City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

An illicit visit to a chunk of Beijing in transition, in October 2009

Beijing was such a whirl that I didn’t even get to see much of the city’s archetypal and much-discussed urban form: the hutong. (Read Sorkin on hutongs and lilongs.) While that’s a regret, as they’ve been disappearing for years, recent reports indicate they are finally being valued, and so preserved. I’ll see them next time; I didn’t want to rush it. Equally, I only saw the CCTV building, ‘Water Cube’ and ‘Bird’s Nest’ from a taxi and a bus. I didn’t see the Forbidden City, and only drove past Tiananmen Square. Didn’t get on the subway. Missed the Beijing Railway Station.

Still, I saw a fair bit, as reported previously, and I did get to one project I’d particularly wanted to see: the MOMA building, aka the Linked Hybrid, by Steven Holl Architects et al.

By way of background, here’s an introduction to the project by the architects themselves:

The 220,000 square meter pedestrian-oriented Linked Hybrid complex, sited adjacent to the site of old city wall of Beijing, aims to counter the current privatized urban developments in China by creating a new twenty-first century porous urban space, inviting and open to the public from every side. Filmic urban public space; around, over and through multifaceted spatial layers, as well as the many passages through the project, make the Linked Hybrid an “open city within a city”. The project promotes interactive relations and encourages encounters in the public spaces that vary from commercial, residential, and educational to recreational. The entire complex is a three-dimensional urban space in which buildings on the ground, under the ground and over the ground are fused together. []

As ever in Beijing, getting there was an achievement in itself. I’d attempted to visit it the night before, getting a taxi as close as I could but ultimately getting wonderfully lost, as reported previously. Thinking back, my ineptitude reminds of Don DeLillo on tourists:

Tourism is the march of stupidity. You’re expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travellers acting stupidly. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don’t know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm. [Found in Geoff Dyer’s ‘Working The Room’]

Given that the “mechanism of the host country” here isn’t particularly geared at all in this way, the next morning I decided to use a prop to overcome the gulf in language between Beijing’s taxi drivers and me. No digital or paper amps helped, though I knew the rough trajectory from the hotel. Pouncing on Linked Hybrid’s distinctive form, I quickly sketched out its shape on a bit of paper and showed it to the driver. The driver was relatively old — though you never know here; he had the kind of skin that looked as if it was aged by Beijing rather than the natural passage of time — but good-natured with it, and though he looked utterly bewildered by the scribble, he shrugged and decided to give it a go.

A quick sketch, in lieu of an address, for the taxi driver

So off we head into the smog, heading down one of the enormous freeways that rise up and run through the neighbourhoods fanning out of the centre of Beijing. We can only see a little way into the distance, and it takes a while before something that looks like Linked Hybrid suddenly emerges from the gloomy light. The driver glances across at my scrap of paper and a broad grin appears. He starts laughing and nodding, pointing at the paper and then back at the building. This is more of a tribute to the imageability of Holl’s work than my draughtsmanship. (Which reminds me of an old entry here about how quickly and recognisably one could draw a building.)

Linked Hybrid emerging in the distance

It then takes a while to pick our way through the knot of highways. These massive roads almost seem designed to prevent you leaving them, as if the roads themselves had been their own designers, resisting any attempt to question their permanence at the heart of things.

The taxi drops me next to a building site. The Linked Hybrid looms in front of me through the hazy orange early morning light, but there’s a trail of debris to negotiate first, running alongside a narrow canal which almost acts as a protective moat. The building is ostensibly on the Xibahe South Road, near the expressway to the airport.

Describing the canal as a moat feels appropriate, actually; the much-vaunted porosity and accessibility of Linked Hybrid immediately seems a little overplayed.

Crossing the canal to the rough street running alongside the development, I’m looking up at something more like a castle than a public space, though perhaps a castle with holes in the walls, as if it had become porous through precision sustained artillery, cannons manned by aesthetes.

I walk across the street, past some kind of transaction between two or three men at a small table set up on the pavement. I’ve absolutely no idea what’s going on. The table has scissors, a few brown bottles, almost medicinal? Is it glasses repair? Homeopathy? Barber? Food? It’s one of those moments when I realise how utterly foreign I am. I can walk past an apparently everyday transaction and simply have no idea.

What transaction is this?

I’m now facing a fairly long wall, looking up at gleaming turrets studded by windows with coloured frames and linked by elevated horizontal walkways. Holl has said “This is not to be high”, and at around 18 storeys the towers are not high by recent Beijing standards.

