Morphosis Architects is one of the four winning design firms in the running to design Chengdu’s Unicorn Island in China’s Sichuan province, competing with Foster + Partners, a team of Arata Isozaki & Associates and Jun Aoki & Associates, and OMA. As China transitions towards a technology-oriented service economy, Unicorn Island was imagined as a centralized location where start-ups and established companies would be given the resources to grow. Whereas OMA’s plan for the island involved a crosshatch of different buildings for start-ups ringed by headquarters for the Unicorn companies (worth $1 billion or more), Morphosis has designed a series of curvilinear facilities that wrap around the island’s edge. While the island in Chengdu is small, Morphosis took the opportunity to bring big ideas, designing a campus that would be walkable, sustainable, and accessible via mass transit while also building up the city’s skyline. The firm broke the 165-acre island up into four quadrants, with each representing a stage of a Unicorn company’s growth. Flexible office space can be found in all four sections, as well as shared community amenities and a central park and hub for each. The northwestern quadrant has been set aside for education and will contain offshoots of the universities found in Chengdu proper, while the convention and showcase quadrant to the southwest will allow companies to demonstrate their wares. The eastern half of the island would be broken into north and south innovation quadrants, holding accelerator spaces, labs, and administrative support services. At the island’s core would be a massive “Unicorn Tower,” which would serve as the headquarters for the campus’s most successful companies. Other than the central tower, Morphosis chose to keep the other buildings low-slung and accessible from the ground level. Pedestrian access across the island was prioritized, and park-to-park walkways were overlain across the entire site. A proposed metro station near the Unicorn Tower would put most of the island within walking distance from mass transit. For their scheme, Morphosis worked with engineers Buro Happold. No estimated completion or start date has been announced yet.
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Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, is rapidly transitioning towards a service-based economy and has enlisted OMA’s help in growing its local tech companies. Following an international design competition sponsored by the Chengdu government, OMA and three other high-profile studios have been chosen to master plan a Unicorn Island for startups and more established tech companies alike. OMA has designed a campus that weaves over the entire island, with skyways that overlap and interconnect, which they call a weave. At the island’s core is the Living Lab, a domed complex with working labs that will be open to the public. Branching out from the Living Lab will be the weave, which will hold startups and “Gazelles” (tech companies worth $1 million or more). The weave has been envisioned as a community space, and OMA has described the area as “village-like” in its project description; this interior section will contain residential housing for employees, a mix of office typologies, and amenity spaces meant to foster mingling between different companies. Along the island’s edge will be headquarters for the "Unicorns" (technology companies worth $1 billion or more), with room for expansion as the companies in the weave increase in value and relocate outwards. From the renderings, it appears that the complex will be massive and extend all the way across Unicorn Island. Interestingly, everything except the waterfront headquarters will be elevated; roads will pass below the floating weave, with four courtyards set aside, one on each block. OMA has also revealed some of the tower typologies that will be present in the weave, including a circulation tower, sports tower, education tower, and relaxation tower for the 16 cores. With such a tightly-condensed campus, parking had to be moved underground. From the site plans, it seems that parking will run under nearly the entire island, with the exception of the area below the Living Lab, which will become an underground plaza. The design of Unicorn Island was led by Chris van Duijn, OMA Partner and Director of OMA Asia. Mobility in Chain provided the traffic consultation and Transsolar acted as the climate engineer. No estimated completion date or project cost has been revealed at the time of writing. The other three winners of the design competition include Morphosis, Foster + Partners, and a team composed of Arata Isozaki & Associates and Jun Aoki & Associates.
There’s a perfect storm brewing in the AEC industry with respect to technology, and startup tech companies are stoked because the waves are finally rolling in. A number of factors are contributing to the sudden surge. An increasingly urban population along with a changing climate is placing unprecedented pressure on the built environment, according to Jesse Devitte, co-founder of Borealis Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm geared toward the AEC industry. Fortunately, mobile devices, cloud computing, and endless sensors capturing data have reached near-ubiquitous status just as a slew of game-changing technologies such as BIM, AR/VR, and Blockchain are arriving, he notes. “It really does feel like the industry is at a unique moment in time,” Devitte said. “I can tell you one thing for certain: in my three decades of involvement in AEC software I have never seen so much activity. In fact, I wake up to a new startup in my email every single morning, seven days a week.” As a veteran who was part of Autodesk’s former Softdesk team and who organized the company’s AEC business unit, Devitte is well versed in venture capital. Upon leaving Autodesk, he co-founded Borealis Ventures to support the next generation of software entrepreneurs. “Today, we are focused on overcoming the traditional fragmented and resulting industry inefficiency by backing startups focused on driving data across the entire building lifecycle,” he explained. The Borealis team identifies and works with teams and technologies materially improving how the built environment is designed, constructed, operated, and experienced—and the potential for a startup to achieve industry disruption has never been better, he says. “That doesn’t mean it is easy,” Devitte pointed out. “You are still selling to project-based businesses, which, on the design side, have more work than ever but are facing narrower margins,” he said. On the construction side, he paints a rather harrowing picture. Likening it to upgrading a plane mid-flight at low altitudes, Devitte says construction professionals are “attempting to safely deliver the highest quality product on time and budget for the real estate owners, who have their own challenges including the phenomena of ‘space as a service,’ which is the opposite of the long-term investment/cash flow ROI model that built the asset class.”
