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Monday, 9 April 2012

Building the American Dream in China

Daniel Gillen at the unfinished Wood Sculpture Museum in Harbin, China.
Daniel Gillen at the unfinished Wood Sculpture Museum in Harbin, China | photo © Matthew Niederhauser for The New York Times

By Brook Larmer

Daniel Gillen is afraid of heights. The young American architect didn’t think to tell me this until we had already climbed up a construction ladder and started walking gingerly across the curved roof of an unfinished building in northeastern China. 

It was a frigid day in late February, with temperatures dropping to 15 degrees below zero, and the roof’s undulating steel surface made it feel as if we were surfing on a frozen ocean wave — one that, at this height, promised a very hard landing.

“We’d never get away with this in the U.S.,” Gillen said with a nervous laugh.

From the roof, Gillen and I gazed out at a vast new city that didn’t exist two years ago. Row after row of 20-story apartment towers radiated out in every direction, in regimented monotony as far as we could see. There were hundreds of towers, almost all of them empty. “When I first came here two years ago, this area was just a bunch of fields covered with construction cranes,” said Gillen, who is 32. Now the farmlands outside Harbin have been transformed into one of the dozens of insta-cities rising around China. “Standing here,” Gillen said, “you just have to be in awe of what China can accomplish.”

The building beneath Gillen’s black leather boots inspired a different sort of wonder. A whimsical, torquing 660-foot-long tube sheathed in stainless steel, the Harbin Wood Sculpture Museum is the architectural fantasy of Gillen’s boss, Ma Yansong, and his team at MAD Architects in Beijing. The building’s design evokes the natural world — an iceberg, say, or a piece of driftwood — but given its backdrop, I couldn’t help thinking that it looked like a shimmering spaceship that had touched down unexpectedly in an alien urban landscape.

A rendering of the arts complex being designed by MAD Architects in Harbin.
A rendering of the arts complex being designed by MAD Architects in Harbin | photo © MAD Architects

In that respect, it is not so different from Gillen himself, whose shaved head, muscular build and thick silver thumb ring make him something of an oddity in this city on China’s northern frontier. When Gillen was laid off in December 2008 by Asymptote Architecture, a New York firm, he hunkered down in his Brooklyn apartment, trying to stave off the “vibe of hopelessness.” Six months passed. His profession had been flattened by the financial crisis that put an abrupt halt to new construction. Gillen sent out dozens of résumés, but no offers came. Then, in early summer, he spotted a job posting for MAD Architects on a design Web site. The firm’s acronym seemed to sum up the outlandish proposition. “China was not on my radar at all,” he told me. The starting salary at MAD was half of what he earned in New York. Desperate, Gillen jumped.

Up on the museum’s sloping steel roof, his fear under control, Gillen marveled at his good fortune. “This kind of project,” he said, “could not be built anywhere else in the world today.” Nor could Gillen have found such an opportunity if he hadn’t journeyed 6,000 miles from home.

Over the past three years, foreign architects and designers have poured into China, fleeing economic crises at home and pinning their hopes on this country’s explosive growth. It is, after all, a place that McKinsey & Company predicts will build 50,000 skyscrapers in the next two decades, the equivalent of 10 New Yorks. MAD’s staff consisted almost entirely of mainland Chinese when Gillen arrived in mid-2009; today, nearly half of his 50 colleagues are foreigners, with designers from Holland, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Colombia, Japan and Thailand. “The economic crisis,” Gillen says, “is a heavy factor in everybody’s thought process.”

This is the expected global economic formula flipped on its head: instead of American workers losing out to the Chinese, China is providing jobs for foreign architects. Even more surprising is the degree of imaginative license that China offers, even demands of, its foreign building designers. With new cities materializing seemingly overnight, international architects are free to think big, to experiment with cutting-edge designs, to introduce green technologies. All at a frantic pace. In a top-down system that favors political will and connections over regulatory oversight and public debate, large-scale projects in China can be designed, built and put to use in the space of just a few years. 

China, of course, is not new terrain for international architects. Many top American firms have run offices inside China for a decade or more. Nearly all of the country’s iconic modern buildings have been designed by foreigners, from the National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, (by the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron) and the gravity-defying China Central Television Tower (by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas) to the 128-story Shanghai Tower (by San Francisco’s Gensler), which will be the second-tallest building in the world when it’s completed in 2014. The new arrivals, though, come not by invitation or out of curiosity but because they need work. They are, as Michael Tunkey, head of the China office for the North American firm Cannon Design, says, “refugees from the economic crisis.” 

