Richard Meier’s First Project In China, A Private Club For The Elite Of Shenzhen, Uses New Forms And Materials That Show How Even After 50 Years, The Famed Architect Isn’t Resting On His Laurels.
Fifty years after launching his practice in New York, and nearly 30 years after winning the Pritzker Prize, Richard Meier, FAIA, still hasn’t run out of career ‘firsts’. With his newly opened OCT Shenzhen Clubhouse, a private fitness and social club for the city’s elite, the 78-year-old architect continues to add to that already long list, most notably with ‘first completed project in China’.
The complex consists of two buildings occupying an artificial island on the southern edge of Shenzhen, a waterfront financial center immediately north of Hong Kong. The main clubhouse incorporates lounges, reception rooms, and a gallery; it and an adjacent, freestanding fitness center sit in a bay ringed by a busy cultural and entertainment district.
Knowing the clubhouse was meant to be a quiet oasis, Meier was intent on framing just the right kind of views out to the surrounding water. In walking through the space, sightlines open onto the bay and to certain urban landmarks. As a way to amplify this effect, and to acknowledge the private nature of the club, the building, as seen on initial approach, is entirely opaque, save for a punched opening around the porte cochere.
Anyone familiar with Meier’s earlier work will find the treatment of the entry sequence surprising, not so much for its opacity, but for its irregular prismatic shape. At first blush, it seems as though the man who has done so much to cultivate modernist orthodoxy might have finally sinned against his own tenets. Over the course of his career, Meier has developed his own architectural language, hewing to a strictly defined three-dimensional grid with resulting lines and planes intersecting at 90-degree angles. “The clubhouse is very sculptural,” he confesses, acknowledging the seeming break with his own tradition.
If the design seems aberrant, though, it’s only so on first glance. Redemption is to be found in the geometry. “This was a challenge, since these walls are tilted and in a radial pattern,” explains senior associate Vivian Lee, AIA. Working with project architect Jerome Engelking, the design team was able to three-dimensionally model the phantom structural grid and reconcile the diagonal lines of the clubhouse entry with those of a more orthogonal building. “We could not have done this project without the computer,” Meier concedes. “Not just in terms of drafting, but also working geometries out in the computer.” Whereas earlier projects (borne of pencils, T-squares, and compasses) held more closely to 90-degree grids, this one reconciles oblique angles in perspective.
The commission (and its deep-pocketed client, the OCT Urban Entertainment Investment Co. of Shenzhen) allowed him to experiment with materials, prompting another first. “We’ve done porcelain panels, aluminum panels—just about every kind of panel you can think of,” Meier says, referring to the tiled surfaces that have become a trademark of his work. “But this was the first time we worked with a high-quality Corian panel.” The irregular geometries of the Shenzhen clubhouse posed a problem in creating a regular pattern out of the panels, but the design team adjusted their phantom structural grid with a projective geometry in such a way that the panels, which are in fact, trapezoidal, appear orthogonal to the human eye.
One of the big perks of working with Corian is that individual pieces can be sanded together to form very large seamless units. For Meier, though, the seam is a critical element of his design, since it establishes geometries and parses surfaces into constitutive units. The paneled surface—a signature of his work since 1983, when he completed the High Museum of Art in Atlanta—has become synonymous with his work. “The panels give the space a human scale,” he says.
So, with this new material, the firm needed to first introduce a system of seams that would panelize the Corian. The first seam system is an effectively invisible network of 2-millimeter expansion joints, and the next is a 2-centimeter joint used to express the geometry and to break the large mural surfaces down to a human scale.
When asked about his impressions of working with Corian, Meier emits an approving gasp, then points to the clubhouse interior and says, “Look at that corner!”—leaving the material’s crisp finish to speak for itself. Each panel is custom designed and fit. “The quality of workmanship was really great,” he says. “You can see it in the joints.”
Reflecting on his 50-year practice, Meier acknowledges that the threads he has woven throughout his career make themselves known in the design of the clubhouse, just as in the rest of his portfolio. “Quality of light is so important,” he says. “So much of our work has been on the water, and whether it’s in Shenzhen or on Perry Street in New York, you get this reflection and refraction of light off the water, which I love.”
It is this combination of pulling from the past and still breaking ground that makes the OCT Shenzhen Clubhouse an interesting step in a storied career—which undoubtedly has several firsts remaining.
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