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Photo © Iwan Baan

Giant Interactive Group

Morphosis

Shanghai, China

Morphosis engages landform with architecture to create a new kind of workplace for Chinese capitalism.

By Clifford A. Pearson

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Corporate office buildings used to offer architects the chance to tap into fat construction budgets and make serious design statements. Think Mies van der Rohe and Seagram or Eero Saarinen and General Motors. Today, only a few U.S. corporations are investing in significant architecture, and some (such as the New York Times) have been criticized for spending too much on it, while others (such as Bank of America) have kept quiet about their new buildings for fear of being criticized. Corporate China, though, is starting to flex its muscle and sees architecture as a fine way of showing off its bulging profits. Many of the new office buildings rising in both urban and suburban China scream wildly for attention, but a few are taking more sophisticated — if no less bold — approaches to shaping the workplace and expressing the role of capitalism in a nominally communist society.

Flashy, famous, and fearless, Yuzhu Shi, the chairman and founder of Giant Interactive Group, represents a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs. With his face on the covers of glossy lifestyle magazines and an executive suite stocked with female assistants who could model clothes in those same publications, Shi had no interest in commissioning dull architecture. So he hired Thom Mayne and his firm Morphosis to design a headquarters for the interactive, online games division of his fast-growing group of companies, knowing full well that Mayne had made even the California Department of Transportation and the United States federal government look sexy in sleek new office buildings in Los Angeles [RECORD, January 2005, page 120] and San Francisco [RECORD, August 2007, page 96]. Although Giant had offices in a number of buildings in central Shanghai, Shi decided to build his new complex on the city’s outskirts where it could spread out.

When Mayne and his team first visited the site, they found farms and a flat landscape. Other architects might have seen a featureless setting, but Mayne envisioned the land playing an active role in the project. Since learning about Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and other “earth artists” in the 1980s, Mayne had designed a number of projects — including the Crawford Residence in Santa Monica (1990) and the Diamond Ranch School in Pomona (1999) — that dug into and engaged their sites. “Giant is the culmination of this train of thought,” states Mayne. “In all these projects, we tamper with the figure/ground relationship and turn the land into an active component.”

Working with the landscape architecture firm SWA, which had master-planned the 44.5-acre site as a parklike setting with a new lake connected to existing canals, Morphosis designed the building as a series of snaking forms burrowing under and through the land. Almost all of the western half of the building (containing shared elements such as an indoor pool, a gymnasium, and a hotel for corporate guests) sits below a 164,000-square-foot green roof, which reads from afar as a faceted hill or folded meadow. The east half of the complex (containing the general offices, executive offices, auditorium, cafe, and library) jumps over a highway bisecting the site and reaches out to the lake. In a dramatic flourish, the east wing cantilevers out 115 feet, hovering above the lake with a glass floor offering views of the rippling water below.

“When we showed the client the design for the cantilever, he asked, ‘Is it big enough?’ ” marvels Mayne, contrasting this bravado with the risk-averse approach of most American companies. “We couldn’t do anything like this in the U.S. today.”

While the enormous green roof, the lake, and a series of plazas and courtyards carved into the building offer employees ample opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, Mayne’s approach to nature is anything but naturalistic. “It’s an augmented landscape,” says the architect. He and his team designed the building as a “multiplicity of components” acting on and responding to the folded land, the highway running through the property, and major programmatic needs. The goal, says Mayne, was to “attack singularity” and echo “the messiness, the ad-hoc-ness that we love in cities.” Finding the right balance between “coherence and chance” was critical to during the design process.

The 258,000-square-foot headquarters represents a new, magnanimous approach to employee relations emerging in China. Extensive recreational facilities and outdoor spaces reflect Giant’s strategy of using perks to attract talented staff, inspired by the approach used by Google and U.S. software companies.

The steel-frame building took two and a half years to build and required some sophisticated coordination between the Morphosis team generating 3-D computer models and the steel fabricator in China. In some places — such as the curving, sloping bridge that spans the highway and connects the east and west wings — the design borders on the excessive. But the architects kept other parts of the building — such as the area under the green roof — fairly simple, in part to allow flexibility in how it is used. While Mayne’s attitude to landscape began as an artistic concept, it led him to a design that has important green benefits. For example, burying so much of the building in the ground reduces heating and cooling loads. In addition, an enclosed and ventilated (but not conditioned) walkway runs along the south side of the west wing, buffering offices from the sun, and a double skin on portions of the north facade also creates more temperate interior spaces.

Mayne says he didn’t want to design “a perfume bottle,” a building as icon. Instead, he created a sprawling complex that captures the restless energy of 21st-century China — a place that may have too much going on, but that nevertheless impresses us with its daring and its indomitable will to keep pushing forward.

January 2011
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