The scale and speed of China’s expansion is like nothing these architects experienced in their home countries. Fueled by rising prosperity and the largest rural-to-urban shift in history — some 300 million Chinese became city dwellers over the past two decades — the boom has utterly transformed the eastern seaboard around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The fastest growth now is taking place deep in the country’s interior or on its outer edges in cities little known in the West: Harbin, Changsha, Chengdu and dozens of others. “It’s still shocking to me,” says Manuel Sanchez-Vera, a 43-year-old architect who shuttered his own Madrid practice two years ago and joined a midsize Australian firm in Shanghai. “I just got out of a meeting to design a hospital for a city that will grow from 4 million to 10 million in the next few years. How do you design for an explosion like that?”

The answer to that question, in the main, is quickly and cheaply. While some marquee projects — like the Harbin museum Gillen is working on — attract a lot of attention, most foreign architects in China are designing office towers, housing developments, hospitals and shopping malls, projects in which creativity is in constant tension with the bottom line. Despite the excitement over the flow of projects — indeed, the mere existence of work — there is also a deeper concern: all those empty apartment buildings in Harbin and elsewhere suggest that China’s building boom may have passed its peak.

For now, though, Gillen sees no better alternative. “I’m an architect, I like to build,” he says. “And China is a place where things get built.”

In December 2008, right around the time Gillen joined the ranks of the unemployed in Brooklyn, another young American architect lost his job in San Francisco. Adam Mayer, then 26, received his pink slip one year after joining Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

The rejection stung. Mayer, a glib and gregarious University of Southern California graduate, had long aspired to work at SOM — a blue-chip firm whose San Francisco office was not far from his family’s home in Silicon Valley. Unlike Gillen, though, Mayer saw no point in sending out résumés or nursing the hope of an economic recovery. “I didn’t even bother looking for a job,” he told me. “All my U.S.C. friends were hitting a brick wall, and the only projects on SOM’s drawing boards seemed to be in China. So I just bought a ticket to Beijing. I had nothing to lose.”

Mayer spoke no Mandarin. And, like many designers, he had not yet passed the arduous set of exams needed to obtain an architect’s license in the states. “Legally, in the U.S., I can’t call myself an architect,” Mayer said. “But in China, it doesn’t matter.”

Designed by Steven Holl Architects, this building in Shenzhen is as long as the Empire State Building is high.
Designed by Steven Holl Architects, this building in Shenzhen is as long as the Empire State Building is high | photo © Iwan Baan/Steven Holl Architects

Four months after arriving in Beijing, Mayer landed a full-time position at a large Singaporean firm with offices around China. The one catch: Mayer had to move to Chengdu, the capital of southwestern Sichuan Province and the front line of the Chinese government’s Develop the West campaign. About 300 Chinese staff members filled the large open space of the company’s Chengdu office. Only a handful, mostly Chinese with overseas passports, spoke English. Besides Mayer, there was just one other Westerner, a young Argentine designer. 

During his year at SOM in San Francisco, Mayer worked primarily on one building, and his role was subordinate. But his bosses in Chengdu were asking him to prepare conceptual designs for a series of huge projects: a 1.5-million-square-foot redevelopment zone in central Chengdu, a vast new residential area for China’s biggest housing developer, even a new headquarters for Chengdu’s urban-planning bureau. “I had a ton of creative freedom,” Mayer says. “If you ask architects coming out of grad school, they all say they want to be conceptual designers. So it was great at first.”

The pace was relentless. From designing one or two projects a month, Mayer was soon being pushed to produce one large-scale conceptual design every week. “The deadlines were crazy,” Mayer says. “Sometimes we’d have three days to finish a 250,000-square-meter project.” Even so, his Chinese colleagues churned out even more. “In terms of pure production, the local staff could work faster and more efficiently than anything I’ve ever seen in the U.S.,” Mayer says, even if in some instances they saw no shame in “literally copying designs right out of a book.” 

