Jay Merrick compares China’s latest idea for an eco-super tower scheme by Chetwoods Architects with London’s more modest production line
As London’s design community frets about the prospect of a luxetopia composed of priapic thickets of architecturally mediocre tall buildings, Laurie Chetwood of Chetwoods Architects and Bill Price of engineer WSP have proposed a pair of super-high towers rising to 1,000m in Wuhan, China. The occupied segments of the so-called Phoenix Towers structures would reach 500m - that is 80m higher than Chicago’s Willis Tower and 200m beyond the glittering spike of London’s Shard. If we add the 500m pinnacles, the towers would be more than three times taller than the Shard and 150m higher than the Burj Khalifa.
The Phoenix Towers scheme is a kind of fun palace designed to appeal to the vast new legions of China’s internal tourists. Chetwoods’ design is a pick-and-mix mélange of formal metaphors, structural virtuosity and environmental systems. The height and organically finessed taper of the pinnacles would provide a postcard-worthy ‘brandmark’ for Wuhan that currently has something of the gee-whizz vibe of 1950s science fiction magazine covers.
Chetwoods was commissioned by a Chinese businessman and philanthropist who had noticed the practice’s elaborate 2009 competition-winning proposed for the Inhabited Bridge across the Thames: a vegetal form with two spires containing housing, a vertical hydroponic farm, and an ornate array of energy generation features.
The Phoenix Towers scheme exemplifies the height, density and velocity of major urban developments in China, leaving us to fidget with inadequate precedents. Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s 1825 descriptions of Manchester’s ‘monstrous shapeless buildings’ and chimneys like ‘a forest of impossibly high needles’ seem quaint; so too does the furious redevelopment of Chicago following the Great Fire of 1871. At a cost of £1.5 billion, the Phoenix scheme approaches the entire value of Argent’s King’s Cross project - the biggest urban redevelopment in Europe.
Despite its extraordinary combination of size and deliberate wow-factor, the Phoenix project is in a highly competitive development situation in Wuhan, where a large number of major schemes are being pitched to the mayor and central government officials intent on modernising a city bigger than London. Complexities relating to land deals and procurement systems make the outcomes of even the most desirable schemes hard to predict. Chetwood describes the design pitching process as being simultaneously ‘exhausting and brilliant’. Decisions are reached via intensely detailed meetings that can go on for days. It is effectively a consultation lock-in: there is no British-style scheme selection followed by often dysfunctionally combative entanglements with external consultants whose fees increase if they drag out concerns about design issues which may ultimately be irrelevant.
‘We were in a hotel with all these people for four days to discuss the scheme,’ says Chetwood. ‘Absolutely everybody who was relevant was there at the same time. They tackle the intellectual exercise head-on. It’s very exhilarating; the energy is amazing.’
Wuhan, a city of more than 10 million people in a marshy landscape at the junction of the Yangtze and Han rivers, has been referred to as China’s Manchester because of its history as a centre for heavy industries. The Chinese client who will finance Phoenix Towers is aware of the London towers debate: one of his residences is in Richmond. But in Wuhan the issue is not about the urban civilities that might flow from design quality; it is about the strategic virtues of targeted architectural drama.
Chetwoods’ design recalls both the organic transformations portrayed in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s 1917 book On Growth and Form and Roger Dean’s 1970s sci-fi-meets-Art Nouveau artworks. The structure and detail of the towers, and their outer structures, are generated by an amalgam of organic and archaic Chinese symbolism: the serpentine root-flanges that buttress mangroves and large tropical trees; tropical anthills, whose central funnels vent build-ups of heat; petal forms, which spread outwards from the base of the towers; and the Fenghuang mythological birds, a fusion of the symbolic Chinese phoenixes, which are expressed in the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ towers.
The scheme, whose base and outrigger tourist activity elements would cover 7ha, proposes leisure functions and vertical landscapes in the slightly shorter tower, and water filtration and voltaic electricity plants in the higher, perforated spire. The latter tower is essentially a thermal chimney that will clean and recycle air and water from the surrounding lake. The environmental technics include wind turbines, biomass boilers and hydrogen fuel cells.
Thus, a literally fabulous, auto-iconic design proposal. But are the Phoenix Towers buildable? WSP director Price - centrally involved in the Shard and New York’s Freedom Towers - has no doubt. ‘Chetwoods has conceived a radial geometry with a pentagonal ribbed steel perimeter tied to a concrete podium. Above 500m, the structure will possibly be all steel, launched from the core. The towers are quite a good shape structurally,’ he explains. ‘We like the porosity and there is a very wide base.’
There are, he adds, only three significant, but entirely solvable, challenges: the depth and structural configuration of the foundations; the selection of the best way to structure and articulate the pinnacle element of the taller tower to allow for movements cause by wind pressures; and to ensure that the organic outer filigrees - ‘the veins on leaves and the petal geometry’ as Price puts it - are expressed as elegantly as possible. The fact that high-strength steel is manufactured in China is a crucial factor.
Meanwhile, if London’s Fordist production line of towers proceeds on the basis of speed and profitability for developers and estate agents, we can assume that such architectural fine points will be irrelevant to buildings whose ‘architectural quality’ will be reduced to clip-on facade featurettes.
- Jay Merrick is architecture critic at the Independent
AJ interview with Laurie Chetwood
There have been many reported plans to build the ‘world’s tallest tower’ in China recently, will the Phoenix Towers get built?
There is every chance. Following a series of local charrettes and many technical meetings with the state-owned investment company CITIC Group, our plans were put in front of the mayor of Wuhan at the end of last year. We anticipate approval at the end of 2014. With a further 18 months’ development, we are aiming for a 2016 start date.
What is the main purpose of the building?
To put Wuhan on the map: there is huge competition among Chinese cities to attract attention for all sorts of reasons; the prime reason is government funding.
The tower needs to reach a micro-climate high enough to dump heat as Wuhan is sub-tropical and is one of the hottest places in China. By using evaporative cooling across the lake and a thermal chimney at that height, we get huge updraft, which cools lower down. It will change a swamp into a lake and help protect the ecology of the ‘city of a thousand lakes’. Wuhan is a large city with a large population. Within it are many big lakes - the towers act as a sort of aerator to breathe life into the lakes and help preserve the ecosystem.
Can a 1,000m-tall building be sustainable?
Environmental sustainability was a prerequisite - our client demanded it and it is the latest edict from the Chinese government.
In the UK Chetwoods Architects is better known for restrained commercial projects. Why are you designing ‘slightly mad’ skyscrapers for China?
In the UK it is sometimes necessary to be restrained, but there has always been a ‘slightly mad’ side and it has helped bring some balance in the form of research and development. This has fed through to our more commercial work. The Butterfly House was experimental - we tested and built on our ideas. Some of these ideas can be seen on a grander scale at Microsoft’s headquarters in Cambridge. The Sainsbury’s at Greenwich was more measured, but groundbreaking as well. It was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize and led to more experimental work such as the Urban Oasis and Chelsea Flower Show. The UK’s first BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ building in Chatterley Valley borrowed many ideas from that research. Phoenix Towers combines some of the mad with the tried and tested.
The towers are based on your competition-winning proposal for an inhabited bridge in London. How do British and Chinese attitudes to architecture differ?
Our Chinese client loved our inhabited bridge - a vertical farm, supplying a wholesale market and a market for the people on the bridge, in turn supplied by barges on the river. The Chinese are ambitious and optimistic about design - they embrace new ideas and have the will and the money to make them happen. They seem to like architects too. With the Phoenix Towers project, our Chinese client took the bridge concept and developed it on a grand scale, in a typically optimistic way.