Issue 01: Interview

Linxue Li | Architect’s responsibility fighting for public space


对话李麟学 | 为城市公共空间而战

Keywords: publicness, quality, culture, void, fighting

Prof. Dr. Linxue Li is Professor & Ph. D Supervisor at College of Architecture and Urban Planning of Tongji University and Principal Architect of Atelier L+. He is also the Director of CETA (Center for Energy & Thermodynamic Architecture) & SOCIOECO LAB, chairman of special column in T+A, international editor of urbanNEXT. In 2014, he was a Visiting Scholar at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and in 2020, the Graham Wills Visiting Professor of School of Architecture at University of Sheffield. In 2000, he was selected by the Presidential Program “50 ARCHITECTES EN FRANCE” and studied in Ecole d'Architecture de Paris-Belleville.

Linxue Li establishes his teaching, research, practice and international exchange on the basis of a defining theoretical discourse and with an aim to integrate knowledge production and architectural pradtice. His main fields of research include thermodynamic ecological architecture, public architectural conglomerates, and is at the frontier for contemporary architectural practice. His main concentration of teaching is created through studying thermodynamic ecological system, exploring new paradigms of interaction between energy and architectural noumenon.

I. Publicness

ChinaGSD: The Hangzhou Civic Center took about fifteen years from design to completion, and it was completed between the transformation of Qianjiang New City from an open area to a fully functional, high-density urban built-up area during rapid urbanization. During this period, the Hangzhou Civic Center contributes to both the Qianjiang New Town area and the urban public space of Hangzhou as a dynamic changing process. Based on the perspective of "publicity", what do you think is the most significant contribution of the project, and how has it undergone changes in the history?


Li: From the perspective of participation in urban evolution and social economy, I think the Hangzhou Civic Center represents a typical model of new city development in China in the past 20 years. In this period, cities have entered a very groundbreaking stage of growth. On the one hand, the speed and scale of growth is beyond our usual understanding under rapid development; on the other hand, it has intensified a trend for the development model of mega-structures. The architecture itself has played a very important role in the evolution of the new city especially in how to shape and guide urban public spaces. For example, the function and location of the Hangzhou Civic Center determines it as a unique landmark. In other words, it is difficult for this building not to become a landmark because it is located in the core of the city or new town. The Hangzhou Civic Center becomes the focal point of this space naturally.


The Hangzhou Civic Center (©  Atelier L+)

Early stage construction of Hangzhou Qianjiang New City in 2003 (courtesy of Qianjiang New City)

In such a building, there are bound to be some memorial, symbolic, or iconic elements. During the design phase of the Hangzhou Civic Center, we proposed a concept called “weakened memoriality”. The focus is on how to achieve its iconicity through the introduction of public space or the expansion of a new urban space to ensure the building is not only concerned with the form itself, characterized by objects.


The building is spread out on a 400-meter square site, which is a huge structure for the entire city. It is determined that it will inevitably represent a strong spatial role in the city. We need to make a lot of judgments and even dynamic responses from a more systematic urban perspective. For example, the Hangzhou Civic Center was planned to occupy 450,000 square meters initially during the international bidding in 2002. As the design was pushed on, it was expanded and approached 600,000 square meters as construction area gradually. If you compare this building with Metabolism, the scale is equivalent to a small urban system. The Hangzhou Civic Center is responsible for how to construct or guide the development of a new urban system. During the bidding phase, I defined it as a mega-structure. I think it will have a decisive impact on the future of this city especially the production of urban public space.


“During the design phase of the Hangzhou Civic Center, we proposed a concept called ‘weakened memoriality’. The focus is on how to achieve its iconicity through the introduction of public space and the expansion of a new urban space. The appeal of the building is not only concerned with the form itself characterized by objects.”

The international bidding is an interesting story. Before the start of the international bidding for the Civic Center, OBERMEYER from Germany made a conceptual urban design. They proposed two high-rise buildings these are more than 300 meters located in the middle of the site as a center of the city to form an administrative complex. The task book only stipulated the area of the building, but there was no restriction on the height of the building during the international bidding phase. Therefore, it can be said that the judges and the government gave the discretion of the building to the architect entirely. They wanted to see the various responses and possibilities. It is understandable when the new city was uncultivated land at the time.


