Ruins of an Alternate Future: Jinhua Architecture Park

One of the great, if seldom realized, promises of architecture is its capacity to affect change. The best architects seem to have this potential in mind constantly as they structure career-length narratives around the social impact that good design can achieve. While this is often hyperbole, and most projects are driven by functional or economic considerations, there is the occasional opportunity for artists and architects to create purely speculative work, where radical departures from established typologies suggest alternatives to the status quo. In these rare cases, novelty is embraced not for its own sake, but for its potential to generate new archetypes, to provide a glimpse into a parallel world where architecture truly has agency: where design can change society for the better.

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Laban Dance Center [Herzog & de Meuron]

[Norman Foster’s Millenium Bridge, and Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern]
After the KSA’s study abroad trip concluded in Munich, I flew to London to see some old friends (had it been 8 years? or only 6?) and tour around the town with a KSA professor and a few of my classmates. I had planned on traveling to Mumbai for the month of August (before starting work in Rome in September), but I ran into visa problems, and stayed in London for about a week, twice as long as I had planned.

In the end, it is probably a good thing I didn’t fly to India. After the rapid-fire architecture marathon that is the KSA’s study abroad program a relaxing week in London was just what I needed (even if I did spend several days running around looking at brutalist housing projects).
I had studied in Brighton in 2001, and had visited London a few times back then, but I’d never really been as an architecture student, and it was interesting to return. In 2001 I was amazed by the recently-opened Tate Modern (and struck by one piece in particular: Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree), but I never would have guessed that I’d return 8 years later, having worked for the architects.

[Herzog & de Meuron – Laban Dance Center]

Speaking of the architects, I was excited to finally visit their Laban Dance Center, as I feel it’s one of their best recent projects, along with the Schaulager in Basel. The exterior walls are all clad in translucent polycarbonate panels, and while the colors already look a little faded, this only adds to the ethereal quality of the facade, on the overcast day I visited, from certain vantage points the building seemed to vanish, blending with the clouds. The facade is treated as a graphic surface, and the detailing around the windows and doors suggests that they both belong to the same system. OSU Professor Jeff Kipnis theorizes that this is a way of bypassing the unsolved modernist challenge of entry: rather than erasing the necessarily-hierarchical point of entry, the architects simply pull it into the graphic language of the facade.
The gap where the building meets the ground furthers the reading of the facade as a graphic surface, but this combines with the vertically-striated polycarbonate panels to produce another reading: that of a curtain. This subtle reference is reinforced by the landscaping, where triangular mounds of earth are arranged in such a way to produce an outdoor arena theater, with the building’s front facade/curtain as backdrop.

Unfortunately, only the lobby and cafe are accessible to visitors, but even here it’s apparent that the architects are not simply concerned with facade treatments, but are expert manipulators of interior space. From the entryway, one can see the rake of an auditorium above, dropping below the lobby ceiling plane, and a pathway to the loading dock slices through the floor. The floor and ceiling are pinned together by a large sculptural spiral stair.

Well worth the visit if you’re ever in London. More photos in my Laban set on Flickr.

Laban Dance Center [2002] Architects: Herzog & de Meuron
Creekside, London, United Kingdom [Map]