Creativity was supposed to be Mayer’s job. Like most foreign architects in China, he was hired with the expectation that he would give designs an innovative edge — along with the prestige that many Chinese still associate with a foreign name. (More than once, Mayer was invited to sit silently at client meetings, even when he knew nothing about the project under discussion.) Mayer helped create some stunning designs, including a plan for a state-owned publisher’s headquarters that drew inspiration from ancient Chinese scrolls. Still, the mantra was always “Bigger, bolder, flashier.” During one meeting at the urban-planning bureau, Mayer recalls an official who implored them, “Make us a landmark that will stand out and make people notice!”

The question of whether China can innovate looms over the country’s quest to move beyond its role as the world’s factory. In architecture, Mayer says, the problem is not simply an education system that stresses technical skills over abstract thinking but also the pressure cooker that compels developers to build as fast and as profitably as possible. For all the lip service given to creativity, he says, too often the results are cookie-cutter developments that make Chinese cities feel depressingly similar — and surpassingly ugly. “To come up with something new and creative takes time,” he says, “and in China, there’s not the luxury of time.”

One morning in February, Gillen showed me around MAD Architects’ open-plan studio in Beijing, which occupies the top two floors of a defunct printing plant in a narrow alleyway. Rows of Chinese and foreign architects were working in an almost sepulchral silence, surrounded by models of their fanciful projects: on one end of the second floor, there was a twisting, layered skyscraper designed for Chongqing, on the other a swirly cross section of an opera house and a performing-arts center whose construction Gillen was also overseeing in Harbin.

A rendering of MAD Architects’ proposed project in Chongqing.
A rendering of MAD Architects’ proposed project in Chongqing | photo © MAD Architects

Occupying the studio’s central space, however, was a common Chinese totem: a Ping-Pong table. Not long ago, Gillen, an avid player himself, organized an officewide tournament, with an iPad going to the champion. It wasn’t quite Ping-Pong diplomacy, but the event served to bring the local and foreign staff members closer together.

When Gillen made his blind leap into China, he knew very little about MAD except that its founder, the 37-year-old Ma Yansong, was a rising talent. Ma, who trained at Yale and apprenticed with the British architect Zaha Hadid, is celebrated as the first Chinese architect to win a foreign competition: the Absolute Towers in Toronto. He was proof that China was coming into its own as a creative architectural force. (Further evidence came recently when the 2012 Pritzker Prize — architecture’s top honor — was awarded to another Chinese architect, Wang Shu.) 

Ma and Gillen sit a few feet apart, at identical workstations, but the rolls of blueprints that make a sort of miniature skyline on the American’s desk show the role he has taken on. Hired as a designer, Gillen now oversees the building of Ma’s architectural concoctions. “I am the executioner,” he says with a grin. “I just try to get things done without making either my boss or the client unhappy.”

The client, in the case of the Harbin Wood Sculpture Museum, is the local government, which occupies a glass building with a red Chinese flag next door to the construction site. “The top-down system can make things very simple,” Gillen says. “The leader says, ‘I want it; you make it,’ and it’s done.” Never mind that the projected ticket sales for the museum’s exhibitions, which are anchored by the collected works of a locally renowned wood sculptor, could never match the building’s extravagant price tag.

Such an issue might stop a project in the United States. But in China, the primary concerns are prestige and development for its own sake, and the leaders would move heaven — and lots of earth — to get the museum built. “These projects are the Louis Vuitton bags of architecture,” says one foreign architect, who has worked on several marquee buildings in China. “Every city in China wants one now.”

With all the excitement over architectural possibilities in China, there is a reluctance to address the obvious question: What happens if the social, cultural and economic environment cannot support these cutting-edge designs after they are built? This is already a problem, both for prestige projects and massive urban developments. MAD, for example, has built the voluptuously curved Ordos Museum in a new planned city in Inner Mongolia. But the real estate bubble popped in Ordos last year. The museum now sits forlornly in an empty development, a symbol of architectural achievement as well as the folly of ambition. “These are like the Fields of Dreams,” Gillen says. “Build it, and they will come.” Sometimes, though, they don’t come.

In Harbin, I met two Chinese men in thick coats wandering around the Wood Sculpture Museum. They were trying to decide if it looked more like a whale or a shimmering serpent. “It certainly is unusual,” said one, who identified himself as Mr. Wang and who bought an apartment in one of the high-rises behind the museum two years ago. Did he like the design? “Well, yes,” he said, “because it’s already made my property nearly double in value!”

