Phoenix Media Center
By Kevin Holden Platt
Architect Shao Weiping’s unveiling of the Phoenix International Media Center, which resembles a DNA-like double helix that has been wrapped into a loop, adds a new icon of advanced engineering and parametric design to Beijing’s ever-morphing skyline.
The design of the Phoenix Center – situated at the edge of a lake inside a forested park – also creates the first broadcasting outpost in the capital that is completely open to China’s citizenry since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, says the architect.
He also says that although China has emerged as the globe’s construction superpower, the capital is marked by a curious phenomenon: the leading works of experimental architecture built in Beijing over the past decade have virtually all been designed by European Pritzker Prize recipients.
But now, Mr. Shao says he aims to break that pattern with the Phoenix Center. The circular contours of the Phoenix complex echo the yin-yang symbol of ancient Chinese philosophy, but they were designed using leading-edge parametric 3D modeling software. “This building could be characterized as a new study on computational design,” Shao explains during an interview inside the new media outpost.
The hyper-technology of the new television center, along with its complex curvilinear design, captured the limelight at the China Pavilion of the 2012 Venice Biennale for Architecture, says Daisy Guo, project manager for the Chinese exhibition at that Biennale. Shao’s design of the media center is also likely just to represent the tip of a new wave of projects by China’s leading experimental architects in the quest to sculpt Beijing’s future, she adds.
For decades after the Communist revolution, Beijing’s leadership deployed state-trained architects to craft Soviet-style monuments to socialism, along with generic factories and flats for the masses. But the government switched gears after Beijing won its bid to host the 2008 Olympics, and began staging a series of international competitions to design architectural icons marking China’s ascendance on the world stage and its new openness to the forces of innovation and globalization.
Works generated through these contests – the surreal “anti-skyscraper” of the CCTV Tower created by OMA’s Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, and the glowing silver mesh façade of the Olympic Stadium by Herzog and de Meuron – have opened the way for experimental Chinese architects to test the boundaries of building design and engineering.
Gehry’s digital technology
Architect Shao Weiping, who took first place in a competition to design the center staged by the Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television, says he used Gehry Technologies’ Digital Project software to design and build a sophisticated 3D virtual model of the complex, as part of a wider drive to create a work of architectural and engineering beauty.
Frank Gehry’s Digital Project modeling tools, showcased in an exhibition at the Danish Architecture Center in 2007, were adapted from the French-developed 3D design software used to create the Mirage and Rafale fighter jets.
The Beijing-based architect says this modeling software enabled him to intricately manipulate the parameters of the overall design and structural engineering of the Phoenix Center, to precisely control the airflow around the building and to convert the façade’s steel diagrid into a network of miniature canals to transport raindrops into an array of reflective pools surrounding the building.
Completely open to the public
The Phoenix complex, he adds, has already surpassed the CCTV tower in one all-important area: free access to the site for all citizens.
“The Phoenix Media Center is the only television building in Beijing to be completely open to the public,” Shao says. A dedicated visitors’ pathway winds past the building’s broadcasting studios and explorers can interact with reporters during the tour.
Koolhaas and Schreeren initially designed the CCTV complex to include an ultra-egalitarian, democratic visitors’ loop that would enable an endless stream of citizens to visit television studios, actors lounges, and both towers of the center, as well as a dramatic cantilevered observation space that juts out, like a three-dimensional arrow, from the center. This open-access design, Scheeren mused in an article written in anticipation of CCTV’s opening, pointed to “some kind of new utopia.”
OMA’s frozen utopia
But the government-appointed leaders of the state broadcaster have frozen – indefinitely – access to this public loop, and OMA’s utopia with it; the CCTV complex is now guarded around the clock by contingents of People’s Armed Police.
In contrast, Shao vows: “Phoenix will never ever close off access to its visitors pathway.” He also says this pathway runs through the heart of the complex, taking viewers past broadcasting modules, a new media experimental center, and “big public spaces for art exhibitions, fashion shows, album releases and press conferences.”
“The architecture itself is extremely transparent and friendly to the people and the city,” he adds.
Twin towers connected by a sky-ramp
Pathways that cut through the park surrounding the Phoenix complex form tangents to its open circular perimeter; a nearby lake is equipped with holiday camp-like boating facilities. Inside the transparent, helical envelope of the center are two towers – one in the south for administrative offices and another in the north for broadcasting studios – connected by a soaring sky-ramp.
Meanwhile, the increasing openness toward avant-garde architecture by high-echelon government leaders and by private outfits like Phoenix TV, combined with China’s construction boom, is laying the foundation for a phalanx of experimental Chinese architects like Shao Weiping to design across the country.
China’s super-speed urbanization (20 million peasants are moving into the cities every year), explosive economic growth and burgeoning class of nouveaux riches are all powering the expansion of the construction sector. Research firms Oxford Economics and Global Construction Perspectives stated in a report they jointly issued in July of 2013: “China overtook the US to become the world’s largest construction market in 2010, and is expected to increase its global share from 18% today to 26% in 2025.” By 2025, they project, the worldwide construction market will be worth $15 trillion, and China will be its hyper-power leader.