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.
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”.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Name: Shanghai Cofco Cultural & Health Center
Location: Shanghai, China
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