Holl's Linked Hybrid
On a smaller scale, this concept is also found inside the 644 apartments in the use of wide hinged doors that open the space to new sightlines and cross-perspectives, following a signature concept of Holl's that he calls "hinged space."
At ground level, the 6.2-hectare (15.3-acre) site was designed to be significantly porous and open to the public, with many large access portals, and pathways at a variety of levels. Facilities include shops and restaurants, a cinema complex, and a Montessori school, some of the functions suggested by Holl himself.
The central plaza is enlivened by a large reflecting pool with misting fountains. The cineplex presents a dramatic centerpiece: an angular island with interior images sometimes projected onto its walls and reflected in the pool. Touches of greenery are woven throughout, with roof gardens installed atop the movie theater and on the connective volumes between some of the towers.
Outside the ring of towers stands a series of garden mounds, each loosely inspired by a stage of life. The "childhood" mound covers the kindergarten, knitting it to the ground. Other mounds integrate recreational facilities, including a basketball court and skate park for "adolescence," and tennis courts, a tai chi platform, and a public tea house for "middle age." Some functions are actually housed within, such as the meditation space inside the "mound of infinity."
Unfortunately, the late and incongruous addition of a Chinese-style wall encircling the estate has effectively counteracted the intended openness. Although nonresidents may still be free to enter Grand Moma, its postmodern style has been compromised, and it no longer presents as clear a contrast to Beijing's gated communities.
Green Runs Deep
In addition to the green roofing, the project incorporates a number of sustainable elements. A water recycling system that collects graywater from the apartments for use in irrigation, toilet flushing, and pond rebalancing is expected to reduce potable water use considerably. Energy use is reduced through low-e insulated glazing in the structural curtain wall, exterior window shades, radiant heating and cooling, and displacement ventilation.
A large geothermal system, with 655 geothermal wells bored deep below the complex, meets most of its heating and cooling needs.
"It was very ambitious," notes Hideki Hirahara, project architect with Steven Holl Architects. "There are other projects in the area, mostly offices, heated with geothermals, but to accommodate the size of a complex so big we had to go very deep — the building is 66 meters [217 feet], but the water goes down 100 meters [330 feet]."
The combination of the geothermal system and other measures helps Linked Hybrid achieve "the comfort level of a five-star hotel using about one-third as much energy," according to a December 2009 article for The Straits Times by Beijing-based correspondent Sim Chi Yin, who consulted the project's developer, Modern Green Development Company.
The architects also gave some thought to the project's cultural assimilation. The best ideas deal with practical concerns, such as the meditation and tai chi spaces. Certain principles of feng shui were also adopted.
According to written material released by the studio, the design for the "mound of infinity" meditation area includes pavilions dedicated to the "five elements" (earth, wood, metal, fire, and water) of ancient Chinese cosmology. Hirahara admits that such aspects often arise during the design process in a "soft way." They give the impression of being an afterthought at the bidding of the developer — as does the new wall.
More intrinsic to the design process, according to Hirahara, was use of the number eight, considered lucky in Chinese culture. The architects tried to integrate it repeatedly, including in the number of residential towers and in the color scheme: the postmodern facade combines light-colored sanded and anodized aluminum with eight luminous colors inspired by China's old temples and monuments.
The architects used the divination system from the classic Chinese text the I Ching to choose the colors, according to Holl. The resulting palette is welcoming and vibrant rather than fashionable, although one wonders how well the light facades will fare against the graying air pollution.
Holl has described this project as his most philosophically ambitious to date, and credits his clients for their willingness to proceed boldly. "When I presented this, the director of the real estate development company said, 'We know we can sell all of these apartments, what's important is the spiritual dimension,'" said Holl in a 2007 interview with Charlie Rose. "They didn't take anything from the project." Holl didn't mention the wall.
Since before its opening, Linked Hybrid has received ample attention. It has been praised by locals as a sustainable and comfortable upscale urban sanctuary, and is being widely toasted in Beijing as a positive example of things to come. It was also chosen as one of ten best new architectural marvels by Time magazine in December 2007, and as the best tall building in Asia and Australasia and best tall building overall for 2009 by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH).
Antony Wood, the CTBUH executive director and an awards jury member, asserted, "It is only in the intensification of our cities and the inclusion of mixed urban-public facilities in the sky that the true vibrant, dense cities of the future can be realized. The Linked Hybrid building, perhaps more than any other built project, really does point the way to that future."
The complex also fits the city. The towers may be heavy, bordering on monumental, yet they strike a balance between Beijing's conservative Cold-War throwbacks and its growing array of showy statements. There's a humanity in Linked Hybrid that contrasts meaningfully with both, particularly with the mass housing units still being hastily thrown together to respond to the continuing influx of people into Beijing.
The project's sustainable design seems representative of a trend that is gathering momentum. The number of projects in China seeking LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council has increased from dozens to around a hundred, and developers in China seem to be starting to view a green image as a desirable, marketable asset, according to several sources.
Architecturally, Linked Hybrid demonstrates a deft, adventurous, and ultimately straightforward blend of facilities. Operationally, the community spirit has yet to take off: some facilities, such as the pool, have yet to be opened; the skybridge gym has yet to fully materialize; and the tea house is used sparingly. The practice of buying up apartments for investment does little for a building's sense of community, with many sold apartments still sitting empty, as does the "hotel" tower.
From a design standpoint, the potential to shape a community remains. In this way, the project could be considered more in tune with China's past — with its old, rapidly disappearing courtyard neighborhoods, and even, at a towering scale, with the Forbidden City, which Linked Hybrid's residents can see on the rare clear Beijing day.
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Jo Baker is a freelance design and travel writer based in Hong Kong and London. Publications she writes for include Time, The South China Morning Post, and Hospitality Design. More by Jo Baker