Icons. And crutches: our “footnote” to the OMA’ Binhai Mansion project in Shenzhen.

©OMA 2011

Rem Koolhaas. In theory and in practice, directly or indirectly, in the last 30 years who do this job is somewhat debtor to him. In 1996 I visited for the first time his Kunsthal in Rotterdam, and inside it I exclaimed: “Oh my god.”

Then, after (many) high and (very few) downs, with the Prada Transformer – the first cinematic architecture at its scale – I said: “Oh god.”

Last weeks Koolhaas-OMA unveiled their project for the Binhai Mansion competition in Shenzhen, one of the countless tall buildings to be carried out on one of the countless irregular lots adjacent to one of the countless arterial roads of one of many Chinese metropolises. “Oh.”

According to the text which introduces the first images of the project, the “special form” of the building (ok, nothing so much worth to raise your eyebrows: another example of the rough-edgy meme) was born by subtraction of appropriate diagonal “slices” – two: one at the top, one in low – performed on “maximum extrusion” volume projected by the shape of the lot.

©OMA 2011 ©OMA 2011

The facade solution with varied transparencies highlighting hypothetical structural lines of force – a kind of geometrical trompe l’oeil in the distance vision – looks interesting: we could even admire the result by few tens of seconds, driving on the above mentioned arterial road (in the OMA text, the project prides itself on its dynamic view by car, reloading one of LeCorbu’ typical fads).

The problem is that buildings – these strange objects with people inside which we persist to design as hypertrophic ashtrays/flowerpots – so to speak, they have a quirk: they must stand. And as we know, they must be able to adequately support, in addition to their own weight and further working loads, even horizontal stresses due to other strange incidents, apparently unknown to many of us, who are called earthquakes. Buildings must therefore, in case of danger, resist structurally so as to allow the escape of who is inside (working in, or as a visitor;  on the first floor as in the spectacular-view-penthouse) in a reasonable time. We – as well as others, through the principle of similarity – we have already said elsewhere that there is a big difference to stand up an ashtray or a larger and more complex structural system, what a building definitely is.

So what happens in Shenzhen? If in the beginning the two funny “slices” that led to our Oh! formally worked, someone realized quickly that resting an entire building on its base edge wouldn’t be a great idea: somewhat like to climb a tree partially processed with an ax. You risk a lot.

So here’s the gimmick: put a providential tower-lift under the overhang. Technically, a prop. A crutch. Wow.

©OMA 2011

Others before Koolhaas have been forced to resort to this trick – since the classical Greek statuary, with trunks and shrubs in strategic locations at the foot of the otherwise unstable represented subject – so we are far from scandalized (below: “Apollo e Dafne”, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1622).

But a building shape, and moreover a shape on which hinges the entire project, will have greater reason to exist if it finds itself, in a certain internal coherence – also structural –  the conditions for facing at least fundamental physical laws. And this is much more possible today than yesterday, for the degree of control that we get through our BIM skills, sophisticated than ever in foreseeing our building working in all their aspects since the earliest design stages. I believe that OMA owns these skills to the state of the art.

This crutch appears as a makeshift, and – in my opinion – only contributes to a not-so-solved feeling. I do not think that the elevator-tower was a compositional choice expressly desired, since it never appears in the early sketches and models. If, for example, in the MVRDV’ Balancing Barn  the swing hanging from the end of the cantilever is to ironically underline the exaggerated shelf-effect on the observer, in the Binhai Mansion that support appears as a simple expedient, something postiche. There’s nothing ironic. You’d think that has prevailed the relentless for a formal, untenable solution, such as to justify even inelegant structural gimnicks such as that strut-lift.

©OMA 2011

At the sight of yet another empty box, or if you want a very clever botox-variation to the decorated shed, we hope in a greater effort, at least in projects so onerous in every respect. At least by OMA.

One could argue: perhaps we had these objects around our cities, and needless to say that Koolhaas has nothing to prove to anyone. And I agree. But if we speak between gourmets, there’s a spontaneous call: who has the skills – and ours has plenty of – as well as take care of business could also try to continue to make good, self-standing architecture, if possible without shortcuts or – worse – crutches.

Because oh my god! is something you always have to earn.


For those who want to deepen the work of Shenzhen, below is the abstract of this project, from OMA official website. (All the project images are property of their respective authors, whom we thank).

Compared to cities even 50 years ago, we now typically perceive our buildings from a moving position, not from a fixed perspective. From the pedestrian to the automobile, the speed of our movement in cities has increased astronomically. But our buildings are still conceived as they always have been: from a stable position…

The site offers ideal conditions to conceive a building that comes alive through the energy of Shenzhen itself: we have placed a triangular tower on the irregular plot to generate a dynamic object that radically changes its character with the slightest shift in perspective of those that approach it. Sections are sliced off the tower to mark an entrance and a top, creating a multifaceted icon instantly recognizable yet different from each direction. The structure of the building creates an overall triangulation that makes it a sculpture, an effect reinforced by the subtle gradations of the facade treatment. A sculpture that works, a new way of being impressive…

The excitement of the exterior translates into an equally surprising inside: the triangular plan offers “natural” conditions of light and dark, exposure and depth, which accommodate Tencent’s endlessly varied needs. The predictability that spoils so many contemporary office environments (and makes work less inspiring than it could be) is avoided.

Today, considerable parts of a building’s life occur underground, hidden from view. Instead of a conventional plaza, we prefer to show that our building goes on underground by exposing the many activities that take place in the basement… The coming and going of Tencent’s workers evince the strength of the company.

By placing the elevator core in the far corner of the triangle, the actual entrance of the building coincides with the exact point where it touches the ground. (Author’s note: they are saying an obvious banality: where could the entrance be if not in the only portion which has contact with the ground? And then, it is not clear why the lift-tower should be in the opposite side to the direction of entrance in the building…)

On the typical working floors of the building, the eccentric position of the core generates large, but unusually lively floorplates that offer a genuine diversity of exposure, scale, and atmosphere. Where most contemporary office buildings depend entirely on partitions to create workable interior conditions, the configuration of the Tencent building itself creates a wide range of architectural conditions that will facilitate, even inspire office planning.


Headquarters in Shenzhen

Competition: 2011


Shenzhen, China

Offices, Retail, Recreation, Library, IT Servers

Floor Area:
260,000m2 above ground, 70,000m2 below ground, 320,000m2 total
Height: 200m

©OMA/Rem Koolhaas 2011

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