by Sunena V MajuJan 24, 2023
The quantum of theoretical discourse on the architectural wave that seems to be reforming China’s built landscape with convention-defying structures may be enough to crowd the nation’s libraries by now. Ironically, or unironically, libraries - both public and private - do constitute a significant portion of these new developments in China. While the subject now transcends plainly academic interest, there is a rather confounding link between China’s architectural renaissance, that, by unintelligible contrast, seems to be missing from its Indian counterpart, and even global developments that boast the same scale, economics, and technological prowess. That link finds its genesis in the country’s centuries old culture that seeps into nearly every single such broadcasted development in China. Despite being an inimitable global centre in the East, hosting structures that conduct and invite billions in businesses, its buildings are remarkably designed to reflect a certain aspect of Chinese culture that itself draws from the nature of the region: a somewhat refreshing departure from the narrative of the globalisation of architecture.
Within the same context and discussion, the new campus of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is at once a technical marvel, and a structure so deeply rooted in the cultural ethos of the region and country that it is sure to be lauded globally. Ubiquitously nicknamed the Panda Tower, the tower design evokes, by proper intent, a theme-park like attraction, apart from housing the several functional aspects of the research base for pandas.
What I also find particularly interesting about the development is its context. The tower, described as a “celebration of nature and technology”, springs amidst a predominantly rural setting in Chengdu. Its proximity is populated mostly by vast reed fields and sparse bamboo forests. And yet, the tower soars above this low lying context as an architectural beacon, away from Chengdu’s densely populated urbanscape. Its concept too - that of a bamboo shoot, a particular favourite of the animal it studies - wouldn’t have manifested in a city block chock full of other skyscrapers.
This scenario is particularly reminiscent of the recent Jiang Hua Cultural Service Centre and its workshops, set rather inconspicuously amid a rural context too, with a completely different intent. In that sense, the transformation of China’s architectural landscape that I talked about earlier isn’t entirely urban at all. Yet, what makes this paradigm in Chinese architecture noteworthy is that it is still suitably grounded, even if the intervention is context defying rather than context defining. This propounds compelling arguments on a sense of belonging that seems absent from other ‘world-class architecture’.
While its form is inspired from nature, the Panda Tower’s conception, construction, and operation, rely heavily on modern technological implants. Apart from its holistic structure mimicking the springing of a bamboo shoot - a staple in the Sichuan-Chongqing region cuisine - the inspiration is also manifested in individual amber coloured strands that sinuously go around the tower and terminate in three stray ‘branches’ at its top, as well as in smaller design elements in the interiors, such as balustrades and railings. The main structure comprises eleven storeys, with each of the curvillinear floor slabs terminating in a spacious viewing platform that looks out towards the central viewing area of the conservation park. “Without curtain walls or gratings, the floor slabs and the buttresses are honestly exposed”, states the design team on the viewing platforms’ exposition that composes an entire elevation of the tower’s looping facade.
Tourists can gain access to the building via a podium platform that is reached through a grand flight of stairs in front of the tower, designed as if to coalesce into the ground in planned succession. A spiral walkway that goes along the landscape too offers a scenic route to the same destination. The interiors appear in predominantly gold tinged floor slabs extruding in curves, and arched structural units supporting them. The softness of the curves and the profusely golden interiors, making it appear as if the need for internal lighting was redundant, as seen from the central atrium, would give Adam Warlock’s lair a run for its money. An interesting example of biomimicry, the slabs are imagined as petals of a hibiscus flower - the city flower of Chengdu - established in a reductive rhythm in arithmetic progression from the bottom of the tower to the top.
The complexity in the building’s functioning and conception, also a statement on “the beauty of mathematics” according to the design studio, is more finely manifested in the tower’s apex, and the elaborate curtain wall system of the tower. Comprising parametrically arranged branch-like spirals, the top is endowed with a mechanical system that operates in tandem with the facade units. Together, the two are programmed for a performative display of sorts - the facade and the top ‘open up’, akin to a bamboo shoot springing, to mark special occasions and days, including the birth of a new giant panda baby, the return of a giant panda from overseas facilities, or important holidays and festivals. The angles and speeds at which the facade and the top open up are pre-programmed according to the occasion, and “the interaction with the visitors is eco-friendly and uses clean energy”, according to the design team, given that this machination easily emerges as the most interesting aspect of the centre’s design.
The same reliance on a mathematical sense of problem solving and programmatic operation runs through the entire building apart from the facade design, being conceived at the design stage itself, as Shanghai-based UDG Atelier Alpha won a global bid inviting designs for the centre in 2019. Every single architectural element in the building is correlated to the other through constraints in the grasshopper definition. This geometricity, and the resultant sense of constraint springing from it lend definition to the space, imparting it functional, structural, operational, and aesthetic meaning. A prodigal response to a defined brief that ends up achieving so much more, the structure, according to the designers, “represents the natural totem of the culture of the region”.
Name of project: Panda Tower
Location: Chengdu, China
Architecture Firm: UDG. Atelier Alpha
Gross Built Area: 4785 sq.m.
Lead Architect: Zeng Zi
Design Team: Zeng Zi, Wu QIjing, Qian Lie, Lei Yunqi, Zheng Yi, Zhang Nan, Tan Xinyu, Xin Kai, Lu Guodong, Lu Yangzhou, Liu Chentian, Shi Shupei, Cao Shangshang, Zhang Jiaqi
Client: Tianfu Greenway, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding