Posts tagged with "China":

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Digitally tour Zaha Hadid Architect's 7.5-million-square-foot airport near Beijing

Zaha Hadid Architect’s sprawling Beijing Daxing International Airport (PKX) in Daxing is nearly complete. Design lovers can get a preliminary peek inside of China’s largest, otherworldly terminal, and ZHA's first airport project, thanks to news organization CGTN, which produced a 360-degree walkthrough of the shiny new space. Slated to open in late September, the 7.5-million-square-foot structure is expected to take on upwards of 45 million passengers a year. Within six years, it’s projected that the facility will handle 72 million people. Aiming to accommodate up to 630,000 flights per year across four runways, PKX hopes to relieve traffic from the Beijing Capital International Airport, a 2008 structure on the opposite end of the city, designed by Foster + Partners. According to CGTN, a phased plan will transfer several flight operations from the existing airport to PKX at the southern tip of Daxing. Based on initial visuals, visitors can get a sense of how the throngs of passengers might flow through the airport’s unique layout. ZHA created a single structure with a six-pier radial design—as they call it—that features a core transfer and check-in space infused with natural light thanks to large windows and several skylights. The late Hadid’s signature slick and sweeping white ceilings, as well as curvaceous walls, are evident in CGTN’s insider photography. From above, the architecture appears web-like, and narrow skylights extend from the central public area out to the edge of the terminal legs.  AN will report further details on the design of PKX upon its opening on September 30th.
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World’s first cross-country cable car will link Russia and China

The Blagoveshchensk–Heihe Cable Car, designed by Dutch-firm UNstudio, will be the first-ever cross-border cable car. The project will be built across the Amur River allowing passengers to easily move between Russia and China. The Blagoveshchensk–Heihe Cable Car includes two international lines and four cabins, and each car will have the capacity to carry 60 passengers plus luggage. The total trip will take approximately seven-and-a-half minutes total, while actual travel time from station-to-station will be three-and-a-half minutes. The project is backed by Strelka KB, a Russian-based urban-planning and strategy consultancy. Following a vision round involving 12 practices, UNstudio was selected as the winning team from a competition to design the cross-border cable car. Strelka KB was also responsible for developing the economic and functional model of the cable car terminal. UNstudio has also designed the terminal station in the city of Blagoveshchensk, Russia while the architect of the station in Heihe, China has yet to be announced. The terminal is designed to reference the historic connection between the two cities that are separated by the Amur River. When the river ices over in the winter, it has historically become a link that supports trade, commerce, and social relationships between the otherwise unconnected areas.  The building will feature views of both cities, as a “beacon” for joint prosperity. The public roof terrace will overlook the river towards Heihe, and framed views of Blagoveshchensk greet passengers at the arrival platform. Likening the design to an “air bridge,” Ben van Berkel, founder and principal architect of UNStudio, stated "This context provided rich inspiration for the Blagoveshchensk terminal station, which not only responds to its immediate urban location, but also becomes an expression of cultural identity and a podium for the intermingling of cultures." Cable cars have recently become more popular as a transportation solution. Van Berkel believes that these systems, “provide a new form of public transport that is sustainable, extremely fast, reliable and efficient.” In Oakland, BIG has proposed gondola-like cars to connect the Oakland A’s stadium to public transportation. Before winning the Blagoveshchensk–Heihe competition, UNstudio proposed two other designs for cable car systems in Gothenburg and Amsterdam.
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Coop Himmelb(l)au and Snøhetta win twin competitions in Xingtai, China

Who says the post–Guggenheim Bilbao era of bombastic, sculptural buildings is over? The spirit of the ’00s lives on in the results of twin competitions for a pair of large cultural buildings in Xingtai, a city of more than one million people in northern China. Coop Himmelb(l)au's winning design for the Xingtai Science and Technology Museum resembles a daring cantilevered sandwich, while Snøhetta went with a somewhat more subdued design for the Xingtai Grand Theatre. The news was announced last week by the China Building Centre (CBC), the group that organized the competition. Himmelb(l)au’s design includes a lot of the firm’s signature moves—a soaring cantilevered roof, undulating surfaces, rippling skins, and colliding geometries—but the scheme bears more than a passing resemblance to other layered rectangular buildings that band a public landscape in between two thickened slabs. The Xingtai renderings call to mind Mecanoo’s recently completed National Kaohsiung Centre for the Arts and OMA’s never-built Agadir Convention Center. It looks like this sandwich will have more of a filling than the Mecanoo building, though—Himmelb(l)au’s renderings show the middle as lush, rolling parkland. Snøhetta’s design goes for fewer formal gymnastics than Himmelb(l)au’s but still features a bit of flash. Its main component appears to be a long curved plaza that turns into a ramp that follows the twist of a shimmering facade behind which a soaring atrium awaits visitors. The organizers have not yet announced a timeline for construction.
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Details emerge on the architecture of China's Uighur re-education camps

