Pan Gu Da Guan: Contentious Chinese architecture

by Wu Dong
Pan Gu Da Guan

– Recently, an architectural survey that started on the internet has been receiving increasing attention across China. Beijing citizens were asked to choose the ten worst contemporary buildings in Beijing. Much to my surprise, Pan Gu Da Guan, which I had just visited, appeared on this list.

This building was a key landmark for the Olympic Green. Designed by C.Y. Lee, it is located at the 4th Ring Road in Haidian, Beijing to the west side of the Olympic Water Cube (designed by PTW Architects and Ove Arup). Pan Gu Da Guan takes up a total land area 40,000m2 and the total floor area is 420,000 m2, containing offices, apartments, hotel and the longest commercial corridor in the world. The concept of Pan Gu Da Guan is said to reflect on Chinese traditional culture, in as much as the visible symbol of the building are top storey offices designed in the shape of a dragon’s head.

Actually, this is not the first time that Pan Gu Da Guan has become a hot issue. According to the announcement of Beijing Municipal Planning Commission in 2010, the developer of this building had a large fine imposed due to building the high level courtyard illegally (the courtyard was one of the things that gave the building its famous luxury and mystery). The scandal leaved people a bad impression on this building.

That was two years ago. Now the aesthetic criticism of the building provides another embarrassing situation. One of the people completing the online survey said that the dragon shape looked weird on its box-like body. Another said that it was strange to see traditional symbolism imposed onto a modern architecture. According to these, and other comments, Pan Gu Da Guan may not have satisfied everyone in its apparent attempt to mix traditional cultures with modern architecture.

It cannot be denied that “retro style” has influenced architectural design in China over recent years. However, it is also true that combining traditional culture with modern architecture is extremely difficult to do well. The presentational rules and the aesthetic standards of traditional architecture and modern ones are different. Simply adding old- style elements to contemporary architecture without careful adaption can be disastrous. Nevertheless, there are successful example, like SuzhouMuseum, designed by Ieoh MingPei, for example, that is renowned for its attempt to bring an old Suzhou style to life.

Some survey participants complained that Pan Gu Da Guan was too big, too isolated and too exclusive. The “fun” shape, they complained, was undermined by the fact that a substantial area of the facade was made up of granite, which made the building looked imposing – almost threatening. Given that Pan Gu Da Guan is a super-luxury complex building, it might not be surprising that it doesn’t seem too concerned about imposing itself on ordinary people’s feelings.

Obviously, the construction business is booming in China these days with large numbers and a large variety of buildings being built everywhere and at every moment. It seems that China has become a worldwide testing ground for architectural design and, I think that it is this condition that causes the appearance of so many examples of contentious architecture.

However, maybe this phenomenon should not be considered to have a negative effect on the development of Chinese architecture. Exploring ideas, forms and designs – of all shapes and sizes – means that controversy cannot be avoided during the country’s speedy growth. There is no doubt that this process of experimentation may help find a proper direction for the Chinese construction industry.