Zaha Hadid Architects' Galaxy Soho in Beijing.
Hufton + Crow Zaha Hadid Architects' Galaxy Soho in Beijing.

I went to a shopping mall. That should not be such an unusual statement this holiday season, except for a few things: I have not actually shopped in a traditional mall for years, the mall was in Beijing, and it was designed by Zaha Hadid. I went there to see the building, Galaxy Soho, rather than to purchase last-minute gifts. And, like a good present, the Galaxy is a goodie wrapped in a particularly slick way.

The Galaxy is actually more than just a shopping mall. It has more than 3.5 million square feet of office space, restaurants and event venues, and shopping spread out over four towers, each 14 stories tall, that ooze together at their bases. It sits along Beijing’s Second Ring, where it joins an almost continual line of such developments that are replacing what remains of the city’s traditional neighborhoods.

The mall inside the Galaxy Soho.
The mall at the Galaxy Soho

That last matter caused some controversy when the building opened in 2012 and received an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Critics excoriated the positive press attention both for not mentioning what was destroyed to make room for the development and for not showing the alien nature of the buildings when you see them from the narrow streets with their low shops and dwellings that still stretch out behind them. Hadid’s office responded that the site had been cleared even before they received the commission and that the buildings were designed to be a response to the other high-rise and mid-rise developments along the Ring, assuming that the neighborhood was doomed to change anyhow.

Certainly, the Galaxy stands very much by itself. While the structures rise out of a shared base on the access road that parallels the Second Ring, so that they appear to pile up out of a continuation of that high-speed automotive geology, their rear faces a park that separates the structures from its neighbors, which now include a few bland hotels and office structures. The main shopping street that connects all of the buildings is located below grade and sends a stream of stores up the interior atria of the towers and toward the restaurants at the top. This is not a contextual building.

Guangzhou Opera House Grand Theater by Zaha Hadid Architects, China, 2010
Iwan Baan The Guangzhou Opera House
Granite and glass facade
Blaine Brownell There are some unfortunate mashups of stone and metal at the the Guangzhou Opera House.

What the Galaxy is, however, is scrumptious. Hadid’s office spent years developing ways of turning their computer-assisted images into structures. Along the way, they produced quite a few clunkers that looked much better onscreen than in reality (the Guangzhou Opera House comes to mind, with its pipes jutting in and out of curves and its stone and metal meeting in awkward mashups). With the Galaxy, the late Dame Zaha, current studio head Patrik Schumacher, and their gang showed that, with enough money and a good client, they could actually build those whiplash curves and sinuous tiers.

Iwan Baan

As you move through the Galaxy, everything flows, curves, slides, and piles up in a manner that leads both your body and your eye on through the complex. The public and semi-public spaces are particularly successful, as their fluidity draws you in and around, while never overwhelming or intimidating you. Details, from coved ceilings and soffits to benches the designers have strewn around so that they resemble small pebbles calved by the undulating mountains around them, resolve the complex geometries and turn them into functional elements.

The overall shapes slide away from definition as well. As you drive and then walk around the Galaxy Soho, you are never quite sure what the shapes are, as the individual elements keep morphing away from a singular form or definition. Hadid claimed that they were based on a viewing of ancient landscape paintings, but they are better at capturing the seductive computer renderings that the “blobist” style has promised us for so long, but has, until now, largely failed to deliver. In the world of “parametricism” (Schumacher’s name for what the firm does), the algorithms on which the designs are based as well as the computer’s ability to drink in data and produce integrated responses, both in a technical and an aesthetic sense, are meant to produce a style of building that affords different uses and views in an integrated manner. The Galaxy does that better than any building I have seen.

Part of the success comes from a visual suppression of function. The stores’ advertising folds under the eaves and behind the glass storefronts, the office floors pile up in a manner that recedes from the eye, and the whole complex breaks down into various connected parts so that you are never fully aware of the presence of those millions of square feet.

Night view of the towers
Iwan Baan Night view of the towers

Thoroughly entranced by this fully resolved building, I walked through the shopping areas and gazed up at the towers, joining crowds who, even on a crisp winter day, seemed to be enjoying the public spaces. Then I hopped in a taxi (without buying anything) and resigned myself to the perpetual traffic jam that is Beijing. As I was sitting there, I looked down from a last peek at the Galaxy Soho to the bumper of the Mercedes-Benz sedan idling next to us, and noticed the way that its hood gathered into layers of curves dipping down below its front grille. There was Hadid’s architecture in automotive miniature. The car was as slick, resolved, and expensive as the building. This is the world to which computer-assisted architecture has finally gained entry, that of a global flow of goods, ideas, people, and capital, oozing around the generic metropolis to provide moments of high-performance high style.