Gillen is not paid to worry about the museum’s future or its development value — just to ensure that it is built. And that often requires handling shifting demands that would be almost unimaginable back home. When the pit for the wood-sculpture museum’s foundation had already been dug, for instance, the government made a startling request to double the area to 66,000 square feet. The demand meant drafting a new set of designs and digging the foundation several yards larger to create a new underground gallery space. “In the U.S., the contract would’ve been ripped up and renegotiated,” Gillen said. But MAD complied with the request without complaint. It was another lesson in the Chinese art of making guanxi, or cultivating relationships. Who knows what commissions a cooperative attitude might lead to in the future?

Walking through the museum’s cathedral-like interior, with rays of morning sunshine streaming through the skylights, Gillen snapped photos of imperfections: a shattered pane of curved glass, a poorly placed water pipe. He was keenly aware of the shoddy workmanship that has plagued other modern buildings in China. It is one price of excessive speed. “I want to build a monument that lasts,” he says. Even so, he couldn’t get over the pace of progress. “This is a complex project, but we’ve gone from design to nearly finished construction in just two years!” Gillen said. “I’m not saying this system is better than ours back home. But sometimes it seems like the U.S. is sitting on the couch sipping coffee while China is Carl Lewis running as hard as it can.”

Wang Shu, who designed the Ningbo Historic Museum in Zhejiang Province, won the 2012 Pritzker prize, the field’s highest honor.
Wang Shu, who designed the Ningbo Historic Museum in Zhejiang Province, won the 2012 Pritzker prize, the field’s highest honor | photo © Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

It was nearly 1 a.m. on a weeknight in Chengdu, but a band was playing at China Groove, and the expatriate architects seemed in no hurry to leave. Clustered around a table on a night in mid-February were newly arrived architects from Germany, New Zealand and Britain, as well as a young Iranian construction supplier just in from Tehran. The music was blasting, and the young men (yes, a large proportion of the foreign architects in China are men) had to yell to make themselves heard. 

“Have you seen the world’s biggest building yet?” shouted Stephan Wurster, an affable 38-year-old Stuttgart native who moved here in December after three years in Beijing. Both he and Kamaljot Singh Panesar, a goateed British architect at the table, have offices in development zones mushrooming on the plains south of Chengdu, not far from a half-completed behemoth called Ocean Park. Under a single roof covering an area of about 25 football fields, Ocean Park is designed to include hotels, shopping malls, aquariums, amusement parks and a simulated ocean with a white-sand beach. (The ultimate “Truman Show” touch: the 660-foot-wide video screen that will allow beachgoers to enjoy brilliant digital sunsets, even when clouds and pollution block the real thing.) 

Wurster takes more than a passing interest in the Chinese-designed building: it stands directly across from the site where he is overseeing construction of a contemporary art center for his bosses at Zaha Hadid Architects. The same Chinese investor behind Ocean Park, in fact, is financing the arts center as a gift to Chengdu. And what city leader wouldn’t be flattered to receive a cultural icon designed by a world-famous architect? Still, Hadid’s firm has had to make compromises — overhauling the sinuous design because local officials thought it looked like a snake, which is considered bad luck. “Even on status projects,” Wurster said with a laugh, “there’s no carte blanche in China.”

The hidden rules and restrictions are felt even more strongly by the vast majority of foreign architects who are not working on high-visibility projects. Consider Panesar. The financial crisis devastated his boutique firm in London in 2009, forcing him and his partner at Urban Hybrid Architecture to lay off most of their 15-person staff and take a gamble on China. Dapper and soft-spoken, Panesar, who is 35, has spent the past 18 months scrambling to get his foot in the door with all kinds of projects in Chengdu: train stations, kindergartens, residential developments. So far, he has pulled in enough design fees to keep his firm afloat. But he’s still waiting for one of the designs to actually be built. “China is not the blank canvas that you imagine,” Panesar said. “We’re just crawling really, but we’re here for the long haul.”

There was one expat missing that night at China Groove. Adam Mayer, now 29, left his job in Chengdu a few weeks earlier and flew back to California to figure out his next move. “I built up a great portfolio of designs,” Mayer told me when we talked by Skype. “But I started to wonder what good it served.” None of his designs were built. For all the creative freedom he enjoyed, Mayer began longing for stronger mentoring and more concrete results. In some cases, clients were using his work to impress officials in hopes of winning a bid or acquiring land for a future project. (In China, all land is owned by the state.) “I feel as though I was more in advertising or marketing than architecture,” he said.

