On the western outskirts of Shanghai, China, a dragon is coming to life. Constructed of concrete, steel and glass, the new corporate headquarters of Giant Pharmaceutical Corp looks for all the world like something between a sci-fi battleship landing on a highway, and a steampunk dragon frozen in time. L.A.-based architectural firm Morphosis is focusing on the building’s sustainability as much as its aesthetics, with a green roof, generous use of skylights, and advanced insulation materials like cement-fiberboard paneling and a double-layer, fritted-glass curtain wall.
Slated for completion in 2009, the project will house executive offices in the cantelievered “head” of the structure, while the remaining elements—additional offices, a boutique hotel, exhibition hall, auditorium, library, gymnasium and swimming pool—will be contained in the “body” which arcs over a four-lane highway. There is no doubt “the dragon” will be a hit, another notch in China’s architectural belt.
The past decade has seen a flurry of ambitious construction projects in China, the most visible of which held the spotlight this year at the Beijing Olympics;the Birds Nest, the Water Cube and the National Center for the Performing Arts to name just three. And while the architectural, technological and sustainable design merits of these structures cannot be denied, neither can the fact that they are now a part of China’s insidious self-mythologizing; an architecture of nationalism for a country with an horrific human rights record.
“In China, you can do things formally you just can’t do in the U.S. — aggressive, uncompromised, out-there ideas” said Morphosis principal and Pritzker Prize 2005 winner Thom Mayne, clearly implying that aesthetic and economic concerns outweigh ethical considerations. Sadly, Mayne’s is the prevailing attitude among today’s brand-name architects.
But last February architect Daniel Libeskind (controversial already) stated publicly that he “won’t work for totalitarian regimes,” a remark that reignited a debate as old as architecture itself. Does architecture ultimately transcend politics and ideology or do architects who design high-profile buildings that bolster their client’s international profile implicitly sanction their client’s politics? We think it’s time for architects and designers to take a serious look at the implications of working for clients whose politics and/or ethics are not in alignment with their own. What do you think?