One of China's most exciting new architectural designs isn't rising in Shenzhen, the country's southern megalopolis, so much as it's being floated there. Where Steven Holl Architects' Linked Hybrid in Beijing envisions a system of residential towers connected by bridges like a dance circle, their new Shenzhen project, set for completion next year, lingers above the ground like a cubist flying dragon. By turning tall into long and raising the snaking, aluminum-encased building on pillars, the Vanke Center encourages more communication within, offers better views of a nearby lake and mountains for inhabitants and provides welcome shade over an expanse of walkways and green space below. "We like to fuse the social with our approach to buildings," says Li Hu, the Beijing-based architect leading the project. That the building is being made to house the country's biggest mega-developer Vanke helps dramatize the crucial role of large corporations at a time when private interests in China are dangerously competing with the social good.
Fortunately, the building matches its striking, airy design with a light ecological footprint, with green on its roof, a clever sun-protected aluminum facade, a greywater recycling system and a set of geothermal wells to provide heating and cooling. But Li Hu sees the explicit environmental features as only a part of a building's ecological vision; it must also be useful and human, increasingly rare qualities in cities, especially booming Chinese ones where endless construction and traffic clog the streets and air. Keeping many functions within a connected complex (in this case, offices, shops, residences and a hotel in a building as long as the Empire State Building is tall) reduces the need for cars and helps to tighten the urban fabric. "If you create a space that works, there's a potential for people to use it," he says. And then the city, he says, "will not be doomed."