There were about 70 proposals on the final bidding phase. The building heights were ranging from 200 meters to 300 meters, or even 400 meters; and the architectural forms ranged from single tower all the way to five towers. Our team proposed a “cluster-style” building that suggested the building should not exceed 100 meters. Since our strategy was to form a cluster of scattered volumes, it would dissolve the huge building into multiple blocks. More importantly, the cluster would forms an open public space as a "city heart" characterized by forests in the middle of the site. We hope that this space can be accessible and utilized by citizens rather than a monumental or iconic building with boundaries.


Design Development of Hangzhou Civic Center (©  Atelier L+)

Panorama of Hangzhou as “lake-city” (courtesy of Atelier L+)

We proposed a concept called "iconic void". Hangzhou is very unique among Chinese cities. Its old city is centered on West Lake that is the world’s natural and cultural heritage. The city is understood commonly in Chinese as "the combination of lakes and cities". Half of it is a city; half of it is the surrounding mountains; and the middle is the West Lake. Additionally, it is also an open "void" and a public space accessible to all. It was hoped that the building could have a homogeneous urban relationship with West Lake in terms of the macro structure.

我们当时提了一个概念叫“空的标志性”(Iconic void),算是一个纪念性的虚空。因为杭州我觉得在中国城市里面是非常独特的,它的老城是一个西湖为中心的城市,西湖又是世界自然和文化双遗产,也就是我们常提的“湖城合璧”,一半是城市,一半是周围的远山,中间是西湖。所以我们谈到杭州的时候,会对西湖有一个非常深刻的文化或空间的意象。另外,西湖也是完全开放式的一个“虚空”,是公众都可以进入的一个公共空间。所以当时就希望在宏观构成上建筑能和西湖有一种同构的城市关系。

Therefore, the building complex was planned to be 100 meters high and connected in the air initially. In the middle of the building, an urban garden and a city forest is proposed in the original sketch. A cluster of open buildings can transition the surrounding public space, and super high-rise buildings of 300 meters or higher can be built in the CBD of the new city. This was a very important concept in the brainstorming process. This image has been well realized now, and there are many high-rise buildings of 350-400 meters that has been completed around this civic center.


Li’s conceptual sketches for the roof garden and “cluster” at Hangzhou Civic Center (©  Atelier L+)
The final bidding scheme consisted of the jury choosing from two schemes. One is the 400-meter-tall high-rise twin towers, and the other is the clustered open public space that we proposed. The judges had a controversial debate between these two schemes. The local government believed this area is far away from the West Lake, and the height of building can grow higher rather than lower. One of the most important responsibilities of the architect is to tell the owner why the concept of an open garden in a city is better in this process. Of course, this stage can be very difficult.


After a half year of communication and constant debate, our plan was finally chosen. The decision makers not only made a choice on building itself, but a decision on the space and formation of the city. If we look back after nearly 20 years of construction, the core area of Qianjiang New City has been completed. The spatial system and urban outline of this area have all been clearly realized. Through these retrospectives, we can see that the architectural and urban decisions were represented with their inherent logic.


“The cluster forms an open public space as a ‘city heart’ characterized by forests in the middle of the site. We hope that this space can be accessible and utilized by citizens rather than a monumental or iconic building with boundaries.”

ChinaGSD: After the Hangzhou Civic Center is completed and put into use, from the perspective of civil participation and experience, what are the unique aspects or qualities of the public space it provides?


Li: This question can also be understood as how the building serves the public. The building changed from a single municipal function system at the beginning to a multi-functional civic center. When it was finally used, it was a merge between the two. I think this reflects a “gaming mindset” phenomenon in the development of urban public space in China.


From the perspective of architects, it is hoped that more space in the civic center building group can be opened for public use. This is a process or mindset of gaming: debate and compromise in all aspects. In the middle of the building, six 115-meter high-rise towers form the core area office. The towers surround the conference center occupying the middle. After the implementation of the conference center, the final ground floor open garden was unfortunately not realized, but the building retained a very pleasant roof garden with a diameter of 100 meters. The four L-shaped masses around the bottom of the building carry civic service facilities, which are connected in series by a public corridor of one kilometer underground, and all four parts of the facilities are open to the public.


