Canton Eyes Guangzhou China – Culture Musings, Architecture Oddities, Urban Design


Guangdong Provincial Museum

irregular openings colored red on the grey exterior intrigue the viewer to come closer

I made my first trip to the new Guangdong Provincial Museum on Tuesday, June 29. It won't be my last visit. It's in the middle of the new planned CBD, Zhujiang New Town, next to the Opera House, with a nice view of the river, and the new TV tower across.  This prominent location of the museum for China's most populous province shows both the importance of the museum and the prominent place ZJNT is destined to have in the province. The architect was Rocco Design Architects from Hong Kong.

The official metaphor for the building is a Chinese lacquer box. From afar, it's most notable exterior feature is irregular rectangular cutouts. The inside of the cuts are a bright Chinese red and the building cladding is a dull dark gray, creating an intriguing look that demands the viewer to investigate. The form is such a monolith, with so little information about what's inside, that you have to be forgiven for not noticing that the building is oriented away from the street and towards the central axis. From there is a sweeping grass ramp that rises up to the structure's pedestal. For now, that means most people are entering from the rear.  Make sure you walk down to the axis to see how the building connects with its site.

As I walked up to the pedestal under the building, my first impression was amazement at the tremendous cantilever hovering above.  It seems very simple but a lot of work went into creating that illusion. It's made possible by a huge truss that takes up the entire 6th floor.  Structurally, the building's walls and floors are actually hanging from the roof.  Not to be missed, there is an exhibit on the second floor about the building's design, where you can view a video illustrating the process of building that truss next to the building and sliding it into place on tracks.

Now that you're inside, remember those irregular cutouts? Turns out that they are small window alcoves between the exhibits that make nice places to look out at the views of the city.  When I visited, visitors were very enthusiastic to look out these at the newly unveiled views.  They also bring natural light into the spaces between exhibits.

From inside, the exterior concept is mostly not evident.  Instead, the organizing principle is a center atrium.  Around the atrium are a few layers of punched and folded aluminum panel suspended between roof and floor, resulting in different levels of transparency in places.  The panel breaks up the space of the atrium, allowing you to see through the building but never get overwhelmed by its scale.

The building's design is certainly ambitious, but unfortunately it's plagued by some sloppy finish work.  The wood floor was scratched badly throughout the building, though the building had been open for about a month when I visited.  And there were too many random little boxes built out of the floor or wall, evidence of poor integration of structure with mechanical systems.  Another problem is that there is a lot of wasted space, especially high up around the atrium, large areas that aren't part of circulation and don't have something like a nice view that could make them usable public space.

Ultimately though, any museum will succeed or fail on the quality of the exhibits.  By that account, the museum is very good.  Some of the highlights:  a beautiful collection of traditional wood carving, thorough exhibits of the province's history during the Republic of China period, and an exhaustive display of preserved specimens of Guangdong's varied plant life.  The presentation is superb, and almost all displays include English translations.

To get there, take metro line 3 to Zhujiang New Town station, exit B1.  From there, it's about a 10 minute walk south towards the river and around the opera house.  Admission is free, but you must show some ID to get your free ticket.


Heart of the Sea Pagoda

Chigang Pagoda and the new TV tower

On the Metro line 3, between the transfer stations of Zhujiang New Town and Kecun, there is the station called Chigang Pagoda.  Whenever I ride line 3 through this station, only a few people get on or off the packed train. It may be the least used station of the subway system within the city center. The station is named after a very old temple pagoda which is a short walk from the station, through a residential neighborhood. Eventually, the station will be busy with people going to another tower.

Near the old pagoda is the new Television and Sightseeing Tower. It's still under construction and not yet open to the public, but it's already becoming one of the new icons of the city. The reigning city icon, found on everything from city trucks to the Asian games logo, is a statue of 5 rams in Yuexiu Park. If the tower proves popular and successful, and I think it's design is good enough to make it so, then it will probably become the new icon/logo of Guangzhou, in the same way the Eiffel tower is the icon of Paris. It's official name is the Heart of the Sea Pagoda, in Chinese of course! Incredibly, the person who thought of that uninspiring name won 100,000 yuan for winning the naming contest. I just call it the new TV tower.

Like the cutting-edge new CCTV building in Beijing, the Guangzhou tower was designed by a Dutch architecture firm. The main concept is simply 30 gigantic steel tubes which rise straight up to the top while tilting laterally, which makes the structure thin at the middle at wide at the top and bottom. There is secondary bracing structure spiraling in the opposite direction. The effect created is the diamond-shaped openings get smaller and the structure denser towards the middle. At night, when colored LED lights are used to indirectly light the structure at each opening, this effect becomes clear. It's sexy, and a little mysterious, feminine. If Paris has the tower of Mister Eiffel, this one is Ms Guangzhou.

The top of the antenna is 610 meters, making it the second tallest freestanding structure in the world, second only to the new Burg Khalifa in Dubai. The tower looms through the heavy smog as I walk around the city. It has helped me to better understand the verb "to loom", defined as to appear, take shape, or come in sight indistinctly as through a mist, esp. in a large, portentous, or threatening form. The top of the structure is so tall and massive, widening as it gets taller, that it feels as though it is right above you even when you are several kilometers away.

Basically, the tower has two purposes: hold up some digital antennae, and attract tourists. Suspended inside the twisting steel structure there are 5 multi-story "pods." There will be the entertainment program; theaters, restaurants, and so on. The primary purpose of the tower is tourism, but unlike a lot of other construction in Guangzhou, it's not specifically for the Asian Game. Construction started before GZ won the competition for the games.

I had a great opportunity to go to the top of the tower in autumn 2009, soon after the exterior structure was completed. The sequence is like this: you enter into the two-story pedestal building that the tower sits on. You get on the elevator, and it takes you through the core that runs up the middle of the building, and through the 5 "pods". The elevator reaches the top in less than a minute, at what is called the 84th floor. That should be the main observation gallery. From there, you can walk up 2 flights of stairs to the roof, which is 490m above the ground. The top of the structure seems truncated at angle for... well, no apparent reason. But the design of the observation deck is quite clever. It is terraced up following the structure, so from the apex you can look back across the river with no rails or guards blocking your view. Its surprisingly large, and feels like a spacious park up in the air. I've been to the observation deck of quite a few of the worlds tallest buildings, but this one is different. In fact, it's so tall that looking down, you don't actually feel you're on a building, rather the perspective is more like being on an airplane as it flies over a city towards the airport.

From the top, the focus is on the view along the North-South axis. Across the river, the new cigar-shaped IFC West tower, with its stretched out X-bracing visible behind its bluish glass, dominates the skyline. The construction for its twin is just beginning. At its foot is the just-opened opera house by British Architect Zaha Hadid. Beyond is the Tiyu Sports Center. And beyond that is the Citic Plaza, long the tallest, most modern building in Guangzhou and now a dated post-modern has been. And framing the back of the view is Baiyun Hill, a green oasis in this hyperactively urban city. Through the diamond of the structural members you can see old Guangzhou, Chigang Pagoda, forgotten hundreds of meters below.