Diller Scofidio + Renfro proposal
Courtesy HNA Group Diller Scofidio + Renfro proposal

As Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s (DSR) winning entry in the Hainan Eco-Island Competition shows, architecture is not just about towers anymore. While we continue to cede our center cities to pencil-thin skyscrapers for the equally slimmed down with absurdly fat wallets, and as many cities around the world continue to grow by housing their inhabitants and workers in slabs and blocks that waste energy and stand as scourges of the landscape, we are seeing the possibility of other directions architects could take. The first is one that would take us towards the reuse and re-appropriation of existing buildings. When that is not possible, building with the land, rather than on it, and creating structures that integrate with the complexity of our lives while providing a clear framework that brings us together, rather than isolating us, is the way forward.

I was hesitant in facing the task of judging the Competition as one of its jury members. The client had made an artificial island off the coast of this resort island, which seemed to me an unnecessary bit of terraforming, and its shape smacked of other attempts to impose abstract ideas onto new landscapes: it is a circular island that is meant to contain a protected cruise harbor, so that its final shape, when you see it from the air, will approach the symbol for Yin and Yang. Right now the site is a flat stretch of sand you reach by a bridge from the main island. Soon flanking islands shaped to resemble “auspicious clouds” will join it in the bay off the coast of Hainan’s largest city, Haikou.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro proposal
Courtesy HNA Group Diller Scofidio + Renfro proposal

The jury’s advisor, Vicente Guallart, convinced me that the client’s desire to create a more ecologically sound model for resort development were sincere, and that the island would offer a chance for experimentation and research and development on ideas for how we could create more sustainable communities.

Most of the entries paid lip-service to those notions, some with more sincerity than others, and some with the promise of technologies that would not only help power the island, but also act as visible demonstrations of alternate methods of food and energy production. Most, however, did so in and around clusters of towers and mid-rise buildings, each an isolated container for various inhabitants, workers, and vacationers who would remain separated from parks and water. Even if the underlying technology made sense, the result was still another collection of more or less streamlined boxes (the Morphosis scheme offering the only other partial exception).

Morphosis Architects proposal
Courtesy HNA Group Morphosis Architects proposal

The DSR proposal made an immediate impact on all of us jury members because of the clarity of its form and vision. Instead of dividing up the program into separate units, the firm proposed one single structure that would rise out of and provide a vertical emphasis to the comma-shaped segments that will make up the island. All of the hotels, apartments, and other functions will find their place in this arch as it rises out of the island, creating a single three-dimensional version of what is now a flat artifice of sand. Surrounding the building will be aqua-farms and the kinds of vegetation that are native to this sub-tropical area.

The singularity of the design is its strength, but also leaves some questions open. The relationship between this one building and the cruise port, a connection that for now consists of a long walk through new nature, needs to be clarified. The design shows the various cultural and sport facilities strewn around the island –these either need to come into the main building, or become a spine that connects that structure to the port. Finally, DSR showed the arc as one structure that evokes some of the vacation resorts that French architects designed for beach or ski communities during the 1960s and 1970s, but they also showed how the overall form could allow segments to be built separately to designs by different architects. Would this phasing be more economically feasible and the breakdown of the form more palatable to those might feel overwhelmed by a mega-structure? That remains an open question.

I have long argued for the beauty and logic of what I have called (stealing a phrase from the architect Antoine Predock) “landscrapers.” This design seems to me a perfect illustration of the potential of such structures, which are built with, rather than on the land, unfold its possibilities, and offer a human-made iteration that lets us experience, rather than forget, the natural terrain, to create more sensible, sensitive, and socially integrative structures.

Whether Ecoisland will be built according to even the outlines of the DSR scheme also remains an open question. It may appear too strange and too massive for the client, and the difficulties in preserving a design so dependent on a single vision are, even given the tabula rasa of the island, immense. As a jury member, I can only hope that those involved will have the ability to see it through to completion. Built or un-built, this scheme will serve as model for how we could be building new communities, one that I hope will resonate far beyond the forlorn spit of land now sitting off the shore of Hainan.