Mayer’s experience is not universal. But many foreign architects in China sense that they are operating in the dark, toiling in a system they dimly understand. Real estate development in China is a murky business. There is little transparency — and lots of horse trading — in everything from the acquisition of land to the awarding of bids and competitions. In all but the highest-profile projects, foreigners are largely sidelined during the building process itself, which by law and tradition is controlled by local design institutes.

As foreign architects continue to arrive, there is also increasing competition for jobs and business. Some international firms have even started lowballing bids to try to buy their way into the market — a development that is “killing Western firms here,” says the Shanghai-based Dutch architect Daan Roggeveen, who is the co-author of a book on China’s new megacities. In the meantime, Chinese and foreign firms alike are moving to localize their staffs — both to cut costs and to cultivate a new generation of Chinese architects, many of whom have trained abroad.

“I’ll definitely go back to China,” Mayer said. For now, though, he is too busy cramming for the exams that will allow him, at last, to call himself an architect in the United States.

A few miles from the wood-sculpture museum near Harbin, a far bigger cultural landmark is rising on the banks of the frozen Songhua River. When it is finished, the Harbin Cultural Island — the MAD-designed opera house and performance center I saw modeled in the office — will look like a trio of snow-swirled mountains. Gillen was checking on the progress. “Three years ago,” he admitted, “I’d never even heard of Harbin.”

As we clambered to the top of this construction site — those heights again — it somehow made sense that Gillen’s planned year in China had extended to almost three. In his previous job at a New York firm, he said, “I spent a year and a half doing concept designs that never got built.” When I asked him how long his China sojourn might last, he smiled: “How’s the New York real estate market doing?” As the winter sun hung over the horizon, Gillen walked around the half-completed opera house — “a baby being born,” he called it — and added: “I’m in a lucky position. I don’t know if the pace of growth in China is sustainable, but I’ll ride it as long as I can.” 

Source: New York Times

SEAT Pavilion by E/B Office

The pavilion concept SEAT by New York and Portland-based collaboration E/B Officehas won the commission for this year's Freedom Park Project at Atlanta. SEAT is a garden pavilion composed of approximately 400 simple wooden chairs arrayed and stacked in a 3-dimensional sine wave surface rising above the ground.

SEAT Pavilion by E/B Office

Competition-winning pavilion concept for this year's Freedom Park Project at Atlanta: SEAT by E/B Office (Image: E/B Office)

In speaking about the project, E/B Office partner Yong Ju Lee commented, “I hope visitors to SEAT can see and enjoy how furniture, which they use every day, can be employed radically and orderly to make a complex architectural system that's ultimately artful and fun in nature.”

Brian Brush, fellow partner at E/B Office, added, “This project is about pushing/interrogating the content of domestic objects through spatial sculpture. With SEAT, we're looking beyond the symbol and function of the chair to its component parts as compositional and structural elements capable of generating unpredictable and whimsical architecture as art (or vice versa).”

Anne Dennington, executive director of Flux Projects, explained, “Our goal when submitting the call was to find a project that could engage the park and its audience for at least a month, have high visibility, and can be experienced by pedestrian, bike, and vehicular traffic. In addition, the Freedom Park Conservancy was interested in a project that could encourage people to come into and use the park. SEAT does all of this, and we are excited to see its impact on park visitors.”

This call for proposals was issued jointly by Flux Projects and the Freedom Park Conservancy, and members from both organizations sat on the selection committee.

SEAT Pavilion by E/B Office_2
Plan/chair orientation (Image: E/B Office)

Project Description from the Architects:

Sitting is perhaps the most common condition from which we experience architecture. Whether we work, relax, watch, eat, sleep, or talk to each other, sitting is at the core of our relationship to buildings. Sitting enables the detached observation of our lives in space and time, whether it’s to look upon the buildings we inhabit, or look out from them, towards the cultural milieu that surrounds. Sitting enables a perception of the other and beyond opposite the inclusivity and interiority of our personal spaces that we carry with us. It conditions a cosmological covenant between one’s body and one’s place in architecture. It produces a body space continuum. Sitting structures our habitable spaces from within to without, determining the proportions of useable objects, forms, spaces, dimensions, and relationships in an unfolding sequence of architectonic layers.

