As the 2012 Pritzker Prize was being awarded in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to Chinese architect Wang Shu, the building that truly proves that Chinese architects are emerging on the international stage was already under construction nearby—and it wasn’t by Wang. The new Phoenix International Media Center, a ballooning torus formed by a twisting lattice of steel, rivals any structure designed by a Westerner in China over the last decade. Through the design for their new headquarters and broadcast center, China’s largest private broadcaster engaged its biggest rival—the government-owned CCTV, housed in the now-famed tower by Rotterdam, Netherlands–based OMA—on a playing field few thought possible: the architectural stage.
It was inevitable that, sooner or later, Chinese architects would challenge the hegemony of foreign architects “colonizing” China’s cities with landmark projects. Wang may have won the Pritzker, but in recognizing an architect who prides himself on thinking and building locally, studiously avoiding what he considers imported architectural spectacle, the prize’s committee may have bet on the wrong horse. Representing a different, more internationally competitive point of view is the Phoenix’s designer, Shao Weiping, executive chief architect of the government-owned Beijing Institute of Architectural Design (BIAD). He was the local architect that collaborated with Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, on Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3. But at the Phoenix, there was no Foster, only Shao, fresh with Terminal 3 expertise and a backup crew of architects largely trained abroad.
The Phoenix marks a transfer of knowledge and information, signaling the paradigm shift from “Made in China” to “Created in China,” the inference being that China need no longer import talent. If the CCTV tower marked the opening of China for an innovative, modern architecture, the Phoenix means that the baton for the movement might be passing into Chinese hands.
Over the last 15 years, municipal governments and Chinese companies have sought progressive foreign architects to create new structures because of their innovative design thinking, so there is irony in the fact that this TV station from Hong Kong, a city that has long been oriented to the West, was the one that sought a Beijing architect when it moved its headquarters to the mainland. Phoenix acquired land between the city’s third and fourth ring roads, a prime gateway site into Chaoyang Park, one of China’s largest urban greenspaces.
The TV station’s objective was to create a transparent headquarters, outside and inside. So the architects integrated gardens and reflecting pools into the site to attract visitors to linger and to provide outdoor spaces for the workers within. At the building’s west end, near a busy intersection, the architects lift the torus off the ground to open a path into the central courtyard, and at the far east end, they lift the torus even higher, forming a gateway to the park beyond. With the building entirely glazed with thousands of panels, the interiors are visible from the outside.
Despite the beguiling convolutions, involutions, and revolutions of the torus’s compound curves, the building’s parti is deceptively simple: The torus acts as a shell enclosing two conventionally structured buildings inside. The architects stacked nine stories of offices within the taller, south side of the torus, and organized the television studios, a club, and high-end restaurants in the lower, northern end. Here, an art café occupies the top level, which is open to the glazed skin of the structure’s shell overhead.
Starting near the main entrance, sinuously ramped promenades connect these elements together, passing by the studios, which are open to the viewing public. “It’s the only TV broadcasting station in Beijing open to the public,” Shao says. At the east end, within an atrium overlooking the park, the promenade leads to a maelstrom of ramps that twist and turn through the air to maximize the intake of views for those walking from the studio area to the offices on the south side.
The complexity of the building’s latticed façade, with its differentially stretched web of steel, implies the complexities of parametric modeling, but the form generation was more conceptual than computational, and, as with many recent projects in China, the concept ties into tradition. To the architects, the emblem of the station—a pair of intertwined phoenixes—suggested complementary yin–yang figures, which are often associated with the Möbius strip. The architects transformed the continuously evolving surface of the Möbius strip into the continuously turning volumes of a Klein bottle before settling on the torus, all forms which “remember” the Möbius strip as a primitive.
The volumes of the torus were inflated and deflated to accommodate the interior programs of offices, studios, and public spaces. The architects fixed axes and a series of loops, in plan, from which they generated the geometry for the surface of the torus. Enclosing the final form required 3,800 glass panels, each differently sized and detailed. Shao says that the latest 3D modeling software enabled the architects to conceive and execute the project, which required a high degree of precision. Shao, who heads the Un-Forbidden Office within BIAD, a smaller studio within the larger company, says he did his utmost to create an iconic piece of engineering and artistic beauty to break the pattern of monuments by international designers dominating the capital.
At the very least, Shao and his office have declared their independence with an ambitious design they skillfully executed. They and their colleagues will continue to challenge the bias for foreign architects. With the Phoenix, they have tasted their own success.
Project Phoenix International Media Center, Beijing
Client Phoenix Television
Architect Architect BIAD UFo (Beijing Institute of Architecture Design, Un-Forbidden office), Beijing—Shao Weiping (executive chief architect); Liu Yuguang, Chen Ying, Li Gan, Zhou Zewo, Wu Xi, Hao Yihan, Pan Hui, Xiao Lichun, Wang Yu (project team)
Structural Engineer Shu Weinong, Zhu Zhongyi, Zhou Sihong, Zhang Shizhong, Shen Zhenkai, Wang Yi, Bu Longgui
Mechanical Engineer Zhang Tiehui, Yang Yang, Qian Qiang, Liu Yun
Electrical Engineer Sun Chengqun, Jin Hong
Plot Plan Design Engineer Lv Juan
Lighting Engineer Zheng Jianwei
Economist Zhang Ling
BIM Engineer Chi Shengfeng
Landscape Design LAURstudio
Interior Design SAKO Architects
Lighting Concept Consultant Speirs + Major
BIM Consultant Beijing BIMTechnologie Co.
Construction & EPC Beijing Tianrun Construction Co.
Steel Structure Jiangsu Huning Steel Mechanism Co.
Curtainwall Consultant Shenzhen King Façade Decoration Engineering Co.
SRC Curtainwall Shanghai Winsun Building Products Co.
Interior Decoration Suzhou Gold Mantis Construction Decoration Co.
Lighting Haoersai Lighting Technology Group Co.
Size 65,000 square meters (699,654 square feet)