New Architects of China

New Architects of China

ArchWeek Image

Architecture Week, USA, September 19, 2007,

But while firms from around the world are delightedly helping China push its design boundaries, the country’s own young architects may be the most interesting to watch. On the Edge: Ten Architects from China, edited by Ian Luna with Thomas Tsang, is the first English-language anthology to place them firmly in the spotlight.

The learning curve for these young, hip studios has been a steep one. Though the nation can boast a rich aesthetic heritage, Mao’s Cultural Revolution put pay to any form of modern exploration in the field. It also left most of the older architectural masterpieces in tatters. Design students in the 1980s and ’90s had no creative role models and little contemporary Chinese design to draw from, leaving them with something akin to a blank canvas.

A number of searing questions came with it. Should architects continue to draw from the West, from Russia, and from the past, or could a new language of their own be created? What exactly is “Chineseness”? What does modernity mean, and what role should preservation play in the way forward?

These issues of identity and ideology are shaping the nation’s urban fabric, and some remarkably fresh projects are rising out of the debate. With this anthology, Luna aimed to offer a brief slice of political context, an understanding of the sector’s greater challenges, and a good look at how the industry’s more formidable minds are choosing to respond.

Yung Ho Chang is one of China’s most influential modern architects, and the studio he cofounded with Lu Lijia — Atelier Feichang Jianzhu — was the country’s first ever private practice. He returned from the United States in the 1990s to pursue work that, as the editors describe, “opposes mega with mini, re-emphasizing a humane and harmonious scale.” China was booming at an alarming rate, and Chang aimed to counteract the tendency of developers toward the big, the brash, and the brutal.

One project in Beijing’s central business district, the Pingod Sales Center, called for the transformation of a heating plant into a modern art space and sales office. Choosing to keeping the old brick shell, Chang and his team inserted a flared steel grille structure into one side of the facade and a series of brightly colored translucent doorways into the other. Inside, skylights light a huge, warehouse-sized room. The changes were playful, yet hip enough for an urban art space. They also carried the studio’s signature sensitivity for the past.

Chang, who now heads the architecture department at MIT, also wrote the introduction to On The Edge. “Architecture is one of the few disciplines,” he notes, “in which returnees (including this author) are plying influential roles along with the home-growns. Translation still needs to be done, since the locally schooled architects are not confined by the definitions in the original languages and are free to interpret and invent.”

One of these homegrown talents, Xu Tiantian of DnA Beijing, is among the few Chinese female architects to helm a studio. The book showcases her firm’s Songzhuang Art Center, built just last year. It serves around 700 artists, experimenting with the idea of a contemporary “painters village” — formerly small, self-run sets of cooperatives outside the jurisdiction of the government. The center was commissioned when the authorities started to recognize the value held internationally by the local art scene.

The building offers 27,000 square feet (2,500 square meters) of flexible gallery space within a bold, brick-clad structure that floats on a glass base. For Xu it was important to design something that would remain useful throughout the area’s likely growth. “The program has current and future users with different needs and views,” she explains. “While the urban context grows and its function program alters… the building develops as well.” Xu and her team aspire to architecture that can reflect China’s uniqueness, by neither rebuilding traditional symbols nor, as she puts it, “relocating a modern architecture from Berlin to Beijing.”

Ai Weiwei hoisted his international profile with Beijing National Stadium, well known as the “Bird’s Nest,” a collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron that is nearing completion. At home and in Asia, however, Ai has long been known as one of the continent’s more rebellious geniuses. The book dubs him “a prince among China’s reigning enfants terribles.”

Styling himself as a conceptual artist, Ai’s designs tend to rail against the country’s sociopolitical mechanisms, often with a satirical, or at least emotionally provocative, edge. He named his studio FAKE Design. Among his projects in the anthology is Nine Boxes, Beijing, a barbed response to the capital’s growing set of high-end gated communities. The pages show a clutch of living “boxes” clad in galvanized steel sheeting. Ai is also known for Yiwu Riverbank Park, an almost surreal, geometrically stark landscape of indigenous granite. The park was dedicated to his poet father, who was humiliated at the hands of China’s reeducators.