The key to the building, as in much of Holl’s urban work, is porosity, and its ability to dissolve walls into entrances, passages, arcades. Looking at plans, photos and diagrams, and reading Holl’s text, it achieves this in effective, intriguing fashion.

The ground level offers a number of open passages for all people (residents and visitors) to walk through. These passages ensure a micro-urbanisms of small scale. Shops activate the urban space surrounding the large reflecting pond. On the intermediate level of the lower buildings, public roofs gardens offer tranquil green spaces, and at the top of the eight residential towers private roof gardens are connected to the penthouses. All public functions on the ground level, — including a restaurant, hotel, Montessori school, kindergarten, and cinema — have connections with the green spaces surrounding and penetrating the project. The elevator displaces like a “jump cut” to another series of passages on a higher levels. []

NB: You should couch the following comments with the fact that the building appeared to be barely open, and whilst most construction appeared to be finished, workers were still preparing landscaping in at least one section of the building.

Recalling that inviting text from Steven Holl, I approach one of the many entrances off the street. However, I’m quickly waved away from the building by a stern uniformed guard with a gun. With a slightly agitated look on his young face, I wasn’t going to argue.

I wander further on, looking through windows in the wall revealing a gardener at work. His tools are sitting in a hand-drawn cart, but the sharp juxtaposition between the 21st century building technology behind him and his 18th century vehicle is now so familiar, even after a few days in China, that it’s barely worth a second glance.

I’m waved away again at the next available entrance too. It seems that Holl’s intentions of a public space have been overlaid with a blank, almost militarised occupation of the same space.

This is a new development in the lineage of the ‘Myth of Pruitt-Igoe’ or Park Hill, Sheffield, where buildings became rotten through lack of attention — here, too much attention is ruining the building. It makes something of a mockery of the urban porosity plan associated with the building’s design. Now, the red arrows inadvertently appear more akin to a military strategy diagram, encircling the site as the animated swastikas in the credits to Dad’s Army surround Britain.

However, having got this far I’m not giving up.

At the next entrance, almost the last on this side, a large black limousine sidles past in front of me. Fortuitously, the driver engages the guard, and I find myself on the guard’s blindside behind the car. I quickly slide around the back of the limo and slip into the complex using the car as cover, casually and steadily walking in as if I own the place.

Inside, I immediately draw my camera and start loosing off shot after shot, while I can. I’m inside the building at 10.25 AM and leave again at 10.45, 100 snaps later.

It’s an incredible space and structure. The sheer scale of the thing is immediately evident, which is somehow both muscular and elegant in form. Chunky, blocky turrets and slabs, punctured with huge holes, pockmarked with a regular grid of windows, and threaded through with sinewy twisting glass corridors. In this diffuse flat light, the facade looks a sort of smoky brown/orange. It has a very pleasing solidity to it from many views. The walkways cut across the top of the towers, adding complexity and connectivity. Less regular buildings are strewn across the ground-plane, boulders scattered amidst the lakes.

It’s still largely empty, as far as I can tell, though I see a couple of figures at the windows in some blocks. They’re looking down at me, perhaps unused to visitors, and certainly ones toting cameras. Perhaps they’re not used to seeing Westerners wandering around taking pictures of contemporary blocks, as opposed to the Forbidden Palace or Water Cube. They’d better get used to it.

There are gardeners tending the landscape at one end, and the lakes, which are the main feature of the central courtyard. In that respect, it feels like a 21st-century version of the Barbican. Steel rather than concrete, geothermal rather than fossil fuels, and slightly more shops and services at ground plane, though while it has a cinema, it’s missing the art gallery. Perhaps more importantly, for a building which attempts to be a city in microcosm, its productive forces — outside of property value — are conspicuous by their absence; there are no offices or genuinely productive spaces of any description within sight.

The workers tending the lake, bending over and working in the water, could almost be an image from a century earlier, an early sepia print of peasants working in paddy fields.

Again, I’m caught by the everyday juxtaposition between ancient and hyper-modern. The flat, brown surface of the water, and the blank, timeless look on the elderly workers’ faces, makes me want to take my photos and reappropriate them, adding paddy fields and a water buffalo behind one, a faux-Qing dynasty landscape behind another.

Perhaps this is a simple Westerner response, wanting to overlay a preconceived idea of Chinese cultural history onto this rampantly contemporary surface of the city, trying to understand it all through some kind of path dependency. After all, this image of a Morphosis campus building in Shanghai produces the same effect.