A chilling news documentary released by VICE News Tonight late last month highlighted the mystery behind China’s Uighur people, a minority Muslim group that’s been disappearing under the cover of night. The United Nations believes at least one million members of this community are being detained in "re-education camps" around the Xinjiang province in northwestern China, and their children are being taken to state-run orphanages—renamed “kindergartens”—where they’re indoctrinated into Chinese culture and customs.  Earlier this month, 22 countries sent a joint letter to the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights urging China to stop the mass detention and allow UN officials to investigate. According to government officials in Beijing, these camps have been created to curb Islamic extremism and ensure the safety of the Chinese people. Other reports have noted allegations of torture.  VICE News Tonight went undercover in Xinjiang to capture the dystopian world that’s been set up to control locals through a massive network of surveillance infrastructure and constant policing. The reporters even got footage of eight Uighur men being taken away after midnight in total silence. While it seems most people within Xinjiang know about these Uighur holding facilities, they don’t exactly know where they are located. So VICE News Tonight’s Isobel Yeung and her crew followed Google Maps and a series of coordinates to find the internment architecture that’s been both built and adapted for “vocational training” of the Uighur people. AN spoke with Yeung over email about her experience in Xinjiang and what her team uncovered about the Uighur’s plight during the production of They Come for Us at Night: Inside China's Hidden War on Uighurs, which premiered on VICE News Tonight on HBO on June 27th.  AN: What was your initial reaction to all the security infrastructure and policing set up in Kashgar?  IY: It’s a really intense set-up. There are surveillance cameras every few meters, facial recognition cameras, full-body scans, facial and iris scans, groups of armored police roaming the streets with big spiky clubs, police cars and armored trucks patrolling the streets… It’s unnerving and chilling to be in.  Did you notice how other Uighurs or Chinese people approached these interactions? It’s all become eerily normal for the people living there. I asked one Uighur woman who had just had her phone scanned and been strip-searched while entering a public space how she could handle being constantly treated as a security threat. She just shrugged and told me that she’d got used to nothing making sense anymore.  The documentary showed the rows of surveillance lights at the Urumqi bazaar. Were there other spaces in which you were overwhelmed by the number of cameras? Cameras were everywhere. Only when I was in the safety of my hotel room did I feel like I wasn’t being watched (and even then, we didn’t know if they’d bugged our rooms). In public spaces where there are likely to be gatherings, or on the front of public buildings like schools, hospitals, and markets there were more. Around any mosque there were clusters.  Can you explain the spatial context of the re-education campus you saw in Kashgar?  From AN: Yeung referred us to University of British Columbia law student Shawn Zhang and his work completed over the last few months pulling up satellite imagery of the camps throughout Xinjiang. See them all here Did anyone in the group of former detainees you spoke with in Istanbul talk about the architecture of the camps and their layout?  Over the course of six months, we spoke to many people who had spent time in the camps—in Istanbul, the US, and elsewhere in Europe. Some of them had been in detention centers that had been converted into camps, others had been in newly erected camps. One woman told us that there were many cells, with around 20 people per cell, and that interrogation and isolation cells were underground. Many of them spoke of the sounds they heard such as people arriving in the night, screams from other cells, people being beaten, chains dragging, and endless propaganda songs. Many of them said that there were cameras inside the rooms and cells, so they were being watched the whole time. This made it difficult to communicate with each other. They talked about having to make their beds with military perfection and about having to sit with their feet crossed, facing the front for hours on end while they were taught Chinese law. Can you explain the spatial context of the kindergartens in Hotan?  They were mostly in the outskirts of town often in run-down neighborhoods quite far from the city center. They look somewhat out of place given their surroundings. In your opinion, what is the architecture of the large kindergartens communicating to both the children, the Uighur adults, and the rest of the Chinese public?  These buildings look like brightly colored, garish castles. There are Mickey Mouse’s painted on the walls and bright patterns on the ground. They’re clearly designed with children in mind. Several local Han Chinese adults told us that these are examples of how the Chinese government is looking after Uighur children, which I think is the impression they’re trying to give. But they’re also heavily fortified with big barbed wire fencing, high brick walls, and guards at the entrance.  Did anyone discuss with you the programming within the schools and whether it was similar or drastically different than what normal Chinese schools look like?  No one really discussed the programming. One young Uighur child told me that they have “ethics” classes and Han Chinese classes and written on the front of one of the kindergartens are slogans emphasizing that ‘ethnic unity’ must be taught and the Chinese language must be spoken. So that’s clearly a big focus for these kids. 
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In Conversation: OPEN Architecture

