Constructivism, Mies, Brutalism and Classicism: they’re all there in OMA’s second building in China and for a reason. Chris Luth interprets the messages that the building’s exterior and interiors are designed to transmit.
How do you design a communist stock exchange and represent capitalism in a communist country? How do you display money in the midst of global austerity measures and financial scandals? Or create a sense of stability and order in the volatile world of the financial markets and in the midst of the world’s most dynamic city? No small task for OMA’s second building in China.
In 1990, barely ten years after it was named China’s first Special Economic Zone, Shenzhen had grown out of a hilly patch of farmland into a city of over a million inhabitants, and established China’s second stock exchange – five days after the first one opened in Shanghai. Twenty years later, what had become the manufacturing workshop of the world, had over ten million official inhabitants, this feverish growth resulting in a wildly chaotic patchwork of urban tissue in which the original villages’ winding alleys competed for space with upmarket skyscrapers.
The government tried to regain some control and started planning a Central Business District (CBD) according to ancient Chinese design principles, a grid was laid out with all buildings oriented to the south, backed by a mountainous park in the north to ward off evil spirits. The City Hall was placed in the heart of its north-south axis. Just west of it, along Shenzhen’s main east-west traffic artery, a prominent site was allocated for a new Stock Exchange building. This was commissioned via an international architecture competition, won by OMA in 2006, and the building was delivered last October, with staff finally moving in over the last few weeks.
The building consists of a rectangular base, containing a monumental entrance hall, offices and IT space. This supports a massive rectangular mid-section, cantilevered out in all directions, with further floors of offices and IT, a floor dedicated to conferences, exhibitions and stock-listing ceremonies, and a roof garden. Above this rim, a square tower rises: a top hat of rental offices, creating a sky-scraping exclamation mark.
The protruding mid-section was designed by OMA to represent an old fashioned trading floor – despite stocks being traded digitally nowadays – and they describe this as a “floating base” that has “crept up the tower…as if lifted by the same speculative euphoria that drives the market”. But their suggestion that the resulting “liberated” ground space is “large enough for public festivals” is not just unrealistic, but seems a deliberate smokescreen to the fact that in raising the base, the Stock Exchange has become even more elitist and inaccessible an institution. This inaccessibility of the building with its rigid angularity and its uncompromising and almost anti-humanist brutality (the “liberated” space under the awe-inspiring cantilever is almost excitingly oppressive) give it an unashamed touch of the authoritarian – a breath of fresh air in the haze of frivolous and coquettish skyscrapers clogging Chinese and other new global cities like Dubai.
The huge “floating” horizontal slab comes from OMA’s Rem Koolhaas’ fascination with the constructivist architects of the 1920s, busy designing for a radical new society in post-revolutionary Russia. Most famously, one of them, El Lissitzky, proposed a series of horizontal skyscrapers or Wolkenbügel for Moscow in 1925, meant as a spreading egalitarian high-density model in answer to the vertical competition of the American skyscraper.
Koolhaas also greatly admires Mies van de Rohe, and the original OMA competition entry explicitly related the upper tower element to the Seagram Building, Mies’ New York masterpiece. The Shenzhen Stock Exchange can therefore be conceptualised as Lissitzky’s egalitarian horizontal skyscraper creeping up Mies’s shimmering corporate headquarters – a brilliant response to the conundrum of designing a symbol of capitalism for a communist country.
Additionally though, the roughened glass façade panels covering the concrete columns of the Stock Exchange also reference the raw concrete surfaces of brutalism – that favourite style of the Cold War period, which clothed State buildings from East to West. A refined brutalism is the result, the surface looking like robust concrete on a cloudy day, only to emit a mysterious matted translucence when the sun breaks through.
The interior has a similar lucid quality thanks to the delicate sheen of aluminium used ubiquitously throughout. Precisely moulded and extruded panels and profiles have been used on most of its floors, walls and ceilings. Such refined minimalism may seem rather generic, but since aluminium is a very soft material – scratching easily and indenting under stiletto heels – over time, the movements of staff and visitors will be inscribed in the flooring and panelling, adding an etched patina, poetically bearing witness to the human useage.
In 1978, Koolhaas in his book Delirious New York, stated that “to exist in a world totally fabricated by man” was the goal for Manhattan’s “culture of congestion”. Here the vertically extruded plant beds on the upper office storeys certainly seem like an attempt to (re)fabricate nature or at least render it as artificial as possible. Discretely irrigated, these green tubes are positioned in the void like stalactites and stalagmites. Even the plants in this place live stacked up in high-rise cultures of congestion.
These disciplined, artificial interiors don’t look like spaces for greed and corruption to flourish. But there are still traces of Mammon: gold leaf is inscribed into panelling, its pattern referring to market fluctuations but also traditional Chinese landscape painting: simultaneously real, abstract and figurative. Elsewhere references to Chinese traditional architecture abound, particularly in the severely symmetrical stock-listing hall on the eighth floor, where the shades of grey echo traditional grey brickwork, whilst China’s signature colour of red appears in the contrasting carpet and lanterns.
But there is also a contemporary take on western classicism deeply ingrained throughout the entire building, with its almost complete symmetry along its four cardinal directions, whilst the façade reproduces the classical tripartite hierarchy of base, mid-section and top – albeit with base and mid-section provocatively reversed.
Despite all the clever blending of architectural tropes: constructivist, brutalist, corporate modernist, classicist, this building is ultimately about asserting a form of control. After the chaotic growth of Shenzhen’s blank slate, the CBD rigidly established urban order along lines of ancient harmony, and the Stock Exchange is its brutally angular beacon. Like the building’s look-no-hands elevated base, Shenzhen has crept up the ranks of global competition. While proudly defying gravity, it still complies with traditional rules of cosmic harmony: a perfect symbol for the new China.
– Chris Luth is an independent architect and curator based in Rotterdam.