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Grand gestures and meaningful places: If you want to successfully design large-scale projects in China, you have to adapt to different needs and circumstances than in Europe. Wei Wu and Magdalene Weiss, Executive Partners at architecture firm gmp ∙ von Gerkan, Marg and Partners, explain how gmp is helping to shape the Chinese architectural landscape and the challenges they face in the process.

Interview by Fabian Peters

Wei Wu (left) and Magdalene Weiss (right), Photo: Lukas Schramm

Fabian Peters: At the Iconic Awards 2023: Innovative Architecture, gmp received several awards for major projects in China, including for the “Silk Road International Conference Centre” in Xi’an and for the “Changzhou Culture Plaza”. Is there a particular quality that links the two buildings?

Wei Wu: For example, the two projects have one thing in common: they were designed by Magdalena Weiss.

Magdalene Weiss: (laughs) The two projects were actually designed by our team in Shanghai. But both projects are also public buildings and they are both very large-scale. Both projects are intended to create an identity and have an impact in the urban space. In this context, both were construction tasks for which we were looking for expressive solutions. And in both cases, it is geometric elements with clear constructive principles that form the large-scale form and create the expression of the architecture.

What expression did you want to achieve with the two projects?

Magdalene Weiss: During the design phase, we always called the Silk Road Conference Centre “Halfmoon” – actually, “crescent moon” would have been more appropriate. The building has gentle curves at the base and base of the roof. The façade seems to literally float above the ground as it is suspended. This gives it an enormous lightness and transparency. The curved shapes are also a historical reference to the roofs of traditional public buildings in China.

What about the Changzhou Culture Plaza?

Magdalene Weiss: We also used a catchy motif for the project in Changzhou. Here there are six modular elements which, when put together, create the image of bridge arches. The six structures are arranged on a large axis that runs towards the town hall.

Changzhou Culture Plaza © Schran Images

The enormous Silk Road Conference Center is designed as a large cubic form over a square floor plan. How do form and function relate to each other here?

Magdalene Weiss: The project was clearly developed from its function. More than 4,000 square metres of column-free hall space were required for the building. Large steel girders now span across these centrally positioned halls, resting on the vertical access cores and projecting beyond them. In this way, they not only bear the roof load, but also support the suspended façade.

Silk Road International Conference Center © gmp

While the conference centre in Xi’an has to fulfil one main function, the Changzhou Culture Plaza accommodates a whole range of institutions.

Magdalene Weiss: That’s right. A library and an art museum were already planned from the outset. Initially, a technology museum was also planned, but this was not realised. Commercial uses were also planned. As the requirements kept changing significantly during the construction process, our design had to be able to react flexibly. We had to create spaces that could accommodate different uses and that could also be developed further.

How did gmp design the public space for the two projects?

Magdalene Weiss: The two projects are very different in their approach. The Silk Road Center forms the entrance to a large exhibition centre just outside the city centre. It therefore has very large foyer areas, typical of an exhibition centre. The Changzhou Culture Plaza is located in a newly developed city centre, surrounded by very dense residential development. There is a town hall, there are sports facilities – and there is a large public park that was developed together with the complex. We incorporated the urban environment into the design, as well as the new park, which expands under the arches and raised building volumes.

How does the approach to cultural projects in China differ from a project of the same kind in Europe?

Wei Wu: Unlike in Europe, cultural offerings have often been rare in China, even in large cities. There is often a lack of identity-creating architecture beyond commercial buildings and shopping malls. In Europe, when we are given the spatial programme for a cultural building, it is already worked out in great detail. In China, however, we as architects are often faced with the challenge when designing such cultural venues that there is neither an operator to begin with, nor has the final use been determined.

Wei Wu, Photo: Lukas Schramm

How does gmp succeed in developing identity-creating architecture under the conditions in China?

Wei Wu: This cannot be generalised. Xi’an, for example, is one of the former capitals of the Chinese Empire. The more than 2000-year-old army of clay soldiers that was discovered near Xi’an about 50 years ago is world-famous. The city has a very strong longing for tradition, including the continuation of tradition. After we had been working on the conference centre project for a year, we met the mayor, who was in favour of a building in the style of the Han and Tang dynasties. When such demands are made, most Chinese architects take a “post-modern” or “classical” path. I had already feared that we would have to give up. (laughs) But then we thought about whether we could translate certain ideas of traditional Chinese architecture into a modern language – especially the cantilevered roofs. Thanks to an ingenious steel construction, the roof of the conference centre now cantilevers over 40 metres without supports. Our interpretation of Chinese architecture was also very well received by the decision-makers. The result is a modern architecture that accepts the longing for Chinese tradition.