For Li Hu and Huang Wenjing, practicing architecture in China is a study of locality. As the founders of OPEN Architecture, the pair have been responsible for typology-bending projects across the country, from the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) Dune Art Museum that’s buried into China’s Gold Coast to the expansive Garden School in Beijing’s Fangshan District. Their work is steeped in nature and simplicity, no matter whether the building sits in an urban or rural environment. Eleven years into its practice, OPEN is emerging as a global force for design that’s deeply rooted in its location. AN Interior’s executive editor Matt Shaw spoke with Hu about OPEN’s latest projects and what it looks like to work in China today. AN Interior: I see a clear influence of Steven Holl in your early work, from the soft edges of your buildings to the way you deal with fenestration. It seems that recently some of your work has started to depart from this style, favoring the use of more organic forms. Li Hu: I started working on projects in China in 2003 for Steven Holl’s office. I worked with him for ten years, and five of these years as a partner. I worked on several well-known American projects like the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri; the Visual Arts Building for the University of Iowa School of Art; and the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C. During my time with Steven Holl, my wife and now partner, Wenjing, was an associate at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, a much larger, more organized, traditional firm. Steven definitely has a big influence on our work. Actually, in how we work, not necessarily on the language. I think what underlines our work, beneath the surface, is our focus on humans. So much of architecture today is about form and what the end result will look like in photos, but architecture really is about life. Steven’s biggest influence on us was his constantly driven approach to architecture, and that every project at the beginning was just a concept. Read the full story on our interiors and design site, aninteriormag.com.  
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UCCA Dune Museum burrows into a Chinese beach

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On a beach in northern China, light cannons emerge from the tops of a dune, hinting at a structure buried beneath the sand like a lost Courbusian villa. But the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art Dune Museum (UCCA Dune) is neither lost nor buried, but carved into the sands of Bohai Bay by the Beijing-based firm OPEN Architecture.
  • Facade Manufacturers & Installers South Lion Establish Group (CurtainWall Manufacturer and Installer)
  • Architect OPEN Architecture
  • Facade Consultant CABR Technology Co., Ltd.
  • Location Qinhuangdao, China
  • Date of Completion 2018
  • System Burrowed concrete shell
  • Products Silent Gliss International Sunshades
Inspired by children digging in the sand, the building is defined by a series of interconnected organic spaces that seem scooped from the ground. There’s a raw, handcrafted feel to the rooms because they are, in fact, crafted by hand. Local workers and former shipbuilders shaped the complex geometries of the museum’s concrete shell using formwork made from small linear strips of wood, and other, more elastic materials. The architects deliberately retained the rough texture left by the formwork, allowing traces of the building’s construction to be felt and seen. Natural light from generous light wells fills the central gallery, casting shadows that accentuate the interior’s rough concrete texture. Creating this handmade aesthetic required some technological support. The architects and structural engineers shared digital models to optimize the building’s form and calculate the thickness of the concrete walls. “Fine-tuning this geometry was a back and forth process between structure and architecture,” notes founding partner Li Hu. Even with these calculations, the realities of the unusual site required the architects to adapt their design in the field, simplifying things and changing details like the enormous opening that faces out toward the sky and sea, which could only be installed from the inside rather from without, as had been initially planned. These field adjustments were challenging, “but on the other hand,” Hu says, “they were also the sources of great excitement, as they pushed for innovation and improvisation, which lead to unexpected results.”
A sense of craftsmanship carries through the entire building, which features custom furniture and fenestration—all made by hand. The final element of the enclosure is, of course, the dune itself. As a green—or rather, brown—roof, the sand improves the building’s performance by dramatically reducing the energy required to cool it during the summer. But as the dune protects the building, so too does the building protect the vulnerable coastal ecosystem. The presence of the museum ensures the preservation of the dunes, from large oceanside real estate developments.
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Potential tile tariffs drive a wedge between distributors and designers

