The Fate of Gate of the Orient

— by Wu Zhuoying, Xu Duo, Yu Yulin & Qi Yue —

gate orient“The Gate of the Orient” designed by RMJM, stands on the edge of Suzhou’s booming Central Business District in Jiangsu Province.

This Chinese triumphal arch is just over 300 metres tall, approximately six times taller than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and using enough steel to sink a battleship… well, the press release says that it contains enough to construct eight aircraft carriers. One side of the building will be residential, while that other will be offices and a museum for local and touring exhibitions. Construction costs are reputed to be in the region of RMB4,500, 000,000

The project began in August, 2003 and the original completion date was 2008, but the main building has only just been completed, with its interior still unfinished. Many people in China and in the West have come to expect speedy development in China and such a long construction periods are unusual. The Gate of the Orient has taken over 11 years, with four postponements during the construction. The reasons for the delays are not clear, and may never really be known. It is commonly accepted that difficulties connecting the two sides of the building were partly to blame, as was a lack of funds to complete the project which allegedly only became apparent only when the tower had been topped off. These are some of the main reasons for the delay. In addition, insiders have disclosed that the sale price of “The Gate of the Orient ” was too optimistic (especially given global housing uncertainties) and only some of the lower-priced serviced apartment were being sold.

Officially labeled ” The Gate of the Orient “, the building itself is more widely known as “the pair of trousers” (or more cheekily, the “pants building” by its American critics) arising from the physical appearance of the building. The original design clearly shows that the arch concept was simply intended to create a gateway into the area and to frame the well-known landmark of Tiger Hill Tower in the distance through the gap between the two parts of the building. In this cliched way, it was meant to express a combination of Chinese traditional culture and modern elements.

Actually, this visual conceit has attracted many members of the public to critique and argue over whether it is successful in either of these two ambitions. Modernism with classical allusions; contemporary buildings combining traditional elements, for example, are sometimes compatible although it needs to be tested by the time. On the other hand, the content of the criticism should reflect whether this building works well in relation to its functional requirements, to its environment and even to the whole society.


gate 3gate 1gate 2This building not only hints at the ubiquitous “Chinese garden view-framing” devices, but it also has several elements of classic Suzhou incorporated within it in order to stand out even further as a destination and not simply a landmark. At present, two Suzhou gardens have been laid out at the top of the building and are feted as the highest Chinese Suzhou gardens in the world… a rather superficial and meaningless claim. But clearly, investors nowadays seem to focus their attention much more on having a title – the tallest building in Jiangsu, the most talked about building in China, the biggest mid-air garden – rather than the merits of the architecture or the value of the claims. This skyscraper has achieved eight “most” titles last year, but like all things, competitors soon follow suit and many of these honour have been superseded by other super-buildings.

We have to ask whether such juvenile competition represent the best interests of urbanization.

gate orient3 mapAcross China, many cities are preparing their own highest, widest, fattest, thinnest, skyscraper as their very own landmark to attract comment, discussion and potentially further investment. However, these actually don’t show the power and strength of their city – quite the opposite in many cases, actually. While increasing the height and occupancy rates of buildings can mitigate the pressure brought by an ever-rising population, such high-cost luxury structures cannot solve the problem for middle-class residents or urban workers. Therefore, the question to ask of this type of buildings is what kind of building can meet the basic requirements of everyday need?

One of architecture’s central features is that it should be created for demand, or to suit a purpose. It should be functional rather than fanciful, and not necessarily the highest or the record-breaking. What’s more, Suzhou’s landmarks might actually be more impressive if they showed the city’s inspiration and enthusiasm: by meeting the demands of what people need.