The centerpiece of an emerging Central Business District in the Chinese city of Dalian, Coop Himmelb(l)au's new conference center brings parametric design to the shore of Korea Bay.
China is different. Over the last decade, the country has emerged as architecture’s pre-eminent client-state because of a confluence of factors above and beyond the needs of 1.3 billion people who have been underhoused and underserved by previous regimes. In the new China, leaders and citizens alike want to show that the country has emerged as a first-world nation. With major and minor cities competing against each other for visibility, status, and business, politicians have enlisted architecture as a tool of both economic progress and civic branding. Architects are being imported like Ferraris as the new status symbols of cities emerging on the world stage.
Dalian, a port city at the tip of Liaodong Peninsula situated on Korea Bay, across from North Korea, is striving for first-tier status. On a visit to Munich several years ago, Dalian’s mayor saw the BMW headquarters by the Vienna firm Coop Himmelb(l)au: Its cornerstone is a monumental spinning ramp that looks like a hurricane touching ground. The mayor wanted one.
But its designer, Wolf Prix, Hon. FAIA, does not copy himself and has never designed dynamism as a pre-fabricated cliché. The characteristic flows of his architecture—its sense of movement within a tensed matrix of structure, space, and surface—instead emerges from a nonlinear design process in which a field of perceived forces pushes and pulls form and space in ways that yield architectural complexity.
At first the program for the center called for a hotel with a conference center to be used as the summer Davos World Economic Forum, but the hotel dropped out of the brief to be replaced with a 1,600-seat opera house—with all facilities under one big tent. The program of a shell covering several cultural venues is a building type common to, and popular in, China. In Dalian, the chosen site sat at the intersection of two new boulevards in an emerging Central Business District (CBD), now galloping tower by tower across land reclaimed from the sea. As in many of China’s cities, the new CBD in Dalian would focus on this new cultural centerpiece—conceived and celebrated as a stand-alone architectural event. Throughout China, landmark buildings are news items plastered on posters advertising their host cities.
Coop Himmelb(l)au, however, is not in the postcard business. Prix started tenting the program, which also included a theater and exhibition center, within a roughly triangular shell rising like an off-centered cone that accommodates the planned high-rise hotel. Unlike other architects whose originary shapes start with Euclidean geometry, Prix was fitting the shell to a program whose elements stretched and deformed what was already a hybrid triangular-conical shape. “I took care not to create a one-liner corporate building,” Prix says. When the hotel dropped out in favor of the opera house, “We suppressed the peak, and the new height limit provoked pushing out the conference spaces beyond the shell, creating a sculptural shape and a new geometry.”
Unlike some architects who work from the façade in, and others who work from the plan out, Prix designs in a reiterative process that alternately tenses and relaxes the shell, creating surfaces curving in two directions. Precedent reaches back decades to his Open House in Malibu, a project where, he says, “You have the feeling the inside pushes on the skin,” and to Oscar Niemeyer’s own house outside Rio de Janeiro, “where the roof doesn’t follow the ground plan, and the skin doesn’t follow the structure.” In Dalian, the building’s aluminum skins define the volume, but it behaves independently of structure. The structure—a hybrid of space frames, columns, and beams joined in complex knots—plays a recessive role without structuring the experience. Structure is neither dominant nor determinant.
Striving for a building that would generate more energy than it consumes, the rooftop is lined with photovoltaic panels, and the building is cooled with seawater, with the heat exchanges taking place in the basement. To add further energy savings, the architect operated on the shell. Prix combines a metal skin on the outside with a glass skin on the inside to create a hybrid membrane that responds to different functions. Using a parametric program, the architects created window openings that, like a brise-soleil, control sun exposure while admitting natural light. A system of louvers is angled to receive and channel prevailing winds. “We guide streams of air through the building by openings in the façade. A new aesthetic emerged from energy considerations,” Prix says. The architects set the dimensional parameters of the paneled aluminum cladding, and the program triangulates the skin into an elegant quilt of differently sized facets. One densely punctured roof façade, called “the chandelier,” emits a golden environmental glow inside as it channels sunlight.
With conferences and performances for up to 6,000 people at a time, the building has to accommodate the population of a small town, and Prix approached the design for the spaces between the conference rooms and performance spaces urbanistically, conceiving the gaps as streets, avenues, and plazas, complete with bridges, ramps, stairways, and dead-ends—as in a real town. A low, wide entrance compresses space as visitors enter into the main spatial event, a voluminous plaza that reveals a delirious interior landscape of Piranesian complexity, with forms that warp and spaces that bend out of sight. Space and form are inextricably interlocked in what Prix’s compatriot architect R.M. Schindler in pre-World War II Los Angeles used to call space/form—though Prix’s space/forms behave with a liquidity made possible by computational intelligence. “Liquid, fluid, dynamic, continuous spaces are the new space of our century,” Prix says.
He achieves the complexity through what he calls an “open system of design,” and works with several computer programs—not one—and many geometries—not a single one—during an iterative process of trial and error. “We always introduce mistakes, unintentionally,” Prix says. “Chance occurrences break the systematic ordering of authoritarian systems. I believe that parametric design is a closed system, and that trial and error factored into computerized systems opens them and yields new shapes and ideas.”
At Dalian, and in other projects such as BMW Munich and the monumental new Busan Cinema Center in South Korea, Prix develops the buildings as omnidirectional force fields that deform shapes inside and out: “They are not single-surface buildings that follow a regular geometry,” he says. “Trial and error in an open system generates a lot of geometries.”
Still, the public spaces are “complex without being complicated,” Prix says, and the interior is easy to navigate, with the opera house at the center and conference areas to the left and right. The space is not just the residual space leftover from the conference rooms and theaters, but spaces shaped as a positive: “Our design method is always going in a feedback loop,” he says. “We design back and forth, constantly checking out optimal solutions, to create a synergy between outside and inside. It’s not function follows form, or form function, but how each shapes the other dynamically.”
Whereas in his early work, Prix designed with linear elements, in his more recent, monumentally scaled work, he shapes spaces with volumes deformed in a three-dimensional vectorial field, creating hyperbolic surfaces. Prix has succeeded in scaling up from boutique dimensions to the largest of monuments, with no decrease in intensity.
Why does the Dalian International Conference Center have such an iconic presence, when the towers around it do not? “I think it’s because of the new geometry,” Prix says. “We use geometries from sources other than the bottom line or the program, and the buildings take on their own life.”