SEAT Pavilion by E/B Office_3
Elevation (Image: E/B Office)

Despite the importance of sitting in the use and experience of architecture, the objects we use to sit aren’t considered architecture at all. They are relegated to the domains of industrial design or furniture as mere players in a larger architectural scene. Why the disconnect? Why the disassociation of sitting in a designed object with architecture itself? Our proposal attempts to address this question through the exploration of the architectural Folly not in terms of a mused edifice of boundaries, i.e. walls, floors, and roofs rendered picturesque; but rather that which gives rise to architecture as observed and contemplative: the chair. We’ve turned the Folly inside out, creating a playful object of ornamental repose celebrating the act of repose itself as a fundamental architectural event.

SEAT Pavilion by E/B Office_4
Elevation (Image: E/B Office)

SEAT is composed of approximately 400 simple wooden chairs arrayed and stacked in a sine wave surface drawn into an agitated vortex rising from the ground. It formalizes the transformation of chairs from detached useable objects into structural and spatial components of an ambiguously occupiable edifice. It’s intended to be legible and readable as a collection of individual seats, but when approached, visitors realize that sitting down in any one of them amounts to a deliberate act of occupation one can’t take for granted as usual; a temporary social contract to redefine their perception of sitting embodied as architecture. The structure is zoned by rotational differentiation in groups. Chairs around the immediate periphery are rotated for outward observation of the city and the surrounding neighborhood. At the base of the vortex, chairs turn inward to create an intimate, compressive space for visitors to converse and regard the upward flow of chairs transcending their function. Chairs suspended above ground between these zones re-constitute the role of the seated object as one that can also play as structure, decoration, and enclosure.

SEAT Pavilion by E/B Office_5
Perspective (Image: E/B Office)

The chairs are additively assembled through a modified “corbelling” process achieved by sequentially attaching chairs beginning at the edges and corners working towards the center. At times, the result playfully resembles Persian Muqarnas. The chairs are esiliently connected to each other via simple lag bolts, clamps, and screws that are hidden from view. Parametric detailing manages tolerances and connection pecifics of this hardware. Moment and shear forces are transferred through the entire structure as a continuous diaphragm ultimately loading at the vortex center and the seated periphery on the ground. A number of base connections, platforms, or struts may also augment structural stability and anchorage. Some cantilevered extensions exist to create overhanging enclosure, but are minor in actual weight aloft. Redundancy in aterial and connection will allow for stability, flexibility, and safety overall.


Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa

Historically, Metalsa began as a family-owned company, founded by Guillermo Zambrano Gutierrez in November 1956, previously named Manufacturas Metalicas Monterrey.  The company later entered the automotive industry through a partnership with American firm A. O. Smith and began manufacturing chassis frames for heavy trucks and pickups in the late 60’s.   The official name of Metalsa was adopted in the late 70’s and operations started in Apodaca.  Metalsa’s successes allowed them to acquire the commercial vehicles business from Tower Automotive expanding to Virginia, and later building facilities in China, Japan and India.  Today the company boasts several major automotive corporations as their clients, including Ford and Toyota.

Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa

  • Architects: Brooks + Scarpa
  • Project’s Formal Name: Metalsa SA CIDeVeC
  • Location: Alianza Centro, Apodaca, Nuevo León, Mexico
  • Client/Owner: The Proeza Group
  • Project Team: Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA – Lead Designer, Daniel Poei, Abby Katcher, Oliver Liao, Darien Williams, Jordan Gearhart, Ching Luk  – Project Design Team
  • Landscape: PEG
  • Engineering:
  1. Structural Engineering: Carl W. Howe Partners, Inc.
  2. Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing: Cobalt
  • LEED: Zinner Consultants
  • Site: A 100,000 square foot vacant parcel located within a new Research and Technology Innovation Park developed by the Mexican government. The site is also adjacent to the Monterrey, Mexico airport and adjoins a natural habitat area.
Program: A 55,000 square foot research lab, office and industrial testing facility serving an automotive industry client who designs and manufactures automotive and heavy truck chassis. The first phase encompasses a total of 15,500 square feet, including 5,500 square feet of office space and 11,000 square feet of research labs and warehouse space for testing and developing prototypes.  The second phase consists of an additional 5,500 square feet of office space and 34,000 square feet of research labs and warehouse space.

Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa_2


Solution:  Industrial buildings are rarely a place that anyone is happy to visit or work.  They are typically a direct, and often nefarious programmatic response to the function inside with little consideration for the occupants needs. The approach to this project was to preserve the integrity of a high bay industrial facility and program, while providing a model environment for the users and visitors.

Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa_3


A saw-toothed roof draws from the geometry of old factories and the surrounding Monterrey Mountains.  The angled elements of the roof provide abundant natural daylight to the spaces below at the building’s northernmost elevations.  By modulating space and light thru a fractured roof geometry, the building is able to maintain a rational plan to meet the rigorous requirements of the program, while providing a strong connection to the landscape both visually and metaphorically.

Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa_4


The second major feature of the building is the perforated metal skin that clads the entire façade. Manufactured by the client in their auto manufacturing facility nearby, the custom aluminum skin is both perforated and etched. It incorporates interplay of solid and void, orchestrating areas of both light and shadow, while limiting views into the research areas, necessary to protect proprietary trade secrets.  Thus, the industrial program has been transformed from a black box environment to a light filled space with a strong visual connection to the outside.

Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa_5


Each of these strategies and materials, exploit the potential for performance and sensibility while achieving a rich and interesting sensory and aesthetic experience.

Programmatically, the building is divided into two volumes – warehouse/labs and offices functions.  The upper story of the offices cantilever over the lower story to the west and is clad in a highly perforated metal skin and is the main entry facade. The lower story is mainly glazed and open to reveal portions of the research laboratory, machine room and other industrial functions not requiring visually security.  From the exterior, the warehouse appears to float lightly over the mechanical and intellectual heart of the program, reversing the notion that an industrial building should be solid and protected.  Rather, the building seems very open and is intended to feel vulnerable revealing parts of its inner program to public view.

Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa_6

Site Plan
The main entry of the building is located at the northwest corner under the cantilevered volume.  It is flanked by a sunken garden to the north, which is overlooked by the surrounding offices. The garden is a natural bioswale that connects to the adjacent water reclamation wetland for the entire PITT campus.  A large industrial overhead door located off the entry in the main public space opens to the garden outside.

Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa_7


Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa_8


Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa_9


Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa_10


Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa_11


Metalsa SA CIDeVeC in Nuevo León, Mexico by Brooks + Scarpa_12


Denton Corker Marshall to design Australian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale

Denton Corker Marshall to design Australian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale

Denton Corker Marshall has won an international design competition to design the new Australian pavilion in Venice’s Giardini della Biennale, the heart of the prestigious Venice Biennale events.

The new pavilion will be the first of the 21st century contributions to the Giardini, which is undergoing revitalisation by the Venice Biennale. It will replace Australia’s current pavilion, designed as a temporary structure by Philip Cox in 1988. Within a footprint of approximately 320 sq m, the two-level pavilion will provide a new flexible and adaptable exhibition space to showcase Australian visual arts and architecture to international audiences at annual biennales.

Denton Corker Marshall to design Australian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale_2

The winning design is of the utmost simplicity, architecturally expressed as a white box contained within a black box. The architects have avoided imposing a mannered architectural ‘event’ on the artworks displayed within, rather creating a container on and in which ideas can be explored where the container in no way competes with those ideas.

Denton Corker Marshall to design Australian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale_3

It is proposed that the matte charcoal finish of the exterior will be from South Australian black granite. The interior gallery walls are standard white, and the floor is polished concrete. Free from affectation and obvious nationalistic statement, it is a powerful, confident yet discrete object within the heavily wooded gardens.

Conceived as an object rather than a building, Director John Denton says the design continues the firm’s interest in small scale architecture that develop around themes of European intervention in the Australian landscape and architecture as land art.

Denton Corker Marshall to design Australian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale_4

Organised by the Australia Council for the Arts, the competition received sixty-seven entries, with six firms selected to progress to stage 2 of the competition, the selection panel was unanimous in its selection of Denton Corker Marshall’s design.

