Jargon Watch: Steven Holl Raises Eyebrows With a "Social Bracket" and "Shade Machines"


Steven Holl Architects
4+1=2?
When Steven Holl Architects announced this week that it had won a competition to design a corporate master plan in China's southern financial capital Shenzhen, near a new tower by OMA, it immediately raised some eyebrows. It wasn't its "4-in-1" tower design that was so striking. It wasn't the sustainable touches. It was the jargon.

Notes Metropolis, the firm's design would feature a "social bracket" and "shade machines." Who's going to argue with those -- whatever they are?
Social Bracket
The "social bracket," according to a press release, is a network of "double height and triple height social spaces" that connect across the Stock Exchange Plaza, acting "as an urban interface between the business-centric district to the south and the residential area to the north." In other words, a walkway, elevated above the street.

Like the elevated walkways that connect the towers at Holl's Linked Hybrid in Beijing and his Mixed Porosity Block in Chengdu, the social bracket will allow access to public functions like cafeterias, gyms, galleries and theaters. The Corbusier-inspired space could be great if it manages to mimic the feeling of the street, but will it? And what will become of the social life on the street below once it's covered by this large "bracket"?

The elevated space will also feature a green roof which will collect and recycle gray water and storm water from the four towers. Here presumably will also be trees, or, if you like, natural shade machines.


Shade Machines
The non-natural "shade machines" are more novel, revolutionary perhaps. Or just plain silly. Holl's design includes towers with circular foot prints, in order to minimise the exterior envelope while creating maximum floor space. Around these, a movable screen of thin, perforated solar panels would rotate around the towers once a day.

By keeping a constant orientation towards the sun, these screens would harvest enough PV energy to provide all the towers' cooling. They would also block solar heat gain, with their louvered sections tilting to a horizontal orientation at noon to gather maximum sunlight. (By making one rotation per day, the screens are also meant to act as an "urban clock.")

It all sounds great. But how is this not just a variant on Dubai's dubious rotating skyscraper? It's unclear for instance how much energy it would take to rotate these massive "shade machines" around the buildings, but it probably wouldn't be minor. Would it not be just as if not more efficient to install static solar-collecting screens across the facades? Sure, the screens wouldn't be rotating with the sun, but they would be collecting energy for cooling the building -- and not demanding energy themselves.


Steven Holl's watercolor study

It's also unclear how far the "shade machines" will go. Holl did not win the competition to design the towers, being built for the new office towers of Shenzhen Media Group, China Construction Bank, China Insurance Group, and Southern & Bosera Funds. That privilege went to other firms, including Morphosis, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Atelier FCJZ, Hans Hollein, and MVRDV. It's unlikely they'll incorporate Holl's idea. There's a good chance however their designs will also rely on other kinds of machines.

Holl is currently completing another sustainable-minded building in Shenzhen, a "horizontal skyscraper" for real estate company Vanke that is elevated above the ground. The design is meant to open up a public space below -- and presumably, to provide gimmicky jargon for bloggers to ponder and pass around.

Steven Holl via Metropolis
All images courtesy Steven Holl Architects.

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Tags: Architecture | China | Greenwashing

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