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Modern Arches, ‘Supercore’ Define Cultural Complex

By Catherine A. Cardno, Ph.D.

A new cultural complex in the district of Longgang, in Shenzhen, China, will contain three cultural centers and a book mall, all located adjacent to a public park.

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Construction has begun on a building in the Longgang District in Shenzhen, China, that will include centers for science, art, urban planning, and youth—plus a book mall. Mecanoo Architecten/Christopher Malheiros Architectural Visualization

September 30, 2014—The building boom in Shenzhen, China, has greatly expanded the city, including the Longgang district, where construction has begun on a 99,000 m2public cultural complex. Tasked with creating a structure that would encompass an interactive science center, an urban planning and arts center, a youth center, and a shopping center devoted to reading material called a book mall, the Delft-based architecture firm Mecanoo has created a streamlined structure. Defined by contemporary arches made possible by concrete "super cores," the structure provides direct access from Longgang's commercial district to Longcheng, a busy public park. The long, narrow cultural complex will thus act as a gateway, rather than a barricade, for residents and employees who wish to use the park.

Shenzhen has been growing steadily since being named as China's first "special economic zone" in 1980, which allows foreign investment in the region and a degree of economic autonomy similar to a province. High-rise structures and cultural complexes designed by such leading architects as NBBJ, Atkins, and OMAhave begun to grace the city's skyline as its population has grown to exceed 12 million. "Shenzhen is a rapidly expanding and growing city," says Friso Van der Steen, a manager of international projects in Mecanoo's Delft office who served as the project director. (Nuno Fontarra, a senior/associated architect, served as the project architect, and Yan Shi, an architect, was the architect for the design; both also work in the Delft office.)

The Mecanoo design was awarded first place in an invited design competition in 2011. Longcheng means 'dragon square,' and there were several dragon-inspired designs in the competition, Van der Steen notes. But the Mecanoo team took a different route because some of those entries were so fantastical that they would have been far too expensive to build. "We didn't want that kind of…inspiration, but a more down to earth, contextual reference," he says. "We designed it in a very contemporary way without being too symbolic." 

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The new cultural centers and book mall will provide direct access from Longgang’s commercial business district to Longcheng, a busy public park. Mecanoo Architecten/ Christopher Malheiros Architectural Visualization

Longgang is one of the newer city districts in Shenzhen and is located to the east of the city's main section, according to Van der Steen. The site is adjacent to the district's western development. The 3.8 ha urban site where the complex will be located is long and narrow with a strict height restriction, according to Van der Steen. The design team's solution was a 400 m long, 50 m wide, and 25 m tall cast-in-place concrete building with a structural facade. The building is divided into four volumes that each feature cantilevers that meet to create the multiple contemporary archways.

The structural facade, clad in colorized aluminum, gives the complex what Van der Steen calls a "contemporary" feel. "We shaped the openings," Van der Steen says. "There is never a straight edge on the corners, they are all curved and the facades are slightly leaning or tilting, and there is basically no vertical facade, which creates dynamic viewing lines—or openings—from the park side to the development side." The gateways to the park can also be used as covered public spaces for hosted events.

The Mecanoo design team decided against a continuous building that would fill the entire site, because it would have blocked access to the park, Van der Steen explains. "Our main goal is open it up," he says. "That's why we made huge arches, or cantilevers if you like, so that we have a very long building, but perforated as much as possible so that the park is connected to the development on the other side."  

The four distinct elements to the program—three cultural centers and the book mall—gave the designers a practical way to "break the building up," Van der Steen says. Three volumes will house government-sponsored cultural spaces, the Longgang government being the client, and the fourth will be occupied by the book mall. 

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The contemporary arches that will act as gateways to the park can also be used as covered public spaces for hosted events. Mecanoo Architecten/Doug and Wolf

The first and third volumes will be geared toward youth. A 10,000 m2science center that will focus on popular science for children and young adults will fill the first volume, Van der Steen says. The third will be an 8,000 m2center where children can meet one another, take after-school lessons, learn to play musical instruments, or play sports.

The second volume will be a 13,500 m2combined public arts and urban planning center. The art museum will be on the upper floors of the structure, while the urban planning center would occupy the basement and ground floor. Because of the relative newness of the district, the government wants to keep its residents informed of its continued growth. "There will be giant model of the Longgang district [in the urban planning center]," Van der Steen says. "The Longgang District is a city district of 40 km long, so the client will make a model of 1 1/1000," he says. "It will be a 40 m architectural model…to inform the residents of Longgang what the city is planning to do [and] how [it will] expand and change the city."  

The fourth volume will be the 25,000 m2book mall. Such shopping malls already exist elsewhere in Shenzhen, and the client, Shenzhen-based Book City, plans to have one in each new district as it develops. "It's not a normal shopping mall," Van der Steen notes. Because the mall will only be focused on books or book-related themes, its will host a variety of expected—and unexpected—ancillary events. "They do book-signing sessions [and] lectures," Van der Steen says, and also exhibitions related to book launches as well as topic-related events and demonstrations. For example, he says, there will be cooking demonstrations in the cookbook department and fashion events the fashion department.

Because of the volume's angled exterior walls and high floor-to-ceiling height requirements for the interior spaces, the vast majority of the structure—90 to 95 percent, Van der Steen says—is designed in cast-in-place concrete. "And the biggest structural concept, which is quite important for the architect at least, is that we have a structural facade so the beams and the columns are within the facade envelope," he notes. "And then [that] we have a giant core on the inside."

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The 25,000 m2book mall will be dedicated to books and book-related themes and will host such events as book-signings, lectures, cooking demonstrations, and fashion shows. Mecanoo Architecten

These "super cores," Van der Steen explains, are much larger than traditional concrete cores, so that large open spaces in the volumes' centers could be created. Additionally, the spaces at the edges of the volumes that are formed by the angled exterior walls are become interior architectural highlights. These spaces are range in height from two to four stories, dramatically increasing the sense of expanse from the interior. "We wanted in the interior to show all those spaces," Van der Steen explains. By using the super cores in combination with the structural facade, the interiors of these spaces did not need to be cluttered with a grid of columns and beams, he notes.

By teaming up in an early stage with the local design institute, China Construction Design International (CCDI), Mecanoo was able to emphasize the importance of creating the exterior angles and interior voids in as "clean" a manner as possible. The sizes of the super cores vary depending on the volume, but the public art and urban planning volume will contain the largest at approximately 45 m in length, according to Van der Steen. This is being done specifically to create the column-free space for the scale model of the Longgang district that will be housed within this volume, he notes.

The project will also include 31,500 m2of underground parking and a new public square totalling 3.8 ha, according to the architecture firm. Two elevated walkways will also connect the new cultural centers and book mall with the plinths of two residential buildings located nearby.

The total cost for the complex is estimated to be 980 million RMB (U.S.$160 million).

The complex is expected to be complete by the end of 2017, according to the architects.


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