Seizing on the momentum generated by the Trump administration’s timber and steel tariffs, a coalition of tile manufacturers is lobbying the U.S. government to impose tariffs of over 400 percent on Chinese-supplied ceramic tiles. While the approval of new duties could lift domestic producers, some design industry professionals are pushing back. On April 10, eight U.S. ceramic tile producers, all members of the Tile Council of North America, successfully petitioned the Department of Commerce (DOC) to launch an investigation into China’s practice of tile dumping. That group, collected under the name "Coalition for Fair Trade in Ceramic Tile," included American Wonder Porcelain, Florida Tile, Inc., Crossville, Inc., Florim USA, Dal-Tile Corporation, Landmark Ceramics, Del Conca USA, Inc., and StonePeak Ceramics. The coalition claims that the Chinese government is subsidizing the production of ceramic tiles to below-market-rate prices (or even below production costs) to artificially crowd out the competition, and the group is asking that the DOC impose retaliatory penalties on Chinese manufacturers to level the playing field. To avoid confusion over what is and is not a tile, the coalition has issued a blanket request pertaining to any tile-like product, no matter the use, thickness, or design, for pieces up to five-feet-by-fifteen-feet. The scope of the complaint also includes tile originating in China and modified— beveled, painted, or refined in any way—in the United States. In response, the newly-formed Ceramic Tile Alliance (CTA), a group of designers, retailers, and distributors, has launched a petition against imposing new tariffs on Chinese tile. The group argues that doing so would hurt the long-term health of the U.S. ceramics industry to the benefit of domestic manufacturers, that architects and interior designers would lose valuable connections that they’ve cultivated with international artisans, and that retailers would only be able to offer a limited selection. Additionally, the CTA alleges that showrooms would need to renovate their displays, some of them larger wall and floor pieces, to reflect that certain products would be no longer available. Overall, the CTA estimates that “thousands” of jobs could be lost as distributors and retailers would be forced out of business by higher prices and restricted supplies. The United States International Trade Commission (ITC) will issue a preliminary injury determination by May 27. If the ITC and DOC find in favor of the coalition, the duties could be imposed as early as the beginning of next May.
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How Baidu Maps turns location data into 3-D cityscapes—and big profits

Level 3, number 203. Turn right 10 feet. Go straight for 15 feet. The best way to experience data's strong grip on everyday life in China is to open up Baidu Maps, a mapping app by China’s biggest search engine company, and walk around a shopping mall for one afternoon. Inside the building, a network of Bluetooth beacons, Wi-Fi modems, and satellites from a global navigation satellite system whir and ping through the air and the ionosphere to determine your precise location. The map on the Baidu app tilts to reveal an elaborately modeled 3-D cityscape.

The resolution of Baidu Maps is stunning: Entire cities are modeled in 3-D. Within public buildings, the floorplan of each building level is precisely mapped. As I stand inside the Taikoo Hui Mall in the city of Guangzhou, China, I search for a store within the mall. Baidu Maps reveals which level the store is on and how many meters I need to walk. Strolling through the mall with the app tracking my location with a blue dot on the screen, life starts to feel like a virtual reality experience. The difference between the map's 3-D model and the reality beneath my feet is smaller than ever. The 3-D model makes an uncanny loop: Virtual models were used by architects and designers to design these spaces, which now unfold on a messy plane between real space and screen space.

China now has its own tech giants—Alibaba, JD.com, Tencent Holdings, and Baidu—homegrown behind the Great Firewall of China. Like their American counterparts, these companies have managed to surveil their users and extract valuable data to create new products and features. Baidu began as a search engine, but has now branched out into autonomous driving, and therefore, maps. The intricacy of its 3-D visualizations is the result of over 600 million users consulting the app for navigation every day or using apps that rely on Baidu Maps in the background, such as weather apps that rely on its geolocation features.

The tech company, like its counterparts such as Google, take advantage of multiple features available in smartphones. Smartphones possess the ability to determine users’ positions by communicating with an array of satellites such as GPS (Global Positioning Service); GLONASS, Russia’s version of GPS; or BeiDou, China’s satellite navigation system. Such satellite systems are public infrastructures created by American, Russian, and Chinese governments, respectively, that enable our phones to determine users’ precise longitude and latitude coordinates. The majority of apps and services on smartphones rely on location services, from food delivery to restaurant reviews. However, satellite navigation systems are still imprecise—they are often a few meters off, with anything from the weather to tall buildings affecting accuracy.

