China town: meet the architecture giant with Asian designs on London
Aedas’s mixed-use malls and elevated walkways might work in China, but will these mammoth towers blot Britain’s capital?
The Nanfung complex in Guangzhou
Stacked Jenga blocks … the Nanfung complex in Guangzhou is the kind of mixed-use project that architects Aedas hopes to build in London. Photograph: Aedas
Their buildings dot the globe, but you probably couldn’t name one, nor would you ever guess they had come from the same practice. They have built a gargantuan conference centre in China that looks like a teetering stack of mirror-clad Jenga blocks, an enormous concert hall in Singapore in the shape of a crumpled beetle, and over 9.3m sq metres (100m sq ft) of shops, offices and hotels in variously sculpted towers across Asia and the Middle East. Now Aedas, one of the largest architecture practices in the world, plans to bring its flashy brand of mixed-use huge projects to London. And there is very little to stand in their way.
“Our Chinese clients have their sights set on London, and they know what they want,” says Keith Griffiths, the Welsh-born chairman of Aedas, who presides over the 1,400-strong practice from its Hong Kong headquarters. “They are used to high rise, high density, truly mixed-use developments – having everything on one site, so you can live, work and play without ever leaving the building. We think that’s the way London needs to densify.”
Based in Hong Kong since 1983, when he worked on the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters with Norman Foster, Griffiths has built up an empire of offices across Asia, with bases in 13 cities, from Shanghai and Singapore to New Delhi and Dubai. Last week Aedas announced a demerger from its European offices, where the scale of work was on a “different trajectory” (i.e. too small), but it has already set up a new base in London with the aim of importing its high-octane brand of gigantic Asian projects to Europe.
The company has come to specialise, Griffiths says, in a particular kind of urban development that has grown out of these fast-paced emergent economies. It is a design philosophy that conceives chunks of cities like self-contained ocean liners: clusters of high rise buildings that are “glued together” at their bases on podiums that brim with retail and leisure, usually perched on top of major transport nodes.
Star Performing Arts Centre in Singapore
The Star Performing Arts Centre in Singapore. Photograph: Aedas
“The closest London has come is Canary Wharf, but that’s just a shopping mall servicing office blocks,” he says. “It dies when the offices turn their lights off. We’re talking about full 24-hour occupation, with a continuity of excitement between all the different floors, and blocks linked by elevated walkways above the streets.”
It is a form of mall urbanism that is now ubiquitous across Asia, as urban street patterns are trampled beneath galumphing glass behemoths. The city’s ground level is surrendered to cars, while pedestrians scuttle between air-conditioned retail hubs overhead. They are self-contained commercial ecosystems, built and managed by single private interests, on a scale that makes London’s biggest developments look like tiny specks on the planner’s map. Such projects, says Griffiths, are usually between 465–930,000 sq metres (5-10m sq ft) in China. Westfield Stratford City, London’s Olympic shopping Mecca whose developers claim is Europe’s largest such complex, is just 177,000 sq metres (1.9m sq ft).
On the edge of Beijing’s Olympic site, Aedas has completed the North Star mixed-use development, comprising a six-storey podium of swooping shopping arcades, from which 100m-tall towers rise into the smoggy skies. It is built on a plot measuring 200m x 200m, which the company’s design director, Andrew Bromberg, describes as an “extremely small site”. By no means the worst of its kind, it is one of many such generic developments that are increasingly defining the nature of the Chinese capital: hermetic indoor worlds sprouting above stations, with little connection to the life of the street outside – because the street is usually a six-lane motorway.
The six-storey North Star development in Beijing.
The six-storey North Star development in Beijing. Photograph: Aedas
“In Asia you can easily get away with six storeys of retail, no problem,” says Bromberg, before flicking to a slide of the practice’s Nanfung complex in Guangzhou. Opposite the world’s largest conference centre, it’s a pair of hulking towers of staggered blocks that look like the result of a glitch in the computer modelling programme. “People see the photos of the project and say, ‘Where’s the humanism in this?’” he admits. “But when you see it in China, you realise it’s actually very contextual.”
He flicks through more slides of wide-angle photos and dazzling renderings, showing floor plates stretched into ever more unlikely shapes and cladding systems wrenched around twisted lumps, as different global cities merge into one free-form soup of contorted mirror glass.
There is Centre 66 in Wuxi, a 372,000 sq metre (4m sq ft) complex of shops and office towers clustered around a Ming dynasty hall, and renderings for Xihongmen in Beijing, a 465,000 sq metre (5m sq ft) development on the Fifth Ring road, shaped like a troupe of streamlined golden tanks ready to charge at the city. Each sculpted carapace contains interiors of sparkling shopfronts arranged around swirling atria, visions of economic growth and prosperity, unperturbed by the fact that the country’s largest mall still stands empty almost a decade after it was completed.
Such inward-looking buildings, which often span several city blocks, may be “contextual” to the new cities of China in some architects’ eyes, but how such ambitions translate to London remains questionable, where news of 230 new towers planned across the city has renewed scrutiny of the skyline.
Plan for the Xihongmen development in Beijing
Plan for the Xihongmen development in Beijing. Photograph: Aedas
China’s biggest developers – from Greenland and Vanke, to Dalian Wanda and ABP – are already flocking to the capital in response to demand from the country’s burgeoning billionaire class, looking to park their money overseas. Last year ABP signed a £1bn deal to transform the Royal Docks into an Asian business district, while Greenland bought Wandsworth’s Ram Brewery, slated for a 36-storey tower, and a site in Canary Wharf, where it plans the tallest residential building in Europe.
In 2013 the Chinese were granted the most tier-one investor visas for the UK (which fast-tracks the immigration process for those investing more than £1m in the country), overtaking Russia for the first time. In 2003 there were no dollar billionaires in China; this year, the Hurun Global Rich List recorded 358. With the slowdown in the Chinese economy and the strength of the renminbi versus the pound, London is an increasingly attractive proposition – and practices like Aedas are only too ready to provide the same services their clients are used to back home. But at what cost to the city?
“London can’t continue just putting these towers up everywhere,” says Griffiths. “The city’s infrastructure can’t cope with densification across the board. It needs to densify at nodal points, and we think these big integrated mixed-use developments, connected around stations at first and second-floor level, are the answer.”
It might sound like a vision from Blade Runner, but it is a proposition that dates back more than half a century, to a grand plan for a future London connected by elevated walkways. In 1947, in a wave of postwar optimism, Charles Holden and William Holford developed a plan for a network of routes at first-floor level that would connect buildings across the City. Most extensively completed around the Barbican estate, the Pedway scheme was abandoned by the 1980s, incomplete and partially demolished, as the tide turned against the idea of separating pedestrians from the streets below. (Its history is loving documented in the film Elevating London). The same happened in many US cities that had adopted elevated skywalks, from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to Cincinnati, where raised walkways resulted in empty pavements and deserted downtowns, forming cities that were physically separated by economic class, socially stratified in concrete and steel.
After 30 years in Hong Kong, the spiritual home of the elevated walkway and urban escalator, Griffiths is optimistic that its lessons can be transferred. “If you have enough pedestrian activity, then the street doesn’t die,” he says. “There are three levels of the city in Hong Kong, and they’re all flourishing.”
As London’s increasingly international development market brings not only overseas investment, but the physical realities of urban forms spawned in the high-speed laboratories of Asia’s developing cities, the skyline debate might end up being the least of our worries. The next frontier will be a wave of ground-scraping mega-buildings looking to gobble up our streets, making an ever more privatised, polarised city, all conveniently swept indoors.