Alongside Shenzhen’s Urbanus, Shanghai’s MADA s.p.a.m., and a clutch of other studios, both emerging and established, Luna chose to include a few Hong Kong firms in his collection. As an architecturally conservative city, Hong Kong unwittingly exports much of its design talent across the border. There designers find greater professional freedom, while going home at night or on weekends to a cosmopolitan financial hub. This does give rise to a few questions, however — namely, whether the territory’s architects and their work can be characterized as Chinese.

“I think the starting point of our designs are very much Chinese, or to do with Chinese sensibilities,” says Rocco Yim, founding principal of Hong Kong’s Rocco Design Architects. “But I think our techniques, the use of materials, the spatial manipulation is influenced from difference sources.”

Yim points to a residential project featured in the book alongside a couple of his firm’s more extravagant civic designs. The Jiu Jian Tang Villa in Shanghai combines traditional and modern international elements, fitting the lifestyle of an extended Chinese family but still allowing the family to feel fashionably current. The villa is positioned around two courtyards in an almost conventional composition, balancing privacy with integration. The architecture is unabashedly modernist, however, replete with glass and aluminum, lashings of natural light, and angular water features.

On the whole, Luna’s anthology takes a clear-cut snapshot of China’s contemporary design scene in its ambitious fledgling stage, showcasing projects that would get far too little international attention otherwise. The book should be enjoyed while such a compact view is still possible. As China’s architects sprint to keep up with the evolving demands of their countrymen, keeping up with the architects themselves may prove to be just as hard. One imagines that a similar book project in ten years will be less straightforward.

Higher Education

Higher Education

July 16, 2007, Time Magazine

It’s a common problem. You book a trip, fail to pick up a phrase book and before you know it you’re shaking hands, toasting — or wildly gesticulating — in your destination, wishing you had mastered just a couple of phrases of the local language. Since 2005, travelers on selected flights of Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and half a dozen other carriers have been avoiding this problem with Berlitz World Traveler courses, available on personal video screens. Now other airlines are following suit — this year, Continental, KLM and Air France began offering the onboard language-tuition program, which teaches the basics of up to 23 languages in 21 languages. So should you be from Brazil and need to brush up on your Tamil, or from Vietnam and require a few phrases of Arabic, a course option will have it covered. The lessons are structured by theme — numbers, dates, words and dialogue — and there are tests and games to keep you entertained. Passengers who complete a course may even get a certificate. Now that’s surely a better use of your time than watching a Friends episode you’ve seen three times already.

Social Assistance

Social Assistance

July 9, 2007, Time Magazine

Making new friends and swapping stories about life on the road can be a vacation high point—so why not do so before you set off? Thanks to the Internet, globetrotters can now find travel mates, get trip tips from fellow travelers and even enjoy free accommodation from friendly locals, with just a few clicks of the mouse. Organizing the perfect holiday has never been so easy, or so darn sociable.

HOSPITALITY CLUB: Set up by a German student in 2000, this not-for-profit site offers what it calls “volunteer-based hospitality exchange.” Sign up as a member, then search for compatible individuals living at your destination before checking their profiles to see how far their generosity stretches. Some offer a home-cooked dinner or their company on local excursions, others a couch to sleep on or a spare room—all for free. Naturally, you are expected to offer similar kinds of welcome when members show up at your door. As a safety measure, initial contact between members is moderated and passport details are recorded.

THE THORN TREE: Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum has been a lively, opinionated online meeting place for travelers since 1997. This is the place to visit for peer-to-peer advice on everything from traveling around New Zealand with a young baby to what camera to take on the road or where to stay during São Paolo’s gay parade. You can also advertise for travel companions, propose house swaps and more. A popular offshoot, the Bluelist, lets users post their top travel recommendations.