Entrance to underground transportation at Hangzhou Civic Center (©  Atelier L+)
In fact, there was no complete task book at the beginning of architectural design. In the whole process, architects and decision makers had discussed again and again to make the building become more urban and public. This is a particularly interesting aspect of architecture in its evolution. One of the podium corners is the Hangzhou Library; the second corner is the Hangzhou Youth Activity Center; the thrid corner is the External Affairs Center and the Citizen Service Center that can provide services for all citizens from birth certificates to real estate transaction; the last corner is an urban planning exhibition hall and a service facility open to citizens.


On the basement level, the subway penetrates through these elements. The idea of introducing the subway system into the underground space and realizing it through the public corridor under the building originated from the schematic design stage. This is also an expectation for the future use of public space. In the early 2000s, China's high-speed rail had not been developed yet. The proposal that entering the building from Tongji University without an umbrella on rainy days was thought of as a fantasy by the public. But this has been realized today. We can take Shanghai Metro Line 10 from Tongji University to Hongqiao High-speed Railway, and from Hongqiao High-speed Railway we can take the intercity high-speed rail to Hangzhou East Station in about 50 minutes. It also connects to Hangzhou Metro Line 4, and passengers would be able to enter the corridor of the Civic Center building. Therefore, in terms of the evolution of the civic center function system and space system, it is necessary for architects to make very thorough predictions, have forward-looking thinking, and designing a systematic structure based on the actual use of the city in the next 15 to 20 years. The logic is related tightly to how the public participates in architecture.

在地下一层,地铁将它们整个贯穿起来。这源自概念阶段的设想,把地铁系统引入到地下空间,并通过建筑地下的公共回廊实现。这个也是对整个建筑未来公共空间的一种系统化预期。在2000年初期,中国的高铁还没有发展起来,当时我们提出来,以后从同济大学出发,在雨天能不能不打伞的就进入到建筑,当时大家觉得还是个天方夜谭。 但这个设想今天实际上已经实现了。从同济大学我们乘坐上海10号线地铁可以到虹桥高铁,从虹桥高铁可以乘城际高铁在50分钟左右的时间里到达杭州东站,然后再接驳杭州地铁4号线,最终它的出站通道就在市民中心建筑的回廊里。因此,从市民中心功能系统和空间系统的演变来讲,需要建筑师对城市未来15到20年后的实际使用,做出一个非常强的预判、一个前瞻性的思考和一个系统性的架构。这个思考的出发点,我觉得自始至终是跟公众怎么参与到建筑中来是息息相关的。

“The building changed from a single municipal function system at the beginning to a multi-functional civic center. When it was finally used, it was a concept between the two. I think this reflects a “gaming mindset” phenomenon in the development of urban public space in China. ”

II. Culture of the City

ChinaGSD: How does the design of Hangzhou Civic Center interpret the city culture? As an eye-catching landmark building, after its completion, how can it in turn influence Hangzhou's urban culture?


Li: The architecture itself has an corresponding relationship with Hangzhou's urban space prototype, which is an architectural space organization prototype with a void as the carrier. From the perspective of urban culture, I hope to express urban culture in an abstract way, rather than one-to-one operation. This is a very important part of architecture from beginning to end.


Of course, as far as architecture itself is concerned, I think the long history of Hangzhou gives people a humanistic reference from beginning to end. Sudi and Baidi in Hangzhou were built by Su Dongpo and Bai Juyi, both important literary masters and officials in Chinese history. They have brought a lot of changes to the city, among which the inheritance of an interest in the humanities is particularly important. Therefore, I remember that after the library was built, there was a story of a viral celebrity figure that attracted everyone's attention. A beggar has been reading in the library. At first, everyone didn't pay much attention to him. At that time, the curator put forward that as long everyone washes their hands clean, no matter what your status is, we welcome you! Later, it was found out that he was a college graduate whose life was changed for the worse. It was also revealed that the beggar also supported many poor children with his garbage collection income, so I think this just reflects the unique spirit of Hangzhou. This is a kind of inclusiveness coupled with a genuine curiosity to understand the world, which is precisely the most essential spirit in urban public space. Therefore, in the building, we pay a lot of attention to these aspects in every detail.


