Processed with VSCOcam with c4 preset
Blaine Brownell Zaha Hadid Architects' 2010 Guangzhou Opera House, in China, features a curved skin of triangular and trapezoidal panels.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a firsthand experience must be worth a thousand pictures. The architectural media sphere is replete with compelling photographs of constructed buildings, and we relish the way in which expertly edited images depict the realization of powerful architectural concepts. Yet architects know that the true success of a project can only be measured in person. Ask any designer about an architectural photograph, and you will receive conjectural answers related their initial impressions. Ask an architect about a building they've visited, however, and you’ll hear definitive responses about its qualities. One such quality concerns material details and their execution—a subject of vigorous discussion among a building’s first-time witnesses and a fundamental measure of architectural achievement. 

I recently visited China on a three-week tour with students from the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture through a research and teaching program called China Lab 2015. There, we studied traditional and contemporary works designed by Chinese and foreign architects, with a focus on material applications. We traveled primarily in southern and central China—Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Nanjing, Ningbo, Shanghai, and Suzhou—documenting buildings with faculty and students from Southeast University, in Nanjing.

Contemporary architecture in China presents a fascinating study in the relationship between conceptual aspirations and material execution for two primary reasons: First, Western architects and designers are inundated with images of provocative buildings in that country, but they are not easily able to visit them. Second, it is rare to find such an extreme range of quality—from construction that completely misses the aspirational mark to material execution that transcends a building's preliminary concepts. 

Processed with VSCOcam with q1 preset
Blaine Brownell Detail of the Guangzhou Opera House's granite cladding, which reveals the construction difficulties of turning a rounded corner.

This broad spectrum invites scrutiny related to the visual depiction of architecture versus its physical reality, as well as increased attention to the transformations now underway in Chinese building design and construction. According to the European Union’s SME Centre, one-third of all buildings constructed in 2011 were built in China—a result whose scale and scope is equivalent, in area, to all the existing living space in the U.K. To keep up with this level of demand, contractors in China have over the last decade accelerated schedules and employed unskilled labor. Only recently has the intensity of this building boom eased, allowing construction practices to gradually become more sophisticated. Still, architects regularly encounter surprises during construction. It is unfortunate to find elements of new buildings in China that reveal the stark disconnect between grandiose ambitions and budgetary limitations. This separation is a familiar challenge to architects, yet the Chinese examples often appear more profound due primarily to the projects' extravagant and highly visible nature. In this first of two articles, I will focus on the underwhelming side of architectural realization in China.

The first type of disappointment is the material miss. Simply put, it is jarring to witness construction that falls far short of initial intentions, as if the project team remained inflexible in their commitment to the original construction plans despite their obvious shortcomings. One example is Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA's Guangzhou Opera House (shown above). Completed in 2010, the performance center is shaped by a concept of river boulders whose edges have been smoothed over time. The building's gracefully rounded forms are clad in triangular granite panels with open joints—an expensive and unforgiving material strategy. The panels are uneven and misaligned in many areas, demonstrating the painful reality that can result when a complex computer model is built with unyielding materials. In addition, the panel joints vary noticeably in width, requiring small, trapezoidal filler pieces to close unanticipated gaps. Installation is partly to blame for the errors, and so is the questionable design strategy to clad gracefully rounded forms with sharply triangulated surfaces. Alternatively, the project team could have specified panels that better accommodate the corner curvature, or have cast the facade in concrete using granite as aggregate.

Processed with VSCOcam with q1 preset
Blaine Brownell Arata Isozaki, Hon. FAIA's 2011 Himalayas Center, in Shanghai.

A similar let-down is Arata Isozaki, Hon. FAIA's Himalayas Center, a mixed-use complex in the Pudong district of Shanghai. The base of the complex consists primarily of a multistory, curvilinear colonnade reminiscent of over-sized versions of banyan tree trunks. The design is similar to Isozaki's 2011 Qatar National Convention Center, in Doha, in which massive concrete tree–like forms are clad in steel panels. However, the walls of the Himalayas Center are unclad. According to Southeast University professor and architect Xiaofeng Han, who once worked for Isozaki, budgetary problems led to the elimination of a finish material that would have provided an appropriately smooth and seamless surface. The result is a crude concrete shell marked with visible joint lines from inconsistently spaced panels. To make things worse, the concrete surface is painted with a metallic finish—apparently an extreme value-engineering substitution for metal panels. As a result, visitors may be more conscious of these monumental walls’ uneven surface texture than of the impressive spatial volumes they frame.

Inside the ground-level arcade at the Himalayas Center.
Blaine Brownell Inside the ground-level arcade at the Himalayas Center.

Another type of construction disparity involves the intentional faking of construction materials and details. Material simulation is not uncommon, as designers familiar with glue-on brick or wood-textured vinyl can attest, but the projects we saw on our tour reveal particularly brazen approaches. One example is faux concrete finishes. Popularized by architects such as Louis Kahn in the 1960s and Tadao Ando, Hon. FAIA, in the ’70s, exposed fair-faced cast-in-place concrete has become a mainstay material of choice for many high-profile projects in China. This approach is meant to symbolize construction authenticity and bravado, purposefully revealing construction joints and form-tie holes as well as an impossibly smooth finish with crisp corners. But it is not a practice to be pursued lightly, as any imperfection in the cast will be painfully revealed.

Blaine Brownell At the Long Museum (West Bund), cast concrete with a surface treatment to disguise blemishes, yet still look like cast concrete.

Several recent public buildings in China—including the local Atelier Deshaus' Long Museum (West Bund) and Perkins+Will’s Natural History Museum, both in Shanghai—make use of an applied concrete finish on the interior walls with the same color and reflectance that one expects of cast-in-place concrete. The concrete walls therefore appear to express their cast surfaces as we expect, but they have actually been doctored post-cure to appear flawless. At times, the surface treatment resembles sponge-painting with the subtle mottling effect one sees in cast concrete. By far the worst offender is gypsum board manipulated to look like cast concrete, complete with construction joints and form-tie holes. Although such a clever lie might be seen as inventive in a modest project, the fact that this application occurs in an expensive and highly public tour de force like the Shanghai Natural History Museum is a surprise. To be clear, the gypsum-board wall occupies only a small portion of the lower levels, a shortcut presumably taken to create a visual extension of an actual concrete wall.

Blaine Brownell Gypsum wallboard constructed to resemble a cast-in-place concrete wall at the Shanghai Natural History Museum.

These examples illustrate the outcomes that can result when great ideas are not fully realized—whether the construction inadequacies are intentionally concealed or left exposed. Moreover, they reveal the disconnect between how these buildings are portrayed in online and print media versus how they are experienced firsthand. And this phenomenon is only growing with the expansion of digital media and its various platforms that promote architecture and design globally. To be fair, other aspects of these projects—as well as other works built in China designed by these same architects—exhibit remarkable material execution that is cause for celebration. The Long Museum and the Shanghai Natural History Museum, for example, both contain impressive feats of structure and facade design. This positive dimension will be the focus of my next article, which will highlight innovative cases of material applications and discuss how architects today are successfully navigating construction opportunities and challenges in China.