GUSTO: Many travel sites offer consumer critiques of, say, restaurants and museums, but without knowing anything about the authors, how do you know if their judgments apply to you? You might have a completely different view of the same experience. Clearing up this anomaly is the job of Gusto, a year-old site that asks users to complete detailed profiles before posting reviews. “A review is only so valuable to me if I see that the reviewer has the same likes and dislikes, or travel circumstances,” explains founder Jeff Wasson. After signing on, users can establish Facebook-style networks of simpatico friends to continue swapping travel tips with, and the job is made easier by Gusto Grabber software that allows users to grab, store and share hotel, airline and other web pages.

Safe as houses

Safe as houses

June 29, 2007, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

Architect Cameron Sinclair is on a mission to save the world, one design at a time

Cameron Sinclair is a man who values his sleep. As he maneuvers between a new baby, a travel schedule so frenetic he has a ‘Where is Cameron’ web page and a battle against shoddy housing worldwide, he’s seen it go from an enjoyable day-capper to quite the luxury.

“In the next two generations we’re going to double the number of buildings on earth now,” the 33 year-old tells me from his Sausalito home, while struggling to sedate a grumpy infant. “One in three people at that time will be living in slum settlements – UN statistics. The places booming are China, Brazil, India, but this growth is in their bottom 40% so it’s really time to respond to those needs.”

Many have heard of Habitat for Humanity, Jimmy Carter’s global NGO, which flutters similar statistics at its fingertips. Yet other than a healthy mutual respect the affiliation between them ends there. HFH arms average Joes with hammers and packs them off to build houses in poor communities the world over, home by home. Smaller and younger, Architecture for Humanity has taken a wider perspective and then zeroed straight in for a potential cure-all: design. Sinclair, as co-founder, takes its helm.

“I got interested in humanitarian design because of a total misunderstanding,” he begins, his slightly awkward British tones collapsing occasionally into a US brogue. “I assumed that to be an architect you’d need to build structures that improved the lives of a community as a whole. I don’t know who told me this! Then I went to architecture school and was stunned to find out that this wasn’t the case. Everyone wanted to do airports and use cool computer graphics.”

A move to New York and some notable design credentials later, and Sinclair was still bothered. While war raged in Kosovo and military ‘end games’ were being debated on TV ad nauseum, he would be watching the refugees and mentally designing them better tents. In 1999 he and journalist (and now wife) Kate Stohr took the plunge and founded the group.

In the public realm design and architecture often get labeled luxury commodities; the kind afforded by holiday homeowners, not families camped among rubble, living off soup. At a recent presentation on humanitarian design in San Francisco, Sinclair and Stohr offered a few examples of design thoughtlessness. Most, like many in this article were from a new book project they’ve co-authored called ‘Design like you give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises.’

In one shot, helmet-like Oxfam house-making kits sit amid the baking rubble of a 1976 earthquake in Turkey. It seems the kits had been cheap and easy to assemble, but they were also hot, dark, and hard to repair. Aid workers dubbed them Darth Vader houses. The newly homeless chose to sleep outside.

You could blame this particular bungle on the rip roaring seventies and its many mind-altering diversions, but even now things aren’t too different. During the tsunami Sinclair says, AFH went in on the ground and partnered with some pretty major organizations in the Sri Lankan rebuilt effort. “Most development groups still think, let’s just give them the basics,” he explained. “They’d have one engineer and a bunch of accountants, and needless to say the result would not be sustainable. It’s incredible what actually gets built. Someone who owns a concrete block factory offers them for cheap, so that’s the building!” Communities, he elaborated, need homes that at least slightly suit their lifestyle; that can flex with them as they slowly pick themselves back up. The average refugee camp tenure after a disaster is nine years. Darth Vader dwellings just don’t cut it.

As part of its efforts to change this, AFH has come across and implemented some incredible innovations, from inflatable hemp houses designed in Japan to neighbourhoods built out of food palettes. Yet helpful design need not be so wacky, or so intricate. One of Sinclair’s favourite examples was a partition flap just recently integrated into UNHCR aid tents. In refugee camps, where sexual abuse is extremely common, something this simple goes a very long way.