However, smartphones contain more than satellite signal receiver chips. A slew of other sensors, such as accelerometers, light sensors, and magnets are embedded in the average smartphone. In 2015, Baidu invested $10 million in IndoorAtlas, a Silicon Valley startup that specializes in indoor mapping. The company's technology is at the forefront of magnetic positioning, which allows indoor maps at 1-meter accuracy to be created simply by using an average smartphone. This technology relies on the Earth's geomagnetic field and the magnets in smartphones. By factoring in the unique magnetic "fingerprint" of each building based on the composition of its materials, such as steel, a building's floor plan can be mapped out without any data provided by the architect. However, this strategy requires user data at scale; multiple user paths need to be recorded and averaged out to account for any anomalies. Gathering large amounts of data from users becomes an imperative.

Floorplans aside, magnetic positioning is not the only dimension of user location data collection that allows data to become a spatial model. As people drive, bike, and walk, each user generates a spatial "trace" that also has velocity data attached to it. Through such data, information about the type of path can be derived: Is it a street, a sidewalk, or a highway? This information becomes increasingly useful in improving the accuracy of Baidu Maps itself, as well as Baidu's autonomous vehicle projects.

The detailed 3-D city models on Baidu Maps offer data that urban designers dream of, but such models only serve Baidu's interests. Satellite navigation system accuracy deteriorates in urban canyons, due to skyscrapers and building density, obscuring satellites from the receiver chip. These inaccuracies are problematic for autonomous vehicles, given the "safety critical" nature of self-driving cars. Baidu's 3-D maps are not just an aesthetic “wow factor” but also a feature that addresses positioning inaccuracies. By using 3-D models to factor in the sizes and shapes of building envelopes, inaccuracies in longitude and latitude coordinates can be corrected.

Much of this research has been a race between U.S. and Chinese companies in the quest to build self-driving cars. While some 3-D models come from city planning data, in China's ever-changing urban landscape, satellite data has proved far more helpful in generating 3-D building models. Similar to Google's 3-D-generated buildings, a combination of shadow analysis, satellite imagery, and street view have proved essential for automatically creating 3-D building models rather than the manual task of user-generated, uploaded buildings or relying on city surveyors for the most recent and accurate building dimensions.

None of this data is available to the people who design cities or buildings. Both Baidu and Google have End User License Agreements (EULAs) that restrict where their data can be used, and emphasize that such data has to be used within Baidu or Google apps. Some data is made available for computer scientists and self-driving car researchers, such as Baidu's Research Open-Access Dataset (BROAD) training data sets. Most designers have to rely on free, open-source data such as Open Street Maps, a Wikipedia-like alternative to Baidu and Google Maps. By walling off valuable data that could help urban planning, tech companies are gaining a foothold and control over the reality of material life: they have more valuable insights into transport networks and the movements of people than urban designers do. It's no surprise then, that both Baidu and Google are making forays into piloting smart cities like Toronto’s Quayside or Shanghai's Baoshan District, and gaining even greater control over urban space. No doubt, urban planning and architecture are becoming increasingly automated and privately controlled in the realm of computer scientists rather than designers.

In Shoshana Zuboff's 2019 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, she examines how tech companies throughout the world are employing surveillance and data extraction methods to turn users into free laborers. Our “behavioral surplus,” as she terms it, becomes transformed into products that are highly lucrative for these companies, and feature proprietary, walled-off data that ordinary users cannot access, even though their labor has helped create these products. These products are also marketed as “predictive,” which feeds the desires of companies that hope to anticipate users’ behavior—companies that see users only as targets of advertising.

Over the past several years, American rhetoric surrounding the Chinese “surveillance state” has reached fever pitch. But while China is perceived to be a single-party communist country with state-owned enterprises that do its bidding, the truth is, since the 1990s, much of the country’s emphasis has been on private growth. Baidu is a private company, not a state-owned enterprise. Companies like Baidu have majority investment from global companies, including many U.S.-based funds like T. Rowe Price, Vanguard, and BlackRock. As China's economy slows down, the government is increasingly pressured to play by the rules of the global capitalist book and offer greater freedom to private companies alongside less interference from the government. However, private companies often contract with the government to create surveillance measures used across the country.

