China’s syndrome

Words:
Oliver Wainwright

‘Weird buildings’ still seem to be de rigeur with Heatherwick Studio

1,000 Trees on the banks of Suzhou river.
1,000 Trees on the banks of Suzhou river. Credit: Oliver Wainwright

‘No more weird buildings,’ declared Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2014. ‘Unless your name is Thomas Heatherwick,’ he might have added, ‘in which case the weirder the better!’

On the banks of Shanghai’s Suzhou river, between dense thickets of apartment towers, Heatherwick Studio’s latest gargantuan project in China now rises. It is 1000 Trees, a 300,000m² mixed-use complex in the shape of two mountains, with a floating forest of trees perched atop teetering concrete columns.

At a recent Frieze conference in London, the designer explained his project with typical Heatherwickian logic. The building was near a park, so he wanted to cover its roof with trees, but realised trees are really heavy, so each one would need a column, so why not fill the site with columns and celebrate the fact? The result is a site choked with a dense grid of concrete pillars, which makes you wonder how well its two shopping malls will function, while the trees themselves are already looking like they might not survive the rest of the construction process.

‘The Artistic Fair-Faced Concrete Engineering Expert’ reads a big hoarding emblazoned across the scaffolding and it’s clear some effort has gone into making the concrete feel special. Each attenuated planter is ribbed with irregular horizontal strata, as if it might have been built by termites – or squirted out of a 3D-printer. The floors step back as they rise, forming staggered, pixelated levels, giving the impression of a computer game landscape. Like any weird structure in China, it has already become a pilgrimage site for selfie-snapping teens. Beside the trendy M50 art district, it is bound to be a roaring success when it opens, however dubious the greenwashing strategy.

He realised trees are really heavy, so each one would need a column, so why not fill the site with columns and celebrate the fact?

Heather­wick’s other project across town, however, in the empty windswept plaza of the city’s new financial district, stands awaiting adoring crowds that may never come. The Bund Finance Centre is the studio’s first collaboration with Foster and Partners, seemingly an expedient marriage for both to win the project – the latter trading off the former’s local celebrity status after his UK pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo. 

His contribution to the historic Bund – home to the Peace Hotel and the first HSBC bank – also has a kinetic element, although not on the day that I visited. Inspired by the traditional Chinese wedding veil, his little cultural centre is wrapped with three layers of coppery ‘tassels’ that are supposed to trundle around the facade, ‘unveiling’ the building for specific events. The tassels are in fact big steel pipes, clad in a textured copper-coloured skin, which variously calls to mind a church organ, bamboo screen or, as one Shanghai local put it to me, an ammunition belt. There sadly aren’t enough events inside this gallery/conference-centre/cafe to warrant changing the facade very often, so they just turn it on for 20 minutes each day as an attraction.

Coppery cultural centre on the Bund.
Coppery cultural centre on the Bund. Credit: Oliver Waintwright

The coppery vessel sits in the middle of a 270,000m2 office and retail complex, of the fairly generic Fosterian kind, but it is interesting to see how Heatherwick has infected the usual off-the-peg CBD of towers around a plaza. A weirdly textured stone cladding the structural frames of the buildings, hand-carved by armies of grinder-wielding masons, gives the place the air of a grotto. The copper returns in the form of decorative grillework around the facades, recalling traditional Chinese screens, and in dramatic funnelling entranceways, which flare out like the bellows of an accordion. The whole thing has Heatherwick’s trademark steampunky Game of Thrones meets Lord of the Rings aesthetic, the stage set for pouch-wielding elves to scurry out of the copper bellows and throw magic dust in your eyes. Perhaps just like he did to his clients.

Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at the Guardian. Read him here every other month and at ribaj.com


Inside track

Aside from these two projects in Shanghai, Heatherwick Studio is enjoying a huge amount of interest from clients across Asia. Could it have anything to do with the British Council-sponsored touring exhibition, New British Inventors: Inside Heatherwick Studio, which enjoyed headline venues in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea in 2015?