When I spoke to Sinclair earlier this year he was just back from Japan, and working on his keynote speech for Africa’s biggest design conference, Design Indaba in Cape Town. While Stohr coordinates much of their work in the States, particularly down on the Gulf Coast (“she’s definitely the domestic girl,” he grins, “sleeping in trailers and car parks and eating waffle house food for months!”), Sinclair selects and runs projects from Senegal to Pakistan. Both spend much of their time fundraising and organizing the placement of volunteer designers in communities worldwide, and it’s here, rather than in the emergency sector, that much of their hope for global change lies.

Onstage back in San Francisco, the pair put their mission into pictures. “One billion people live in abject poverty, but four billion live on the $2-6 dollar a day cusp,” Sinclair said, perched on a table near a large projector screen. “The latter work on improving their housing, but are at constant risk of sliding back. It is for them that innovation can really make a difference.” Cue one shot of a futuristic-looking series of concrete apartments in Iquique, a desert city in Chile. A hundred families once occupied the site illegally and needed to be re-housed on a limited budget with limited space. Elemental, a local design group created the award winning Elemental Collective House by designing a ‘housing skeleton’, which can be filled in and expanded on by delighted residents.

Over in Somkhele, South Africa this March another design was being greeted with glee – this time by young footie fans. Singapore-born architect Swee Hong Ng was the winner of an AFH competition to design a football pitch and health outreach centre in an area where youths have a high risk of infecting HIV. His design uses the shape of the landscape to create amphitheatre-like terraces that can double as performance spaces. In the past few years such projects have taken AFH designers from Tamil Nadu to Tanzania, designing everything from medical centres to tsunami-safe(r) houses.

Yet the biggest link between all these projects lies in their differences; a school designed for the Himalayas could hardly be implemented in Mozambique, and vice versa. This is the crux of the AFH challenge. “The reality is that we live in a global society that has environmental and cultural differences, even from village to village,” Sinclair explained. “So we just can’t come up with one solution. We need a system that can create 100 million solutions.”

About 18 months ago AFH came out on top with a rather generous grant from the prestigious TED Prize, and these one hundred million solutions suddenly became very possible. The resulting project, the Open Architecture Network (, is an impressive online forum that enables architects to post projects and collaborate on all things social and humanitarian. It also benefits from the Creative Commons Developing Nations License, another AFH-related project that allows architects to freely use each others’ patented designs for the good of the third world.

What had once been a two people op, and then a 2000-strong organisation, has in a year become a global force to contend with. All AFH really needs now are more hands, oh, and some money. After Africa, Sinclair will be traveling throughout North America to raise funds. Then it’s on to Italy in June. “Something like the Indaba Cape Town trip for me is the perfect vacation,” he says, convincingly. “I’m going to go out there for the conference, but in my free time I’ll meet with community groups to look at potential projects. They’ll take me around and show me what it’s all about.”

It seems that for now, sleep might have to wait.

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An American in Bangkok

An American in Bangkok

Hospitality Design, USA, August, 2006,

Bill Bensley looks and sounds American, his architecture credentials are from Harvard and when he met the King of Malaysia they high-fived. But talk design, and he’ll tell you that the US has done little for his personal aesthetic. Based out of Bangkok, his multidisciplinary atelier, Bensley Design Studios, has brought its fresh, hip reworking of Asian themes to over a hundred and fifty hotels and residential buildings from Mumbai to Mauritius. “I really think of myself as being more Asian than Western,” he explains. “Everyone I work with is Thai or Balinese, and most of us have been together for over fifteen years.”

Back in the 80s, fresh out of graduate school and newly arrived in Singapore, the picture couldn’t have been more different.  “My classmate in grad school had asked me to come and teach in the International University in Singapore, so I came out and interviewed,” he remembers. “They told me i didnt have enough experience,  which was absolutely correct. I  was 24! I also remember asking my friend, ‘Singpore’s under China, isn’t it?’”