The cultural centre in Changzhou speaks a completely different architectural language…

Magdalene Weiss: The image of the bridge that we use there is also strongly abstracted by us due to the enormous scale. However, the bridge here is not only a formal idea, but also a static one, which is reflected in the structural realisation. Below the plaza with the cultural buildings are the commercial uses, which are arranged around a “canyon”. This division creates very special exterior and interior spaces that are highly attractive.

Wei Wu: If you have ever been to China, you will have noticed that such large buildings are often surrounded by fences or other protective measures. But the cultural centre in Changzhou really is freely accessible.

Magdalene Weiss: There is an outdoor stage, for example, which makes the area incredibly lively. It’s really busy every weekend. And there are also queues of people outside the library. It is visited by many young people. I’m delighted that the plaza is so popular and that it really is an extended public space.

Do expectations of public space in China differ from those in Europe?

Wei Wu: In my perception, there are always two occasionally competing needs in China: On the one hand, the expectation of a prestigious urban space in which large state events can be held. On the other hand, there is also the expectation of a public space that citizens use in their everyday lives. Combining these two needs is of course a major challenge for any architect, who must always work closely with the client – and often also the authorities and the government – to find a solution.

How close is the link between the projects that gmp is realising in Europe, North and South America and China?

Wei Wu: One person from the circle of Executive Partners is responsible for all of our office’s projects. In this way, we maintain a high degree of continuity in the personal responsibility with which Meinhard von Gerkan and Volkwin Marg have characterised gmp for decades. We are united by a common foundation that is defined by the positions of dialogue-based design. We speak the same language in different dialects, as Meinhard von Gerkan once put it. In everyday life, we have a very close connection between Hamburg, Shanghai, Berlin and Beijing. And once a year, we come together from all locations to evaluate our current projects together. Video conferences, phone calls and emails between Germany and China take place every day.

What distinguishes the planning process with a Chinese client from that with a European client?

Magdalene Weiss: In China, the desire for iconic buildings is particularly strong. The expression of architecture often takes centre stage.

Magdalene Weiss (left) and Wei Wu (right), Photo: Lukas Schramm

Do you miss the large-scale thinking in Europe compared to China?

Magdalene Weiss: With individual projects in Europe, it is certainly the case that people work on a very small scale and wish things could be done faster. But I wouldn’t want to weigh up the different approaches against each other, because working on details can be very satisfying, especially if you know exactly who you are building for. In Chinese projects, there is sometimes a lack of time for this detailed work.

In Germany, participation is now a big issue in major projects. Is this even imaginable in China?

Wei Wu: There is an official instrument of participation in China – similar to the public interpretation in Germany: if we have won a competition, for example, the design is publicly displayed online and citizens are allowed to raise objections. However, other claims are then weighed against this public vote, so that their consideration is in no way certain.

Do you wish that citizens could be more involved in such processes?

Wei Wu: This has already begun in China’s major cities, particularly at the neighbourhood level, for example in Shanghai: there are so-called “chief planners”, “chief architects of streets”, who are responsible for certain neighbourhoods and streets. They are tasked by the city with initiating discussions and collecting feedback. However, I’m not sure whether this really takes place on a large scale.

In 2005, the exhibition “Ideal City – Real Projects. Von Gerkan, Marg and Partners in China”. How has architecture in China changed and developed since then?

Magdalene Weiss: For example, there are now numerous remodelling projects in China. From large-scale urban growth at the beginning to building densification, the trend is now increasingly moving towards redevelopment and building in existing buildings. The idea of what a good city is has also changed. Shanghai, for example, has been opened up more and more to the water in recent years and at the same time the existing city centre has been upgraded.

Wei Wu: Since gmp realised its first project in China in 1998 with the German School in Beijing, the quality of construction workmanship has improved enormously, as has the construction technology available. When China’s tallest building, the Shanghai Tower, was erected in 2015, only Chinese companies were involved.

Photo: Lukas Schramm

Have the large international firms such as gmp contributed to China’s architecture being able to make such a “leap forward” in recent decades?

Wei Wu: When I started working in China, the civil engineers always said: “You architects do the design. When you’ve finished your work, I’ll come to you.” In other words, the design process was a task for the architects, in which the civil engineers did not participate. This view is of course very different from the German way of thinking and working. In recent decades, gmp, together with other firms such as Henn Architekten and HPP, has exported the German way of working to China. But for me, there is still a big difference between the professional understanding of German and Chinese architects: In Germany, it’s all about how to build a house. That also means travelling to the building site and checking everything. (Laughter) In China, architects finalise their plans, hand them in and only return to the construction site occasionally. In the meantime, however, construction supervision by architects, as we know it from Germany, is slowly arriving in China. In my perception, this has led to a recognisably better quality of construction.

An overview of all award-winning projects by gmp – von Gerkan, Marg and Partners at the ICONIC AWARDS 2023: Innovative Architecture can be found here.

You can discover all other ICONIC AWARDS 2023: Innovative Architecture projects in the online showroom.

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