He explains that he and Tolla love “accumulating objects” such as vent shafts or fire escapes or ductwork, because they transform a building unintentionally. “They come out of it, they overlap, they attach some way,” he says. “They aggressively change the building and create a complexity that we're fascinated by.”
Yet, true to their name, LOT-EK's way of assembly is simple and straightforward. “Ada and I were building with our hands 15 years ago,” Lignano says. “It still reflects that.”
ONCE THE CONTRACTS WERE SIGNED, the meetings in Beijing grew steadily larger. “There was a big component of just learning how to do something like that in China— for everybody,” Tolla says. The first meetings included the local architects, the code consultants, and the structural and mechanical engineers. “Then they brought in even more people,” Tolla says, such as the curtain wall company and other manufacturers. “A lot of the stuff we were designing was tested immediately.” Not always with the best results.
When it came to supplying materials, Guo Feng was very DIY. When Tolla and Lignano described the coated stainless-steel mesh made in Germany that they wanted for the building's outer screen, the client asked for a sample. “And then they would make it,” Tolla says. “They would make the same thing.”
Or as close as they could come. The Chinese copies couldn't always match the quality of the originals. “They showed us a sample, and we're like, ‘Ha! This is terrible!' ” Tolla says. (Lignano describes the copy as “chicken wire with the paint that comes off.”) Needless to say, the mesh was refined before going onto the building.
“When you get this mesh from the fabricators in Germany,” Tolla says, “it's engineered to be set up in a certain way. There are certain mountings and so on. You're not just getting a material. You're getting everything, the entire intelligence that goes behind the material.” But their clients were averse to imports generally. “They would just replicate stuff rather than get it, because they have the manpower,” Tolla says.
“There is a completely different perception about labor and labor costs,” Tolla remarks. “Here [in the U.S.] you're trying to minimize labor because it drives the cost of things up. And there, you don't have to worry about that. So they can afford to replicate things.”
In one of the more eye-rubbing moments along the way, Lignano arrived at the building site in Beijing to find a huge likeness of himself and Tolla next to the firm's logo on a billboard at the perimeter. “He called home and said “‘Ohhh, you're not going to believe this… ,' ” Tolla recounts. They found the adulation a bit more than they expected, especially in a society where, Lignano finds, “individuals' creativity is not that important.” Yet as Beijing globalizes, a group of eccentric American architects confers a fashionable status on a project. “They go crazy with celebrity because they don't know it at all,”
Lignano observes. “They put up posters with faces—they understand that part of it.” But, he says, they don't know how to use the architects completely. Lignano and Tolla were unprepared for their work to end abruptly after design development, once their drawings were turned over to local architects to become a full set of construction documents. In the course of designing the building, they had gone through elaborate meetings in concert with the client, the consultants, and the other architects, where details would be translated to local standards and the architects would present their respective designs as they evolved. Despite certain quizzical moments, Tolla says, “they made a genuine effort to try to do the right thing and do it well.”
However, there would be practically no role for LOTEK in overseeing construction, which Tolla and Lignano quickly learned not to take personally. They arranged to have Judith Tse, a LOT-EK staff member leaving the firm to move home to Hong King, check in on the project on a contract basis. “But before long,” Tolla says, “she could not talk to anybody. It became this crazy thing.” Eventually, Tse stopped going. But in early 2007, pictures began coming in from Kuma. Tolla remembers: “He'd send them and say, ‘You guys! Your building is almost done!””