This makes his metamorphosis all the more impressive:  from landcape architect with a dubious grasp on geography, to the go-to guy for high-end Asian chic, fluent in both Thai and Bahasa Indonesia. His studio’s dramatic, luxury landscapes now grace five-star properties across the region, and a few years ago the firm moved into interiors and architecture, starting with The Four Seasons’ tented camp in Chiang Rai. “Now, I look for the ability to do all three disciplines,” he says. “And for the potential of having a top name hotel company to look after the project when we’re finished.”

Since he crosses the continent the way most of us navigate our hometowns, it seems natural that travel should top his list of inspirational past-times. “Every year I make it a point to visit at least five different places I’ve never been [to] before, and when I do, I’m voracious,” he says. “I buy every book, and photograph everything … from vernacular architecture to a pile of rotten coke cans.” This scope of experience shows; just look at the Khmer temple-inspired spaces and art deco details of Siem Reap’s Hotel de la Paix (pictured), or at the echo of old Malay stilt houses in the Marina Bay at Pangkor Laut Resort. In Indigo Pearl, Phuket, an independent project that opened late last year, the Bensley team created much of the contemporary sculpture out of materials salvaged from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.  Rather than running with the Thai-silk-and-teak approach of other top properties in town, he drew ideas from the area’s tin mining past. Exposed beams, blackened steel, and brass fittings give the project roots; a rather rare sense of belonging.

“A bad part of globalistaion is that everbody gets access to everything. It’s harder and harder to find ideas and a design vocabulary that hasn’t been used, and over-used,” he says. “The Asian aesthetic that you find in the West – alot of it is not that good because it’s not understood very well. It’s more pastiche, more make-up. To hang a few Chinese hats on the wall and call it Chinese Contemporary is not successful in my book”.

“For example, it’s very easy to look to the Balinese artistic language as being the language of Indonesia.  This is not the case.  There are 3,300 islands, and almost every one has a particular thing that we as designers can draw from, to make it more localised. With printed materials like sarongs, you’ll find the patterning in central Java is very different than in eastern Java, Bali or Lombok.”

Of course, Bensley’s flare for the dramatic has also helped cement his popularity here, where, if you’ve got it, you tend to flaunt it. He has dubbed his work ‘maximalist’ in the past. “Hotels and resorts are places where we go to escape the daily mundane routine of our lives at home, so if we were to take too much of a pared down approach, the hotels are not going to be financially succesful,” he says. Time spent in a Bensley hotel or spa is to experience flaming bronze torches, successions of water features and statuary galore.

Though he claims to not follow trends, Bensley does plan to explore design sustainability in the coming years – still a fledgling concept here. A number of upcoming projects, such as a thirty-room hotel on one of Cambodia’s ‘Sweetheart Islands’, will toy with fairly radical notions of recyling (“all the energy will come from coconut plantations in neigboring islands”) and with making minimal imprints on local ecology. He is also quite certain that his future – personal and professional – lies in Asia. “I like Asian people and I like how we build here, with our hands. Arts and crafts still aren’t dead. Anything hand-made in The States now is prohibitively expensive. [In that sense] Asia’s very much a playground for a designer.”

And judging by two of its recent commissions, the playground for Bensley Design Studios just keeps growing. Two palaces, one for the Malaysian monarchy, another for the richest family in India, are currently on the boards. If there had ever been doubt about this American’s kudos in Asia, surely little could dispel it as swiftly as the royal nod.

A Time to Reap

A Time to Reap

South China Morning Post, August 2006

For a long time Siem Reap has been little more than a launching pad into Angkor, a dusty frontier town of fumes and lurking potholes, of children with large eyes and speedy fingers. Very few tourists tend to leave with tales of overwhelming warmth, applauding the local hospitality. This may have something to do with its messy economics. As part of the country’s second poorest province the town offers a great escape for farmers tired of battling with the local scrub land. But the faster they flood in, the faster chain hotels and tour operators tend to funnel tourist dollars out, leaving what amounts to a money vacuum. In it, Siem Reap has become defined by its most successful bread winners – kids – those big eyes and speedy fingers commanding a notorious (and damn near inescapable) sympathy tax.