The rhetoric about the dangers of Chinese state surveillance obfuscates what is also happening in American homes—literally. As Google unveils home assistants that interface with other “smart” appliances, and Google Maps installed on mobile phones tracks user locations, surveillance becomes ubiquitous. Based on your location data, appliances can turn on as you enter your home, and advertisements for milk from your smart fridge can pop up as you walk by the grocery stores. Third-party data provider companies also tap into geolocation data, and combined with the use of smart objects like smart TVs, toasters, and fridges, it's easy to see why the future might be filled with such scenarios. Indeed, if you own certain smart appliances, Google probably knows what the inside of your home is like. In 2018, iRobot, the maker of the Roomba vacuum, announced that it was partnering with Google to improve the indoor mapping of homes, and now setting up a Roomba with Google Home has never been easier. Big tech companies in the U.S. would like us to believe that surveillance is worse elsewhere, when really, surveillance capitalism is a global condition.

Over the past 30 years, cities around the world have been the locus of enormous economic growth and corresponding increases in inequality. Metropolitan areas with tech-driven economies, such as the Shenzhen-Guangzhou-Hong Kong corridor and the Greater Bay Area, are home to some of the largest tech companies in the world. They are also home to some of the most advanced forms of technological urbanism: While Baidu may not have every single business mapped in rural China, it certainly has the listing of every shop in every mall of Guangzhou.

The overlap between cities as beacons of capital and as spaces where surveillance is ubiquitous is no coincidence. As Google’s parent company, Alphabet, makes moves to build cities and as Baidu aggressively pursues autonomous driving, data about a place, the people who live there, and their daily movements is increasingly crucial to the project of optimizing the city and creating new products, which in turn generates more wealth and more inequality. Places like San Francisco and Shenzhen are well-mapped by large tech companies but harbor some of the worst income gaps in the world.

The "smart city" urbanism enabled by surveillance and ubiquitous data collection is no different from other forms of development that erode affordable housing and public space. Reclaiming our cities in this digital age is not just about reclaiming physical space. We must also reclaim our data.

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Chinese blogger pays penalty after claiming ZHA complex has bad feng shui

Chinese real estate developer SOHO China has won a 200,000 yuan—nearly $30,000—libel case against a blogger who wrote that the Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA)-designed Wangjing SOHO was bringing bad luck to its tenants. In November of last year, a blog run by Zhuhai Shengun Network Technology wrote that the triple-building office complex in Beijing had bad feng shui. Among the article’s many claims is that the pebble-shaped buildings looked like “pig kidneys” and that they were a “Waterloo” for the companies working within. The post, which was viewed over 100,000 times before being deleted from messaging platform WeChat, went on to say that larger companies should flee the Wangjing SOHO unless they wanted their growth to slow. On April 10, a Beijing district court ordered that the blog operator pay $29,796 and apologize to SOHO China. In its verdict, the court ruled that the article “applies superstition to Wangjing Soho building, which institutes defamation,” according to the South China Morning Post. The blog itself, S Shengunju S, was deleted in November along with 9,800 other accounts as part of a larger social media post and blog purge by the Chinese government. Feng shui is an ancient practice of precisely orienting buildings and their interiors to invite in energy, wealth, and prosperity that still has many modern adherents all over the world. However, regardless of whether the feng shui of the 5.4 million-square-foot Wangjing SOHO is off or not, the complex has been a success by more than one measure; after the complex’s design was “stolen” in 2013, it went on to win several awards and has a 98 percent occupancy rate.
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“Great” construction projects in America? Starchitects say: look elsewhere


A strange thing has been happening at some public architecture talks lately, perhaps you’ve noticed. Over the course of otherwise hopeful and positive discussions covering amazing new projects from around the globe, at some point, usually toward the end of a talk, conversation turns to the current state of American building and infrastructure. And, it's safe to say, people are not happy. Sometimes, the presenter will rip off the bandaid, as Thom Mayne of Morphosis did at a recent Facades+  talk in Los Angeles, when he said, “I hate to be negative, but there’s not much going on in this country architecturally,” before adding, “[But] if you look at architecture around the world, it’s startling…It’s unbelievable, the research [taking place]—I just came back from Shenzhen [China] and I’m looking around [at the skyline] there wondering ‘is there anything left for me to do?’” Other times, a perplexed-sounding audience member will ask what it seems many in attendance had been pondering privately: “Why can’t we build like this here?” 

 It’s a debilitating question that really only has one answer. And although, even when speaking bluntly, everyone tries their best to truth-tell without offending, but the writing is right on the projection screen—building big in America simply isn’t what it used to be, and we don’t know what to do about it.

 “The United States is falling behind,” architect Moshe Safdie explained to a packed room during a recent keynote talk at Palm Springs Modernism Week when asked why the inventive array of projects he had just presented are mostly located outside the United States. “Around the world, the competition [for bold infrastructure] doesn’t stop,” he said, half-jokingly, “until you land at Kennedy or LAX.” 

