— by Sui Yingda —
Listed among the 10 ugliest building in the world by CNN in 2012, the Fangyuan Mansion designed by C Y Lee became the most famous work of architecture in Shenyang, north-east China for all the wrong reasons.
It was completed 10 years ago, and even though many people still think it is ridiculous, it has gradually won approval… many people actually like it regardless of the criticism.
As a Shenyang native, I’d like to give you a close look at Fangyuan Mansion, so that you can go beyond the external appearances and review the building in more architectural detail.
Shenyang’s central business district (CBD) started construction in 2000 and this building soon became a key part of that business vision, located close to the North Railway Station. The building seems fit in reasonably well with its surroundings – not that there are great buildings around it – but it ties in with the nearby materiality, volume and scale. Local people refer to it as a ‘landmark’, rather than the press that insists on calling it a ‘weird’ building.
Here’s the dramatic view when stepping towards the entrance through the pedestrian way and looking up to the ‘coin’. Actually, it’s not that different to the experience and pedestrian views looking directly up at the front elevation of Exchange House at Broadgate in London.
There is certainly some naff symbolism here. The “coin” which is totally out of scale is quite literal and is meant to represent exactly what it says on the tin a finance house that will benefit financially from this “lucky coin” motif. In traditional Feng Shui – much mocked in the west – the coin itself has a square in the middle. The square is deemed to represent the energy of the earth while the round shaped coin itself represents the energy of heaven. Alongside this, the symmetrically dotted decoration on the façade easily reminds people of doornails, commonly used in Chinese imperial architecture. The array of fake doornails were 3 x 7 on each side, much fewer than the 9 x 9 for the imperial family, which are symbolically fewer so as not to exaggerate itself as too high-ranking or over-powerful.
This rough diagram shows the internal volumes. It seems that the shape, which, at first seemed simply to copy an ancient Chinese coin was actually not such a meaningless architectural joke but helps generate a geometric arrangement of internal public spaces. The cyan-coloured cubes are 5-storey foyers with an elevated central hall behind. The vertical risers and building service core is at the rear and most of the remaining space is taken up by offices.
In many ways, the upper central hall is the most interesting space of the whole building. It’s a 20m x 20m x10m box, supported by 2m x 2m columns at the corners, with one of the square sides completely comprising curtain walling. It enables a full, undisturbed view of the outside (notwithstanding the slightly post-modern-looking spider frame). Sadly, it’s a boring view.
Moreover, the experience at the bottom of this hall was in some way uncomfortable. For the curtain wall doesn’t reach the bottom and as a consequence doesn’t continue this view at ground level. The immense empty interior space forces people simply to look upward, but able to see very little.
The ground floor entrance hall has thick columns supporting a concrete waffle grid soffit but this space, in some ways, has lost its potential to be bright and cheerful. Perhaps for the requirements of load bearing, the entrance hall almost closed itself with thick columns, beams and heavy exterior wall, leaving a large, empty but dim space.
There are many post-modern decorations – verging on art deco – prominently on display. Many of them are abstract: a dragon’s head, a non-structural round beam (representing a bound rope), fake doornails, and inevitably, many, many coin patterns decorate the building’s fixtures and fittings, inside the building. It seems to be a common approach of C Y Lee, that he wants to “translate” (i.e blithely adopt a literal “Chinese context”) which is an unfortunately glib approach to such a significant building. This building offers great deal but it has to be admitted that it fails to deliver on so much as well.
But this is clearly an expression of the art deco moment in modern times. The whole work seems like a object of decadent luxury within the context of dynamic capitalism. It is possible to discern the influence of Deco, Constructivism, machine geometry and all the other symbols of a confident economy.
Just as Tom Wolfe famously condemned the European Modernists in early 20th century America for barging in with their socialist white cubes and destroying the emergence of an indigenous expression of capitalism in the American century, maybe this is an equivalent Chinese moment. Critics now focus on Fangyuan Mansion’s frank expression of money-worship. But maybe that says more about Western austerity and a sour grapes’ approach to the capitalist dynamism that is still evident, celebrated and expressed in China today.