In Wuhan, the largest city in central China, developers are planning not one but two skyscrapers, both of which will edge out their Middle Eastern rival. Plus they’re on an island. And powered by renewable energy. And pink.
Chetwoods Architects, based in London, designed the £1.2 billion project, known as the Phoenix Towers.
"In China there’s a lot of competition between cities trying to out-‘spectactularize’ the next city," chairman Laurie Chetwood tells Co.Design in a phone interview. Chetwood and his team embraced the mandate to design something grand while layering in symbols that speak to China’s cultural heritage and future aspirations. "They were looking to put Wuhan on the map," he says, and the original design for the mixed-use commercial and tourist hub "wasn't spectacular enough."
Enter Chetwoods, which has won acclaim for imaginative and sustainable designs, like this solar-powered London bridge.
Other Western firms operating in China have taken a literal approach to integrating the country's history and culture into their designs. Shanghai's Jin Mao Tower, once the tallest building in China, echoes traditional pagoda architecture and references lucky number 8 in its proportions and floors (88, not including the spire). The neighboring Shanghai World Financial Center, which reigned as China's tallest building from 2007 until 2013, has had less success in its use of symbols. Original designs called for a circular "window" near the top of the tower, to relieve wind pressure, but protests over the design's unintentional echoes of Japan's rising sun flag compelled the architects to replace the circle with a trapezoid. For Shanghai locals, the building now signifies a second unintentional (and apparently universal) symbol: the bottle opener.
It's hard to imagine the Phoenix Towers succumbing to a similar fate. Their appropriation of symbols is more conceptual, with wide-ranging inspirations (Chetwood mentions ballet dancers and termite mounds) coalescing into a complementary spire-duo. The skyscrapers have a modern calligraphy all their own, with buttress-style "roots" sweeping upward to form narrow fuchsia masts of steel and lattice. (The color is meant to reflect the area's picturesque sunsets, the architects say. Plus Laurie Chetwood really likes fuschias.)
Yet Chetwood has still honored "the client’s wish to develop a new style of architecture that emphasises Chinese identity." As the firm wrote when unveiling the renderings earlier this month, "the use of a pair of towers reflects the dualist elements of Chinese culture in contrast to a more Western monolithic form." Hence the yin-yang, male-female design, with the whole of the system greater than the sum of the individual parts. The Chetwoods point of departure: For the most part, that meaning will reside beneath the surface, in the function of the buildings rather than in their form.
Feng, the slightly taller "male" Phoenix tower, will use wind turbines, hydrogen fuel cells, and other strategies to fully supply Huang, the "female" tower, with renewable power. Moreover, plans for Feng include roughly 100 stories of offices, residences, and retail, whereas the full kilometer of Huang’s interior will be devoted to nurturing the world’s tallest garden. (Usability is a secondary concern, as the project is as much a modern-day Eiffel Tower as it is a real estate venture.)
Pending the blessing of Wuhan’s mayor, developers expect to break ground before the end of the year and finish construction in 2018. When complete, Chetwood expects the Phoenix Towers to dominate the landscape in this provincial capital of 10 million, located near the intersection of the Yangtze and Han rivers.
"There is a very long three-kilometer vista from an existing conference center through the site," he says. It's quite unusual to have such a big space in such a large city available. They wanted something that was visually arresting."
And they got it.