By Joseph Giovannini
Dalian, a port city at the tip of Liaodong Peninsula situated on Korea Bay, across from North Korea, is striving for first-tier status. On a visit to Munich several years ago, Dalian’s mayor saw the BMW headquarters by the Vienna firm Coop Himmelb(l)au: Its cornerstone is a monumental spinning ramp that looks like a hurricane touching ground. The mayor wanted one.
But its designer, Wolf Prix, Hon. FAIA, does not copy himself and has never designed dynamism as a pre-fabricated cliché. The characteristic flows of his architecture—its sense of movement within a tensed matrix of structure, space, and surface—instead emerges from a nonlinear design process in which a field of perceived forces pushes and pulls form and space in ways that yield architectural complexity.
At first the program for the center called for a hotel with a conference center to be used as the summer Davos World Economic Forum, but the hotel dropped out of the brief to be replaced with a 1,600-seat opera house—with all facilities under one big tent. The program of a shell covering several cultural venues is a building type common to, and popular in, China. In Dalian, the chosen site sat at the intersection of two new boulevards in an emerging Central Business District (CBD), now galloping tower by tower across land reclaimed from the sea. As in many of China’s cities, the new CBD in Dalian would focus on this new cultural centerpiece—conceived and celebrated as a stand-alone architectural event. Throughout China, landmark buildings are news items plastered on posters advertising their host cities.
Coop Himmelb(l)au, however, is not in the postcard business. Prix started tenting the program, which also included a theater and exhibition center, within a roughly triangular shell rising like an off-centered cone that accommodates the planned high-rise hotel. Unlike other architects whose originary shapes start with Euclidean geometry, Prix was fitting the shell to a program whose elements stretched and deformed what was already a hybrid triangular-conical shape. “I took care not to create a one-liner corporate building,” Prix says. When the hotel dropped out in favor of the opera house, “We suppressed the peak, and the new height limit provoked pushing out the conference spaces beyond the shell, creating a sculptural shape and a new geometry.”