Project DescriptionIt was one of those rare projects that came unbidden—and from half a world away. One day in May 2005, Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano, architects and partners in the New York firm LOTEK, received an e-mail from Kengo Kuma, the Japanese architect well known for his material wizardry, though neither Tolla nor Lignano knew him personally.
Would they like to design a building in Beijing?
Actually, not the entire building. They would design around a four-story rectangular concrete frame. Kuma had shaped the massing for this and several other buildings as he master planned the larger site, a 7,000- acre office and shopping complex called Sanlitun North (there is also a Sanlitun South). The property lies in Beijing's Chaoyang District, a cosmopolitan area of embassies and nightlife that also holds the Olympic Park and venues for this summer's games. Kuma was designing a hotel and four freestanding boutiques. On behalf of his client, Guo Feng Development, he was looking for architects abroad to design three other buildings.
“It came out of the blue,” Tolla says. Having lived and worked in New York together for 18 years, 15 of them as LOT-EK, the Italian-born architects had long wanted to design an actual building, something beyond the installation-scale work that had made their names known as much in the art world as among architects. Strictly speaking, the Sanlitun North job was not a whole building, but, at 97,000 square feet, it came close enough. Kuma also solicited proposals from SHoP Architects in New York and Beijing Matsubara & Architect, a Japanese firm that had relocated to Beijing. “It was generous, courageous, adventurous of Kuma to call on younger offices rather than established offices,” Tolla adds.
But having a younger office of 10 people made it difficult for LOT-EK to trek across the globe for a modest-sized building. At times, the client made sure they felt exquisitely engaged, embraced for their design almost as heroes. Yet when the major design phases ended, so too did their roles as architects, and without much warning. “When construction started,” Lignano says, “they threw you out of the plane.”
THE WORK BEGAN in July 2005. Guo Feng, the developer and builder, held a weeklong charrette in Beijing. All the invited architects were asked to propose designs for Sanlitun North. “They had already decided who would be working on what,” Tolla says. “so that it was not many people working against each other.” Presiding were Wei Chun Xian, the owner of Guo Feng; his chief engineer, Jin Long Lin; and Vincent Chan, Guo Feng's marketing and sales director. Wei spoke only Mandarin, so Jin translated into Japanese. The senior designers for LOT-EK and SHoP are Japanese (both with the surname Keisuke) and helped Tolla and Lignano to understand what was going on in English. “Fortunately,” Tolla says, “we had our Keisukes.”
During that first trip, Tolla and Lignano began to take measure of the mammoth changes rolling through Beijing in the run-up to this summer's Olympic Games. “They're tearing down entire parts of town,” Lignano says. “I went there in October two years ago and everything [on the site] was still up. I came back in November and not only was everything down, but they had excavated 20 feet.” On every drive to Guo Feng's headquarters, “you'd see another Rockefeller Center being started,” he says. “This is not a mall outside Atlanta. This is the city of Beijing.”
On the Sanlitun site, Guo Feng gave each team a concrete structure with a set grid, height, and number of floors. The only functional mandates were to provide open spaces for stores and the ability to divide the interior vertically or horizontally into multiple configurations. Around the buildings' frames, the architects were given a 3-meter margin in which to elaborate. “So it was not a skin job,” Lignano says. “It allowed you to really change the volume of the building.”
LOT-EK's concept was to wrap the base building in a lightweight outer frame, like scaffolding, and drape it in blue mesh to resemble a building under construction. Some of the windows spanning the structural bays remain flush with the building, obscured behind the mesh. Other windows punch outward through the mesh, encased in satiny steel frames that look like gigantic ducts, and become articulated billboards.
The idea is surprising only if you've never seen LOTEK's portfolio, which includes a proposal for a library to be built out of old Boeing 737 fuselages and clothing stores built inside shipping containers. They like to reuse familiar but ignored industrial items as architectural modules. “The base of our work is to work with [or, in this case, be influenced by] already existing objects and systems,” Lignano says.
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!””