
Without the use of the latest building information modeling software, Shao adds, the Phoenix Media Center would have been impossible to conceive, never mind construct.
Cutting-edge 3D building modeling software allows designers to craft digital versions - down to the finest details - of sophisticated architectural projects on laptops.
Virtual models stored on a cloud platform allow collaborators from Beijing to Berlin to work together to sculpt and engineer the building, test its reaction to earthquakes, or view the shifting patterns of light and shadow throughout the structure as the sun arcs across a digital sky, says Liang Shuang, a young architect in Beijing.
Architects of an earlier generation using two-dimensional drawings could not have incorporated the complex geometry featured in the Phoenix Center, whose “technology is so advanced that it is difficult for construction crews to keep up,” says Shao.
Shao - who heads the Un-Forbidden Office, an architecture studio located on the periphery of Beijing's Forbidden City -says he did his utmost to create an icon of engineering and artistic beauty with the media centre in order to break the pattern of the Chinese capital's architectural landmarks being dominated by international designers.
Fang, who is curating the Chinese exhibition at the Venice Biennale, says the government's commissioning of the world's vanguard of experimental architects to design Beijing's most important structural symbols initially triggered shockwaves among Chinese designers that reverberated throughout the state-run media.
"The Phoenix Center is likely to be widely recognised as the Chinese capital's newest icon of architectural innovation."
- Jeffrey Johnson, Columbia University
Yet he adds that works such as the strangely beautiful CCTV Tower by the Netherlands' Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) have laid the foundation for a modern architecture movement across China.
And a growing openness to powerful innovation in architecture, he says, is creating more opportunities for Chinese designers to test the boundaries of building and engineering.
The designer of the Phoenix Center agrees, and adds that since the turn of the century, across China “architecture standards have been going up and up”.
When it opens at the end of 2012, the media complex will house the Beijing operations of the Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television, and will be “the only television broadcasting building in Beijing completely open to the public”, Shao says.
China's state broadcaster, China Central Television, is currently housed in a silo-like tower in western Beijing that is guarded by concentric rings of People's Armed Police. Although the new CCTV Tower in eastern Beijing was designed by OMA's Rem Koolhaas to include an egalitarian “visitors loop,” so far public access to the structure has been strictly verboten.
In contrast, the curvilinear form of the new media center, surrounded by reflecting pools and sited inside a vast public park, is designed to attract myriad visitors to tour the Phoenix's transparent operations, says its designer.
Johnson, says the Phoenix Center is likely to be widely recognised as the Chinese capital's newest icon of architectural innovation “due to its form and complex geometry”.
Architecture fans and experts who favour hyper-technology buildings are likely to congregate around Shao's installation at the China Pavilion in Venice.
The new Chinese project will compete with works such as the Archipelago Cinema, a floating open-air theatre anchored in the ancient Venetian harbour of Darsena Grande and developed by Ole Scheeren, co-designer of the CCTV Tower in Beijing.
Also at Venice is a glittering sculpture created by London-based artist-architect Zaha Hadid that curiously echoes the soaring spirit of an ancient Greek marble carving, dating from 180 BC, of the winged goddess Nike of Samothrace.
|A view at dawn of Beijing's modern skyline [EPA]
Daisy Guo, project manager for the China exhibition at the Venice Biennale, says a new wave of Chinese experimental designers ultimately aims to compete with the planet's best architects.
The Italian-based online architecture magazine designboom recently ranked Shao's Phoenix Center fourth on a list of the world's top cultural projects, alongside three works by Hadid.
Guo, who is a fan of Hadid's architectural designs and artworks, says the Phoenix Center “is a new Crystal Palace that features a transparent façade and cool parametric design”.
The Phoenix design's success at Venice, she adds, is a portent of the potential for new experimental Chinese architecture to shine across the global stage.
Jonhson agrees. “This [Phoenix] project will certainly help promote the talents of Chinese architects globally.”