Yet supported by a new initiative by the IFC, local and foreign businesses have started to take all this on board, and the town is doing a slow pirouette towards self-sustainability. Visit Siem Reap now, even fleetingly, and its not hard to find a fine hotel, cooking class or lingerie line that takes your custom, puts it to excellent use, and leaves you feeling rather Angelina Jolie in the process. It’s all about knowing where to look.

Hotel de la Paix

What you get: The town’s newest five-star is owned by Bed Management, the group behind Bangkok’s ultra hip Bed Supperclub. It offers a cool mix of Khmer chic and modern technology, with an i-pod music system in every room, a suitably glamourous swimming pool and a three-storey spa.

What you give to:  The hotel promotes a program of donations and visits, ranging from orphanage support to rice sponsorship. Its Arts Lounge showcases work by Khmer artisans, while back in the kitchen the head chef promotes seasonal Khmer food (supporting local farmers) and sends off old cooking oil to an eco-organization to fuel a local project. For a higher karma rating, nearby sister hotel Shinta Mani is a beautiful four star option that operates a hospitality training school NGO, and can organize volunteer work for guests.

Le Tigre de Papier

What you get:  A cosy bar-restaurant that nestles into a strip of rambunctious eat ‘n greet venues. It also offers a popular Khmer cooking class that has students exploring the market, before cooking and feasting on a banquet for eight. Alternatively try its second floor boutique. The lingerie line – Shenga – is the first of its kind in Cambodia, being 100% pure silk with designs available off shelf and bespoke.

What you give to: Nearly 50% of the US$10 cooking course fee and 100% of its glossy cook book price goes to Sala Bai, a hospitality training school for young Cambodians. The lingerie brand is fair trade and partners with a variety of textile NGOs. It works directly with underprivileged seamstresses in the area, keeps to a monthly production maximum of just 80 sets, and to top it all off uses hand-made recycled paper bags! (855)1226 811

Krousar Thmey

What you get: After a day spent grappling with ancient blocks of stone and elusive vista points, there’s nothing like a full body massage. Conveniently situated on the route back from Angkor into town, Krousar Thmey has 12 professionally trained, sight-impaired masseurs on hand to pummel you back into action. It also offers a little education on the side by way of its exhibition hall – which features a series of slightly rustic display boards on Cambodian geography, crafts, village life and its eco-environment.

What you give to: Krousar Thmey is a nation-wide Cambodian-run organization with its fingers in many a humanitarian pie. It supports huge numbers of underprivileged children with schemes from outreach and protection to vocational training, and was the first NGO to implement education for blind and deaf kids. Also try Seeing Hands 4, another massage parlour run by the blind and open later at night. Seeing Hands:(855)12786894

Sala Bai and CVSG Training Restaurants

What you get: A cracking meal, prepared with real verve. Sala Bai is a fairly sophisticated affair in the town centre that serves Asian and Western dishes, with a menu that changes daily and a range of French wines. CVSG (Cambodia Village Support Group) across the river is a more rustic operation with a simple Khmer menu and super-keen (if not always correct) service.

What you give to: Both are NGOs and free training schools for young Cambodians at risk. Sala Bai operates a small hotel on the side and is supported by Agir Pour Le Cambodge, while CVSG is Japanese-run and includes a number of community projects, including an orphanage. The staff at both relish the chance for a good chat, so it’s a great way to find out more about the area. (in Japanese) Tel:(855)63760472

Artisan d’Angkor

What you get: An airy boutique stocked with locally crafted goodies, from silk scarves and throws to sculptures in wood and stone. The quality is high, and items combine traditional Khmer techniques with modern design elements. You can also visit its working silk farm 16km outside town (tours in English, French and Japanese), and the boutique café, opposite Angkor Wat.