The water in the lakes is actually part of a ‘natural’ filtration system for the complex. The building’s resource-use seems impressively lean, although hidden from view. Much of the building’s power is derived from geothermal energy — there are over 600 wells down there, over 100 metres deep. (And so the now customary question as to whether we ought to make such infrastructure visible, or at least actively convey its effect, as part of a potential demand management programme, rather than keep out of sight.)

Meanwhile, the local ducks benefit from a small duck-house in the lake (Note they have so far managed to resist the temptation to build a miniaturised ‘Linked Hybrid’ for the ducks.)

The coloured window frames are an immediate stand-out feature, and signature Steven Holl — I’d seen the same basic idea six years earlier at his MIT Simmons Hall building, in Cambridge, Mass.(see below.)

MIT Simmons Hall, by Steven Holl Architects

Here, apparently, the distribution of colour is aleatoric, based on the I Ching. Standing here, looking up, I’m not entirely convinced by the strategy behind the realisation, but the wash of coloured accents provided by windows do work (just as they did at MIT.) The angled slivers of colour are welcome given the flatness of the silvery-grey facade against the fawn sky.

Some of my pictures are so faded and desaturated as to make my newish Olympus Digital PEN look like it’s a mid-’60s Canon Canonet instead. But that’s how it looked through my eyes too. This softening diffuse Beijing morning light can be very beautiful, despite its provenance.

An ancient 3-wheeler truck chugs past, almost of the same vintage as the hand-drawn cart outside. Another incredibly resourceful patched-up job. Two smart-looking young women walk past. Again, a city and culture of juxtapositions, at least to these eyes. I presume less so to them.

Moving through the space, there’s a cinema in the middle of the central water features — again, reminiscent of the Barbican or the Brunswick Centre’s Renoir, somehow, both of which indicate earlier, fairly successful prototypes for this kind of building.

Along the perimeter defined by the primary built form are appealing elevated pods, with red and yellow interiors, set out with incongruous but good dining chairs. Hard to see exactly what their function is, given that no bars, coffee shops, venues or more importantly people appear to be adjacent. Perhaps they allude to some traditional floating viewing platform in Chinese culture I’m not aware of — but I can see people hanging out on them at night, perhaps, echoing with the clatter of mah jong tiles or lit by the glow of iPads.

In more active street culture in Bejing and Shanghai — in quite different built space, it must be said — chairs are left outside all the time, part of the communal ad-hoc infrastructure of the street. Currently depopulated and underpowered, these chairs in this space seem like an awkward simulation of that other urban condition, but again, it’s all too early to judge.

With the focus pulled by the water, you do forget the towers rising above you. It is an intriguing building, bending the towers with its horizontal walkways a little like CCTV loops the skyscraper. For those of us of a certain vintage, and provenance, there is no escaping the parallel with various projects such as Park Hill and Robin Hood Gardens, and their popularly-derided ‘streets in the sky’. That these were indeed often flawed was rarely to do with the architecture, at least directly — again, the ‘success’ of the Barbican and others indicates that the formal design approach was not necessarily wrong — but that culture, curation, servicing, maintenance, amenities, employment opportunities, agency, pride, surrounding context, and ongoing attention are the things that make the difference. It’s not simply refinement that made Highpoint work when so many copies did not — it’s probably the ability of its residents to pay a service charge—just as the perhaps equally successful Alton East and Alton West estates also found a different way of achieving this core capability of maintenance. The ‘streets’ at Linked Hybrid feel as if their maintenance won’t be an issue, either.

The other obvious formal precursor is actually the medieval castle (e.g. Conway Castle), though this thought occurs to me later, looking at the building from above in Google Maps, despite the ‘moat’ discovered upon approach.

The perimeter describes that of a kind of fort, though its walls are thoroughly porous in a way unimaginable—and rather undesirable no doubt—to medieval designer-builders.

The plan, although highly legible from within, is less relevant than the sections, which are highly complex blocks, actually propping up two plans, the upper portion of the loop, ‘in the sky’ effectively, sitting on top of the plan, the “base-loop” at ground-plane.

A few words from Holl on this form:

Programmatically this loop aspires to be semi-lattice-like rather than simplistically linear. We hope the public sky-loop and the base-loop will constantly generate random relationships. They will function as social condensers resulting in a special experience of city life to both residents and visitors. []

But given the high-end retail options and services appearing along the interior ground-plane, it looks set up to be something other than the “social condenser” the urban marketplace offered. It’s all B&B Italia stores, yoga centres, and spas. To the average Chinese person, where the average household income is 1/40th that of an American household, this is another form of impenetrable barrier.

The large mall mentioned previously is within range, but a fair walk away and not exactly a pleasant walk, given the need to Frogger your way across Beijing’s gargantuan roads, and besides, it is similarly high-end. Of course, this development is clearly not for ‘the average Chinese person’, but surely all this undercuts the ideas of “city life” and “social condensers” described above.

Given all this general privatisation of space, the nearby expressway to the airport now feels like a getaway route, as if the building is an extension of the transnational interzone that is Beijing Terminal 3, rather than firmly embedded into this corner of the city.

During my circumnavigation of the building I’ve been warned off a couple of times by other guards, and pretended to take heed of each warning. On the third warning, I decide not to push it any more and wander towards the nearest exit, but not before stopping at the complex’s marketing suite.

The cleaner or administrator is there, and when I make a kind of apologetic and smiling international sign language for “Is it OK for me to take picture?” she looks so confused — she’s clearly never been asked it before. Later a young man comes in and says in English, “Of course, and you can have a leaflet”.

There’s a large model of Linked Hybrid in the room, surrounded by a series of posters on the wall — under the rubric “Design masters with attention to the place spirit” — placing Holl alongside other ‘starchitects’ such as Ando, Pei, Libesdind (sic), Rogers and Piano.

More incredibly again, the adjacent wall features another poster of exaggerated Hybrid-like building on an urban skyline, under the phrase:

“Let citizens all over the world gather under the banner of the United States with the spirit of freedom.”

What can this possibly mean in this context? The absorption of the brand of ‘starchitecture’ is easy to see in a culture shifting through the gears of consumer culture, but of the brand of the United States?

Outside, you’re instantly in another Beijing. A group of men hang about looking at produce in the back of a cart. An old man putters past on a three-wheeler, two small dogs sitting in the panniers at the back. He gets out and walks into a small pocket park, not even looking back to the dogs. They eventually hop off the back of the bike and trot into the park after him.

The park — it’s really only a smallish island of green on a block, with an arbor running through it, but perfectly pleasant, despite the rumble and hum of nearby traffic — is mainly full of old people, some of whom are doing t’ai chi, others are chatting and drinking tea. It’s a beautiful moment of stillness and reflection, amidst the sea of motors all around.

Such scenes have probably been played out here for centuries here. The building 20 metres behind us is something new, though.

Looking back, this entrance to Linked Hybrid looks imposing again; guarded, with the extensible LED-pocked barrier seen in several large buildings around here, a kind of parasitical addition, also probably not in the plans.

A wander back towards the various overpasses, and under one, alongside the canal, I chance across the start of a street market, people laying out various items on the pavement, or unloading vegetables from underneath dirty tarpaulins and sheets on bike-powered carts. The consumer items for sale are essentially random: tennis racket, clothes, books, batteries, housewares etc. It’s some kind of flea market, though the vegetables are of a quantity that would take some reasonable farming.

Though the fog is lifting, the Hybrid begins to fade into the distance.

From Steven Holl’s fine book Urbanisms: Working with doubt:

220,000 square meter complex porous urban space, inviting and open to the public from every side … As a “city within a city” the new place has a filmic experience of space; around, over and through multifaceted spatial layers. A three-dimensional public urban space, the project has programs that vary from commercial, residential and educational to recreational … The ground level offers a number of open passages for residents and visitors to walk through. These passages include ‘micro-urbanisms’ of small-scale shops which also reflect the urban space surrounding the large central reflecting pond.

This is all true, at face value, but also not true, in reality. China is more complex than this, and the architects have to work harder, beyond built form, to achieve such goals.

Go back to Holl’s original aspiration for Linked Hybrid, as an “open city within a city”. it certainly feels like aspects of a city within a city, but an “open city”? Ironically, the phrase has me recalling Roberto Rosselini’s film Rome: Open City (1944), not least due to the surrounding context of rubble, half-finished infrastructure, patrolling armed guards and rapid social change. This is not a post-traumatic urbanism war-zone, as Rome in 1944 was, but it shares some of its conditions, perhaps some of which are indeed a kind of ‘traumatic urbanism’ without the war?