Denton Corker Marshall to design Australian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale_5

Denton Corker Marshall to design Australian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale_6


Sheer Pressure: A Study on Pneumatic Systems Used in Architecture

“Sheer Pressure” is one of three projects completed during USC School of Architecture’s annual “Top Fuel” workshop, an intensive one-week fabrication charette. This year the workshop focused onpneumatic systems, under the advisement of Achim Menges and Thomas Auer. Our group – composed of eight upper-division students from USC and SCI-Arc – studied the relationship between pneus and constraining tensile forces. Our initial study models looked at the many ways air-inflated structures could puncture through fabric, and generate different lighting effects.
Our final product is a large air-inflated structure, tall enough to fit several standing people. The skin of the structure itself is composed of over five hundred sewn panels of different sizes and materials (plastic, mesh, and nylon), which were designed to allow a gradient of light and transparency, specific to the sun path for our installation location. Each panel encloses an inflated balloon – creating a light bulb affect from within.
Team: Tim Cheng, Enoch Chow, Erin Cuevas, Pouya Goshayeshi, Chase Hearn, Golnar Iranpour, Aaron Malmedal, Joyce Tsai

Helixxx Pedestrian Bridge for Amsterdam

‘Helixxx Bridge’ is a proposal designed by Eugenio Aglietti for a pedestrian bridge in front of theAmsterdam Hermitage Museum. The program includes a bridge which connects the two banks of Amstel river, facilites and public spaces. The concept is based on the latest instruments of computational design and the project development is the result of a progressive series of steps where each pass could be explained and justified.
The starting point of the Helixxx Bridge is based on the span of the bridge (82 meters) and on the museum‘s inner courtyard dimensions. The repetition of the main section towards the Hermitage creates a grid of 25 planar elements and to emphasize the access to the museum the last section is 90° rotated, so the helix is the perfect way to connect the sections with steel pipes. The three ‘X’ created by the shape of the bridge symbolize the Saint Andrew’s Crosses of Amsterdam: ”Valiant, Steadfast, Compassionate”.
A continuous frontier around defines the volume of the footbridge and underlines the path to the Hermitage; it consists of two materials: the glass allows to enjoy the view over the Amstel and the perforated ceramic panels let the air to enter, creating a microclimate into the bridge.

TLT Tilting Hotel / BIG

Architects at BIG designed a high-rises that will reshape the city of Guiyang in China. Among several other international architects, BIG will help redefine Guiyang’s Huaxi district, the city’s educational and cultural center. By proposing a generic hotel slab on one of Huaxi’s mountain slopes, architects envisioned a new and unique landmark, attracting visitors to an area already known for its touristic appeal.
Generic structure of the hotel is redefined through its sculptural interpretation. However, the leaning of the building towards the center of Huaxi is rooted in a functional logic: the aim is to minimize the hotel’s influence on the view from the central lake to the mountain, while improving its own visibility. The design incorporates interventions within the surrounding landscape. Gentle openings are cut into the slope, facilitating shopping and parking spaces. The design introduces the underside of the building as the sixth façade. In this segment of the design, nature and architecture are intertwined. The landscape penetrates the building, goes underneath it offers the possibility to cross it on foot.

Rainbow Gateway – Digital Fabrication / Tonkin Liu

Once known for its mills, the UK town of Burnley has developed into a regional center for engineering and advanced manufacturing. As a way of acknowledging the town’s pioneering role in the practice of measuring rainfall, architects at Tonkin Liu have designed an installation that embodies two of its major climatic forces. Entering into a dialogue with the elements is often expressed in the Studio’s work through the creation of a sensory output. Their Singing Ringing Tree sculpture, also designed for Burnley, uses wind to articulate sound.
The Rainbow Gate is located in front of the Burnley College, where three main traffic routes converge. Its shape is inspired by the town’s numerous viaducts, and it aims to frame the views of the surrounding landscape in a similar manner. Rain is channeled into the ground along the structure’s dynamic natural geometry, while 133 prisms capture sunlight and array it in a full color spectrum on the ground. At night, the prisms are lit from bellow, casting rainbows into the mist.
Anna Liu of Tonkin Liu explains the process:
“Our final proposal, Rain Bow Gate, is a bow structure that integrates many prisms to capture light and create rainbows. A new breed of single-surface structure we’ve pioneered with structural engineers atArup, the structure uses advanced digital modeling, analysis, and fabrication tools. The transformation of light into rainbow evokes a sense of wonder, which we feel is at heart of education.”