What you give to: The initiative was started to make sustainable work for promising young Cambodians in their home villages – while promoting up market Cambodian workmanship. It also managed to pioneer a nation-wide social policy that assures staff reasonable wages and welfare benefits.


Also keep an eye out for:

Earth Walkers: Started by a group of concerned Norwegian graduates, the group operates a friendly fund-raising guesthouse, places volunteers and supports countless local charities. It recently took a football team of orphaned boys to the Norway Cup.

Osmose: A small eco-conscious tour agency that funds a preservation project at the Tonle Sap Lake. Visit a flooded forest, a floating village and learn about local flora and fauna.

The Life and Hope Association: To see the street kids on their best behaviour (give or take a few piggyback rides) contact this school and outreach program run by an exceptional local wat. For a more rambunctious welcome, volunteer a few hours or days to its more informal Green Gecko morning school nearby.

Cambodia Landmine Museum: Run by Aki Ra, an eccentric yet very committed local luminary, this offers a delightfully ramshackle stash of wartime memorabilia. Ra himself was a child soldier and donations go to a relief fund for landmine victims, mine education and training.

Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals: Every Saturday evening at 7:15 hospital Jayavarman VIII holds a free Bach concert by an eccentric Swiss cellist and doctor, known as Beatocello. The musician also chats about the health situation in Cambodia, and the hospitals’ work.


Terminal Creativity

Terminal Creativity

Architecture Week, USA, September 17 2008

ArchWeek Image

The Chinese have long been good at big gestures, and one of Beijing’s latest — courtesy of London’s Foster + Partners — is lifting spirits in the capital at a rate of thousands per day. As the world’s largest airport terminal, Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3 is a striking combination of British finesse with China’s brute power and bureaucratic will.

The Chinese have long been good at big gestures, and one of Beijing’s latest — courtesy of London’s Foster + Partners — is lifting spirits in the capital at a rate of thousands per day.

As the world’s largest airport terminal, Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3 is a striking combination of British finesse with China’s brute power and bureaucratic will. The terminal exceeds one million square meters (11 million square feet) according to Foster + Partners, and is expected to serve an estimated 50 million passengers per year by 2020, with up to 7,000 international passengers per hour.

The mammoth project is being credited with successfully re-tuning airport space — a feat occasionally attempted and rarely achieved.

Beijing’s Terminal 3 joined the two existing overworked airport wings in February 2008, and will be cutting its teeth on the million or so sports fans set to descend for the Summer Olympics. The building is a reassuring symbol in a country that has seen explosive economic growth put real strain on its infrastructure.

The central government chose one giant for another, and Norman Foster’s British architecture powerhouse won the competition with a building as vast as it is fluid. Foster + Partners collaborated with the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design (BIAD) — a large, state-owned operation with a project list that includes The Great Hall of the People and the airport’s Terminal 2. The architects teamed up with Arup for structural and mechanical engineering, and Dutch airport consultants NACO rounded out the joint venture.

Spearheaded by Foster himself and Mouzhan Majidi, the terminal design has elicited creative comparisons with everything from the Forbidden City to a double-headed snake. Reviews have largely been positive. Terminal 3 has fared better than Beijing’s last curvaceous high-tech newcomer, Paul Andreu’s National Theatre, rather derisively dubbed “The Egg.” The airport’s sleek, high-tech curves appear graceful, aerodynamic, and rather welcoming.  

Bright Behemoth

Made up of three slim, connected volumes — T3A, the processing terminal; T3B, international gates; and T3C, domestic gates — the terminal stretches essentially north-south in a long, mostly linear form. The building forks out at either end from cathedralesque halls, extending the perimeter to accommodate a total of 120 gates, 85 of which are contact aircraft stands.

Passengers heading towards their gates find the space paring down intimately along their journey. The slenderness of the design has also kept the footprint small and manageable, and orientation straightforward.

Visual cohesion was a clear priority in the design, and practically the project works well — there’s little that’s easier to navigate than a straight line. From tip to tip the airport is 3.25 kilometers (two miles) long, but all-around glazing and an open upper mezzanine level have kept sight lines clear. High-speed automated people-movers hit up to 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour), making the cross-terminal journey in about two minutes, end to end.