 To prove his point, Safdie pointed out further that although the Hudson Yards development in New York City is the largest privately-led construction project in the country by square footage, it is easily dwarfed in terms of vision by countless projects around the globe of a similar or larger size. 

 He’s right. Hudson Yards is a dime a dozen as far as global mega-projects are concerned. Safdie’s own Raffles City development in Chongqing, China, for example, might be roughly two-thirds the size of Hudson Yards, but it is going up in less than one-third the time and is almost entirely designed by a single architecture firm—Safdie Architects—with P&T Group International Ltd. serving as architect of record. Safdie’s own portfolio of recent work shows that while New York occasionally will build an elevated billionaire citadel, Chongqing, Singapore, and other cities have tasked his office with erecting bold new structures designed for working people and the public at large, all without sacrificing design quality. 

 Safdie explained that one possible reason why American projects no longer lead the world in terms of size or scale might be due to a “lack of urban initiative,” the type of sustained and calculated political and managerial energy necessary for bringing to life the types of large-scale and lasting projects that have transformed other countries around the world in recent decades. 

It’s a sentiment echoed by Rem Koolhaas, who, when recently asked about the prevalence of NIMBYism in America, explained, “I think you can divide the world into one part that is eager to change and doesn’t have hesitations about things changing, and another part that is totally nervous about change and actually aspires to a kind of stability.” Koolhaas added, “As an architect, every one of your efforts is impacted by this. In the end, however, architecture is always controversial because it proposes to make things different than they are.”

 Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in the realm of high-speed rail (HSR), where American decision makers across all levels of government have persisted in remaining tethered to auto-centric planning, condemning the nation to antiquated transportation for at least another generation. A recent article in The New York Times covering the ongoing debacle with California’s tragic HSR project, for example, brings this condition into sharp relief with the following line: “California’s High-Speed Rail Authority…was established 23 years ago. During that time China has built 16,000 miles of high-speed rail.”

 America has built none. But America’s last-place finish doesn’t end with rail or with deteriorating airports; it includes city-building, too, as Safdie pointed out. Much of America is suffering from some form of housing crisis, whether it’s so-called Rust Belt cities struggling to retain residents or coastal cities that can’t figure out how and where to build new housing fast enough. While American cities have doubled-down on onerous building restrictions and lengthy bureaucratic reviews, politically polarized state and federal governments have worked at cross purposes, too, failing to enact bold plans and avoiding future-oriented thinking at almost all costs. The overarching legacy of redlining, racial segregation, and income inequality has placed a stranglehold over American cities, as well, contributing to intense gentrification when development does occur and debilitating displacement when it doesn’t. Over the last decade, it has become clear that America's public health, land-use, and transportation policies are all woefully out of whack, and the result is stifling the abilities of a generation of well-trained architects and engineers eager to build a better nation. Meanwhile, the world’s urbanizing areas have embraced building vertically, have expanded transit of all sorts, and have worked to enact bold planning initiatives that over a generation have remade the face of global urbanism in the name of interconnectedness, density, and place-making.

 In Europe, for example, France is currently enacting its “Le Grand Paris” plan, a vision that will stitch together the Paris city center with its inner and outer ring suburbs to bring together an urban region of 10 million inhabitants. The plan includes a €30 billion public transit expansion initiative that will create a network of regional transit routes connecting suburbs with one another as well as sizable new investments in social housing, parks, and other equity-minded initiatives.

 But it’s not just Europe. 

 Cairo, Egypt, is building a new $45 billion capital city that, when completed, will become the largest purpose-built capital city by population in the world.

 In India, the country’s largest infrastructure project, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, aims to connect the nation’s political and economic capitals with a 900-mile long conurbation made up of 24 urban “nodes.” The plan aims to urbanize 14 percent of India’s population—180 million people—over the next 30 years and will take $100 billion in investment to realize.

 In South America, Argentina’s so-called Belgrano Plan will bring $16 billion in rail expansion to 10 of the country’s neglected northern provinces and will create up to 250,000 new housing units and 1,100 childhood education centers. 

 Saudi Arabia is building new mega cities from scratch, as are China, Singapore, Nigeria, Mauritius, and countless others. 

 None of these projects are perfect socially or environmentally-speaking, to be sure, but one thing they do not lack is vision.