The primary problem here is that architecture, as traditionally and mostly practiced, overly privileges focus on built form above all else. (There are honourable exceptions, and increasingly so now, for the first time since the early 1970s, arguably.) While this focus is necessary to help produce a ‘good bit of city’, it is not enough, as quickly illustrated here. An architect of Holl’s class will generally now produce extraordinarily high quality built form, but built form is not one of the primary drivers of a good city, after all. An enabler, yes, but a driver, no.

Linked Hybrid is designed with the clear intent of carving public space out of “monofunctional” private housing — and formally constructed in porous fashion to signal and direct this — yet the social and cultural patterns which overlay, occupy and appropriate the built form deny this idea entirely. This is most obvious in the form of gun-toting guards; more subtle again in the expensive furniture shops that dominate the ground-plane—these are not really “‘microurbanism’s of small-scale shops” but high-end global franchises. Both outcomes—guards and brands—exclude and impede, meaning it is more forbidden city than open city; the interesting question is how much the architect can do about this.

I’d argue that, on the one hand, the idea of architecture as ‘spatial intelligence’ or concerning ‘production of space’ is clearly richer than simply form — in fact, the intelligence and production is exhibited most clearly and most imaginatively in those who focus primarily on occupation of space rather than the formal qualities of the built fabric — say, Cedric Price, most obviously, and often most originally, but see also Teddy Cruz, ELEMENTAL, FAT + MUF, Sou Fujimoto, Atelier Bow-Wow, all of whom have focus on occupation of space, variously across both individual relations and strategic overlays.

But on the other hand, the potentially emerging role of architect (and other design practices) as ‘strategic designer’ is beginning to suggest the possibilities of engaging with those wider social, cultural, economic overlays and systems, which after all, are far more profound and affecting than almost any amount of built form. Read the comments section of Rory Hyde’s essay for more on that discussion. (Ed. And some years later, those ideas developed and explored in Rory’s subsequent book, Future Practice.)

The most interesting challenge to architectural practice either way is to find ways to address the occupation of space more strategically. This deceptively simple idea is possibly at the heart of all genuinely progressive discussions about architecture, yet is rarely done.

Here, if Holl and team had been able to focus on open strategies for occupation and performance, Linked Hybrid may have been a success. They may not have been able to of course — Beijing would be one of the more challenging environments to explore the possibilities of open, public space — and it would mean entirely re-tooling the built environment design process. But looking at the last few decades in particular, architecture has rarely even tried, having focused its avant-garde on formal qualities rather than anything more meaningful or generative (again, with honourable exceptions.)

Presently, Linked Hybrid fails in its ‘open city’ strategies, both within the building — you simply cannot access it — or in terms of how it can ‘extrude’ its porosity and begin to positively leak influence into the surrounding area. It is a high quality bit of architecture as traditionally practiced, no doubt, and its hybridity is far from the “wanton hybridity” that Michael Sorkin sees elsewhere in Beijing.

Yet without attempts to engage with the way the space is used, Linked Hybrid simply has the potential to be open, and potential is never enough for an investment on this scale. The designer must redesign the context itself sometimes, in order to enable its true potential — whether that’s redesigning the client organisation, the cultural or narrative-based systems around the project, or in this case the political frameworks that otherwise prevent the building from working at all.

Should we hold architects responsible for not engaging with this wider context? For in effect, drawing a neat red line around the parcel of the built form itself? It’s perhaps not fair to talk about ‘responsibility’ for a form of design in which architectural practice has variable experience at best. And yet architecture is in effect held responsible for ‘failures’ such as Pruitt-Igoe, again perhaps unfairly. So perhaps it would behoove the profession to engage with these more strategic design components.

In Beijing and Shanghai, the context of the building can only overwhelm the building. For this reason, it’s simultaneously possible to deeply admire virtually everything within the perimeter of Linked Hybrid, and yet declare the building essentially problematic because of its relationships with the immediate context(s) i.e. everything outside.

The key question, as it should be for almost all architecture, is whether Linked Hybrid will make this city better or worse? While I admire much of it — perhaps most of it — and am essentially glad that it exists, particularly in the context of the low-quality development seen elsewhere in Beijing, I’m not convinced it’s the right strategy at the right time in the right place.

All Linked Hybrid photos [Flickr]

PS. For the sake of abbreviation and findability, this post’s title includes the attribution ‘by Steven Holl Architects’, but we must acknowledge that a building is produced by a multidisciplinary team of many, and not just the architects.

This piece originally published at on April 11, 2011.


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