There is a color zoning system in the roof canopy, starting with bright red at the T3A entrance, and moving through 16 different flame-colored tones through T3C to the end of T3B. The same colors add texture and enhance the curves above the arrivals and departures hall.

International arrivals enter on the upper level to a sweeping view of the airport — a far cry from the corridors and basements so common in airports worldwide.

In the roof, a steel space frame supports triangular roof lights and colored metal decking. Extra-large mullions are widely spaced to allow large, light-friendly spans of suspended glazing.

The palette was culturally inspired, according to Foster. “This is a building born of its context,” he says. “It communicates a uniquely Chinese sense of place… in its dragon-like form and the drama of the soaring roof that is a blaze of ‘traditional’ Chinese colours — imperial reds merge into golden yellow.”

Also fitting neatly with images of the regal and religious in China, an army of bold red pillars marches along the central axis and continues outside.

Sustainable Design?

The architects have stated that sustainability also drove the design, bringing much-needed environmental goodie points to a city too often cloaked in smog. In fact, Foster has called T3 “one of the world’s most advanced buildings in environmental terms.”

Foster + Partners has provided few details to bolster this claim, however. One example the firm gives of passive design is the southeastern orientation of skylights to maximize morning heat gain in the terminal.

But other sustainable features are described in vague terms: an environmental control system that “minimises energy consumption”; dimensions that allowed “optimum performance of materials,” many of which were supposed to have been procured locally. Unfortunately, the firm’s representatives were unable to offer information in any more detail for this ArchitectureWeek article.

Life in the Fast Lane

Operationally, the building has fared quite well in the months since its opening. Large-scale operations can make for large-scale headaches, however, particularly in a country so new to modernity.

Critics, such as writer Han Song, who penned an article entitled, “The capital airport’s new terminal is like country train station,” have reported a disappointing lack of seating; the incongruous use of low-tech communications devices, such as megaphones and whiteboards; and people milling about aimlessly “like on market day.” Flattened cardboard boxes have been used for seating in bare smoking areas.

The project’s speed was unprecedented. It was built in less time, famously, than it took to hold the public inquiry for Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in London. Within only five months of Foster + Partners winning the T3 project, the firm had set up its China office and produced the design. At the peak of construction, 50,000 workers were recorded on site.

“Consider that this is a building of 1.3 million square metres [14 million square feet],” notes Foster, referring to the terminal and the attached ground transportation center, “yet remarkably it was commissioned and completed in a little over four years.”

That speed may be impressive, but could also be cause for concern — especially when noting China’s reputation for parting people from their homes with little or no compensation, as well as the often passive nature of its trade unions.

But on the whole, the UK-China collaboration has very much taken off: a triumphant balance of “wow” factor with efficiency, super scale with comfort. Olympic contenders will find it a memorable welcome to a city of the new millennium.   >>>

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Jo Baker is a freelance design and travel writer based in Hong Kong and San Francisco. Publications she writes for include Time, The South China Morning Post, and Hinge Magazine.



ArchWeek Image

Inside one of Terminal 3’s grand halls, the glazed facade and overhead skylights provide ample daylighting.
Photo: Nigel Young/ Foster + Partners Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

A complex structural latticework is visible just beyond the minimal ceiling over each of the terminal’s two large halls.
Photo: Nigel Young/ Foster + Partners Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Terminal 3 site plan drawing.
Image: Foster + Partners Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Terminal 3 departure hall section drawing looking south.
Image: Foster + Partners Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Beyond the main halls, the long narrow connecting buildings are covered by a curving glazed roof.
Photo: Nigel Young/ Foster + Partners Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Triangular skylights punctuate the opaque roof above Terminal 3’s two large halls.
Photo: Nigel Young/ Foster + Partners Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

At its apex, a teardrop-shaped multilane road passes along the curved southern facade of Terminal 3.
Photo: Nigel Young/ Foster + Partners Extra Large Image