 If it feels like the most impressive work is taking place in other countries, that’s because in many ways, it is, and international architects know perhaps better than anyone else the truth of that reality. Even more, the hesitation, hedging, and hand-wringing that accompanies talk of the current state of American infrastructure and urban vision indicate that the problem runs deeper than a mere lack of funding or risk-averse clients. 

Whether it’s California’s flailing HSR project, the nation’s intractable housing crises, or even, the sad, dispirited political discourse surrounding the Green New Deal—a potentially transformative plan that is barely supported by the party that conceived it—it is clear that America has a crisis of vision, a failure of political will, and perhaps most alarmingly, no real interest in solving its own problems. Look at the Salesforce Transit Center debacle in San Francisco, Elon Musk’s substandard and retrograde transit ideas in Los Angeles and Chicago, and the steady stream of failing bridges and tunnels across the country for further proof. Even Amazon’s HQ2 extravaganza, a year-long publicity stunt by the world’s richest company that wrung billions in incentives from some of the most desperate cities around the country, rightfully withered on the vine. What’s going on here?

 As Safdie quipped, “We were promised infrastructure!” But the truth is that it’s just not happening in America anymore.
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Bernard Tschumi Architects' Exploratorium Museum bulges with cones of perforated aluminum panels

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With an imposing set of towers rising from a tabula rasa-like setting, one could at first mistake Bernard Tschumi Architects (BTA)'s Tianjin Binhai Exploratorium as a contemporary take on medieval fortifications. Designed between 2013 and 2014, and completed in the fall of 2019, the museum houses artifacts from Tianjin's heavy industrial past and displays of large-scale contemporary technology. The formidable complex is clad in thousands of perforated copper-colored aluminum panels studded with oculi for interior lighting. The 355,200-square-foot museum is located on the former site of a sprawling industrial park; the towers of the design are intended by the firm to evoke the smokestacks that formerly blanketed that landscape, with the copper-like panels standing in for rusted pipes and machinery.
  • Facade Manufacturer Tianjin Huhui Andersen
  • Architects Bernard Tschumi Architects
  • Facade Installer Tianjin Huhui Andersen
  • Facade Consultants Inhabit Group
  • Location Tianjin, China
  • Date of Completion Fall 2019
  • System Perforated aluminum rainscreen over sealed aluminum surface
  • Products Custom-designed treated and perforated aluminum panels
In total, there are approximately 3,600 panels spread across the museum's four elevations. The panels come in two sizes along flat portions of the facade; approximately 4-feet-by-7-feet and 4-feet-by-11.5-feet. To clad the curved and tapered cones of the museum, the design team developed 52 different sizes of panels with each row of the cones corresponding to a unique width. At the intersections between cones and flat surfaces, as well as the oculi and panels, the team generated over 200 special cuts. The large size of the panels called for a significant degree of reinforcement, with each panel backed by two aluminum U-channels located between the perforations. "The panels are bolted through the one-inch vertical joints to a substructure made of vertical seven-inch by three-inch steel tubes," said BTA co-director, Joel Rutten. "The actual enclosure of the building is made of a sealed aluminum surface in front of the thermal insulation. The vertical steel substructure is anchored to the building from slab to slab through the aluminum/insulation enclosure." The pattern of each cluster of perforations corresponds to an 8-by-8-inch grid; the perforations come in three different diameters, their placement generated by a digital script. Additionally, there is a three-color gradient for the aluminum panels, which was also generated by a custom script. In terms of environmental performance, the oculi-studded cones flood gallery spaces and the principal vertical circulation routes with natural light. As a result of their tapered outline, the towers also effectively collect warm air which is easily ventilated outward at their summits. Additionally, the bulk of the museum's structural components are placed within the cones, minimizing the number of columns within gallery spaces. The project is one of five major attractions within Tianjin's Binhai Cultural Center, which also includes MVRDV's Tianjin Binhai Library.

LECTURE: OPEN Questions: Li Hu and Huang Wenjing

The ever-changing realities of contemporary urban life, and the challenges they pose for humanity and the environment, call for an urgent rethinking of architectural precedent. To create spaces suited to the kind of architectural complexity and urbanity present in cities today, particularly those in China, architecture must explore and embrace new opportunities for spatial reinvention.

Architects Li Hu and Huang Wenjing, founding partners of OPEN Architecture, will share with the audience observations drawn from more than a decade of architectural practice in Beijing. Through a series of questions—the starting points for some of OPEN’s latest projects on culture and education—Li and Huang will present their thoughts on how architecture can offer hope for the future by reacting to the challenges of today.

  RSVP online at http://cc.syr.edu/robbins19