Welcome to the Start TankBut shifts of this magnitude are precisely what’s needed to create waves for real market transformation. “These big waves may indeed be the proof that digital transformation of this industry has reached an inflection point—and that is the ideal time to invest for maximum return,” Devitte observed. To those willing to test the tech-infested waters, they’ll have the opportunity to dive in during Start Tank, shark tank-like feature for exhibiting start-ups to pitch their winning ideas to potential investors and customers at this year’s TECH+ expo in New York City on May 22nd. Led by Devitte and featuring special guest judges Dareen Salama (Lehrer) Justin Hendrix (NYC Media Lab), and Greg Schleusner (HOK), Start Tank will enable startups to get their stories out to the market. “For potential customers it is a unique opportunity to learn about solutions they can deploy to advance their businesses,” Devitte said. “To make sure we deliver on both of those fronts, the judges are industry professionals who are potential customers for the startups. And as we say in the venture business, we will see if the ‘dogs eat the food,’ all while having fun in a positive environment.”
London skyline as battleground: Designers render 3D-printed chess pieces in the shape of iconic architecture
City skylines can seem at times like battlegrounds, with architects vying for superlatives of tallest, grandest, and bizarrest. Skyline Chess, founded by London-based designers Chris Prosser and Ian Flood, reimagines chess pieces as miniature models of the city’s landmark buildings. The ubiquitous terraced house, oft seen in indistinguishable cookie-cutter rows, is recast as the humble pawn, while the iconic Big Ben plays the rook, the London Eye Ferris wheel stands in for the Knight, and the Bishop is supplanted with The Gherkin. Meanwhile, Renzo Piano’s 87-story Shard in Southwark, London, presides as Queen, while the reigning honor of King-dom is bestowed upon the 4.5 inch-tall Canary Wharf, one of the UK’s two main financial centers. “In developing the idea we thought long and hard about suitable alternatives for the chessmen, both in terms of their architecture and symbolic value as well as their value on the chessboard,” the designers wrote on their website. “We believe that as individual objects they are beautiful and when arranged across the board represent something unique.” Lovers of architecture, Prosser and Flood developed their idea over a series of chess matches, modeled the pieces in 3D, and then 3D-printed them in injection-molded acrylic. Each piece is double-weighted and has a felt base. In 2013, the designers launched a campaign on popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter, but won just over $14,000 in pledges of the approximately $39,000 requested to fund their startup. While crowdfunding fell through, seeing as the site operates on an all-or-nothing funding model, Prosser and Flood secured investment elsewhere. In addition to trotting out its first architecture-influenced edition, Skyline Chess creates bespoke chess sets for lovers of the strategic board game, and has its eye on developing sets based on the architectural icons of Rome, New York, Dubai, and Shanghai.
Open offices have gone from unavoidable interior design trend to the target of some serious backlash. I moderated a panel last week for DisruptCRE's annual conference that tried to suss out what's driving office space design and culture today. I was joined by 1871 CEO Howard Tullman, Gensler global design leader and design principal Carlos M. Martínez, IdeaPaint president John Stephans and SpaceTrak CEO Kristine O’Hollearn. We met on the 99th floor of the Willis Tower. As the Chicago Tribune's Meg Graham put it:
Offices are no longer as simple as a couple of cubicles and a water cooler. But taking down walls and throwing in a ping pong table doesn’t automatically inspire innovation, panelists said Thursday at DisruptCRE. … The panelists discussed a growing hesitation toward the open-office trend. “We think that ‘open’ is over, that we’re going backward to more contained spaces, more identity, more sound control,” Tullman said. “We’re discovering that there’s a myth about multitasking — which is actually that you’re doing a lot of things poorly.”You can watch a video of the entire panel on Vimeo, and embedded here, in which we discussed how to encourage collaboration without embracing chaos.
As Detroit nears the one year anniversary of the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, creative professionals in a busy downtown corridor are the target of a Washington, D.C.–funded “innovation district" that hopes startups will rev Detroit's stalled economic engine. Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley's book for the Brookings Institution, The Metropolitan Revolution argued that since Congress is frozen, cities must save themselves. In a follow up report, the authors argued for the creation of “innovation districts” to encourage startups and business incubators. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last month announced the city’s first such district would comprise a stretch of Woodward Avenue from the riverfront to New Center. The area has previously been branded a “creative corridor,” and already enjoys a growing startup culture—most of it formed organically. So what will the new designation change? Perhaps nothing by itself. But as Crain's Detroit Business reported, clusters of young professionals are happy to have the spotlight:
"The thing we have realized is that we actually have districts within this creative corridor geography," said Matt Clayson, director of DC3, a partnership between the College of Creative Studies and Business Leaders for Michigan. "There is a certain density of creative practioners [sic] that we did not have four years ago. That's a good 1,100 creative workers. Four years ago, no." … When Patrick Thompson was looking to open his interior design studio — which is well known for designing the Detroit Institute of Arts' Kresge Court — he was interested in being in Midtown. He didn't realize there was a creative cluster forming, but he liked the activity on the street and wanted to be around other design businesses. So when a first floor retail spot in The Auburn building opened, he moved in last summer. "As a landmark alone, it's been great," he said. "Everyone is starting to know this area. It's a pretty high-profile area, so it's been beneficial for our business being there."The three clusters with the most activity at the moment, writes Amy Haimerl for Crain's, are around Grand Circus Park, near Cass and Canfield Streets, and near DC3 and TechTown Detroit in the city’s New Center neighborhood. Mayor Duggan convened a 17-person panel to chart more innovation clusters around the future and help guide growth in existing creative communities. As must be noted with any story of rebirth in Detroit, the city’s challenges are beyond the ability of any one intervention to overcome. But “innovation districts” are far from the only solution proposed for Detroit’s problems. Immigration reform, perhaps tied to a special city-specific Visa, has been touted as a potential shot in the arm for the struggling city. And transit improvements, especially along Woodward Avenue—which now has national attention—are a long time coming.