Steven Holl embeds ‘clouds and clocks’ into Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center

Combining cloud-like built forms with circular green spaces, Steven Holl Architects’ recent project in Shanghai, China, links nearby developments through stretches of public parkland.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Oct 27, 2021

Designed and built for China’s largest state-owned food processing and holding company, the recently completed Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center by Steven Holl Architects has been described by the firm as a ‘social condenser’. With the aid of their intervention, the New York and Beijing-based practice aimed to knit together an agglomeration of neighbouring housing blocks through swathes of open urban parkland and public space, interjected by monumental built forms. Completed over a five-year period beginning in 2016, the multi-use complex is currently settled along the banks of Shanghai’s Punan Canal in the city’s Fengxian District.

  • The development is settled on the banks of Shanghai’s Punan Canal near an assortment of housing blocks | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    The development is settled on the banks of Shanghai’s Punan Canal near an assortment of housing blocks Image: © Aogvision
  • Referencing philosopher Karl Popper's 1965 lecture Of Clocks and Clouds, the project embeds two cloud-like concrete structure into a landscape of circular green spaces | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    Referencing philosopher Karl Popper's 1965 lecture Of Clocks and Clouds, the project embeds two cloud-like concrete structure into a landscape of circular green spaces Image: © Aogvision

Housing a pair of cloud-like buildings realised in exposed concrete - one for the Cultural Center and the other for the Health Center - within a landscape of circular, clock-shaped green spaces, the project directly references philosopher Karl Popper’s famed 1965 lecture titled Of Clocks and Clouds. Shedding light on the contrast in character brought into the neighbourhood by their intervention, the team at Steven Holl Architects comments in an official release, “While the adjacent housing blocks are repetitive, here the architecture is of spatial energy and openness, inviting the whole community in for recreational and cultural programs”.

  • Gentle curves and cutouts define the forms of the Cultural Center and Health Center | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    Gentle curves and cutouts define the forms of the Cultural Center and Health Center Image: © Aogvision
  • The building façades are composed of load-bearing, cast in-situ concrete | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    The building façades are composed of load-bearing, cast in-situ concrete Image: © Aogvision

Organised in clock-like circular layouts, the landscape design forges a dialogue between the two structures at the opposing ends of its site, with a large circular public space placed between them. Radial and tangential pathways serve to reinforce this theme. Prioritising green space, fresh air, and natural light, the project honours Steven Holl Architects’ post-pandemic architecture strategies by incorporating open circulation routes and social spaces. Reflecting on the COVID-19-induced challenges that his team had to overcome while bringing the development to life, Steven Holl, Principal at the firm, remarks in a press statement, “To work on architecture for culture and health is a social commitment, much needed in our current moment, as we continue to feel the global impacts of the pandemic.”

  • Tie holes induce a sense of porosity in the concrete surfaces of the two structures | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    Tie holes induce a sense of porosity in the concrete surfaces of the two structures Image: © Aogvision
  • A curved ramp gently winds its way to the second floor of the Cultural Center | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    A curved ramp gently winds its way to the second floor of the Cultural Center Image: © Aogvision

The light grey concrete forms of the set of buildings on site exhibit gentle curves and cutouts that reflect their designations as clouds drifting along the circular green spaces. Composed of load-bearing, cast in-situ concrete façades topped by green sedum roofs, the two structures appear to blend into the surrounding landscape when viewed from above. Furthermore, the façade designs of both buildings are periodically punctured by organically-shaped glazed voids while the concrete surfaces themselves are rhythmically perforated with tie holes.

  • Sweeping, curved staircases are a constant feature of the complex’s interiors | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    Sweeping, curved staircases are a constant feature of the complex’s interiors Image: © Aogvision
  • Organically-shaped glazed openings allow light to flood into internal spaces | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    Organically-shaped glazed openings allow light to flood into internal spaces Image: © Aogvision
  • The openings add to the porosity of structures within the development | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    The openings add to the porosity of structures within the development Image: © Aogvision

Settled atop a transparent glass base that serves as its link with the landscape below, the Cultural Center’s main concrete mass induces a sense of porosity to contrast the impermeable, repetitive edifices of surrounding housing blocks. On the other hand, the transparent section below it allows light to permeate the interior of the building’s ground level which hosts a café, as well as game and recreation rooms. A gently curving concrete ramp winds its way up to the building’s second floor, offering a circulation path that grants panoramic views of the site. As the larger structure among the pair of built forms, the Cultural Center also accommodates an exhibition space, a library, and a gym, alongside community and youth activity areas as part of its program.

Vast courts open to the sky feature swooping, curved stairways | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
Vast courts open to the sky feature swooping, curved stairways Image: © Aogvision

Alternatively, the smaller Health Center’s form is moulded by the soft curves of the central landscape area, to further enhance the connections between its cloud-like characteristics and the green spaces that embrace it. Among its functional zones are a health education area, pharmacy, consultation rooms, exam rooms, a physical therapy room, ultrasound and x-ray rooms, nursery, admin, and doctor’s lounges. Typifying Steven Holl’s phenomenological and contextually specific approach, the interior designs of both structures contain vast courts open to the sky with swooping, curved staircases, as well as panoramic windows that overlook the circular green spaces.

  • Site Plan | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    Site Plan Image: Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects
  • Site Section | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    Site Section Image: Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Steven Holl Architects also implemented sustainable design measures such as carbon footprint monitoring and the use of 30 per cent recycled materials by weight during the construction phase. Moreover, the complex utilises thermal storage, gray water and recycled water systems, as well as centralised heating and cooling to achieve a Shanghai Silver Green sustainability certification. As the latest landmark structure in Holl’s extensive and distinguished oeuvre, Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center was included as part of Idea + Phenomena, an exhibition of the work of Steven Holl Architects that was on view at the Roca Beijing Gallery for a month running from September 16 – October 16, 2021.

  • Conceptual sketch of landscape design | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    Conceptual watercolour of landscape design Image: Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects
  • Conceptual sketch of open court | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    Conceptual watercolour of open court Image: Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects
  • Model | Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center | Steven Holl Architects | STIRworld
    Model Image: Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Project Details

Name: Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center
Location: Shanghai, China
Client: COFCO
Year of completion: 2021
Site Area: 7,520 sqm
Cultural Center Area: 6,030 sqm
Health Center Area: 1,490 sqm
Architect: Steven Holl Architects
Architects In Charge: Steven Holl (design architect), Roberto Bannura (partner in charge), Noah Yaffe (project advisor), Xi Chen, Sihuan Jin (project architects), Zhu Zhu (assistant project architect)
Project Team: Wenying Sun, Ruoyu Wei, Dimitra Tsachrelia, Yuanchu Yi, Okki Berendschot, Pu Yun, Elise Riley, Lydia Liu, Tsung-Yen Hsieh, Shih-Hsueh Wang, Michael Haddy, Yi Ren, Xu Zhang, Lidong Sun, Peter Chang, Yuchun Lin, Peilu Chen, Hong Ching Lee
Associate Architect: East China Architectural Design & Research Institute

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