Daily scene at Hangzhou Civic Center (©  Atelier L+)

The civic center building itself is located in the center of the city and has an open attitude, which also leaves a connection to future space development of surrounding buildings. For example, in the underground space of the building, we proposed at that time that the building should be connected with all the surrounding buildings with reserved passages, and connected with the whole building until the underpass along the Qiantang River. This initial idea of connecting the maximization of public space also makes the commercial development in the surrounding areas follow this idea, thus achieving the balance between commercial interests and urban public interests, which is very important.


III. Void and Megastructure

ChinaGSD: From the form of citizen center, the building is a "void" in a city surrounded by six towers, especially around 2000. Such a building with the administrative center as its main program leaves a huge space in the center, and it is a more innovative practice to create an ecological greening core for citizens. What is the original motive and significance of this strategy?


Li: At that time, in 2001, I had just returned from studying in France and finished the project of "50 architects in France". My life and travel experience in Paris have deeply influenced me, and I also had a trip to Europe for about 3 months. Seeing the history of European architecture and art at that time was an exercise with both depth and intensity, and it was a great gain for me. The whole urban space evolution of Paris and the contemporary art practice industry there are particularly important. I have visited almost all the corners of the city in Paris. This experience is a very potent influence for me. 


Paris is not a big city in scale, but when you live in it, you will feel that the public space in the city is endless. From the Middle Ages to the Haussmann transformation of cities, until different stages of development in modern times, the experience and publicness running through them are very distinct. Therefore, my doctoral thesis at that time was on Paris urban reconstruction, and the potential impact on me was how to grasp the scale and spatial openness of a city.

巴黎从尺度层面不是一个很大的城市, 但当你生活在其中的时候,会觉得这个城市的公共空间是无穷无尽的。自中世纪到奥斯曼对城市的改造,一直到近代不同的发展阶段,贯穿其中的体验性和公共性非常鲜明。所以我当时的博士论文也是做了关于巴黎城市重构的研究,这个对我的潜在影响就是怎么去把握一个城市的尺度和空间的开放性。

Li’s sketches in 2001 while studying in Europe (©  Atelier L+)

Therefore, when I got this project with the characteristics of mega structure, I naturally took this experience in Europe as a reference. At that time, a very strong idea was to explore how the scale of a megastructure could be better associated with the scale of people and the scale of the public. Therefore, we have compared the treatment of giant buildings or scales in many historical cases. The Pyramids is a giant structure and an object; the theater in Rome is also a huge structure and a void. Similarly, from Corbusier to Metabolism, they also put forward a lot of proposals for mega structure. But what is missing may be the connection between the mega structure and the public, especially with human experience. Therefore, I wonder if we can do this kind of work to reconstruct this connection, which is a very strong perspective and the root of the concept of architecture.


“At that time, a very strong idea was to explore how the scale of a megastructure could be better associated with the scale of people and the scale of the public. ”

ChinaGSD: From the scale of Hangzhou Citizen Center, it is a great challenge for architects to realize the urban public space with a similar scale. What are the obstacles and difficulties encountered in the implementation of ideas during project design and construction? How do you overcome them? 


Li: The building process is full of twists and turns, and this tortuous process is really a great challenge for architects. The challenge is not only about your professional knowledge, but also your body and mind. I was only 32 years old when I won the bid in 2002. When I was coordinating this project, the client felt that the architect was so young that he developed a skeptical and distrustful attitude. In one stage, there was too invested in the project, which led to serious illness. It also made me feel that the achievement of projects and ideas is really a game playing with strength and the understanding the existing system at all levels. How to best coordinate urban public interest or public space and its future experience in the concept of architects is particularly important and heavily tested.


On the other hand, the challenge comes from architecture itself. As an urban engine, the civic center is in a very strong urban political background, which is actually a kind of logic that could be mined for its potential. Especially for such a huge building, its political influence is pretty significant. I think this requires architects to make a more strategic response. For example, the building has gradually changed from a simple municipal center as it originally designed to a complex functional system, an urban living room open to the public.


Hangzhou Civic Center under construction (©  Atelier L+)

Qianjiang New City and the completed Hangzhou Civic Center (©  Atelier L+)

From the perspective of the whole city operation, the owners have made many innovative ideas. For example, the original assets of the administration should be revitalized, the public programs scattered in every corner of the city should be co-ordinated, and the functions should be concentrated in the citizen center. Those replaced functions, those original plots, some are returned to cities, some are prepared for functional developments. From the perspective of the whole city, this idea has a very strong internal logic. Because of the government's intervention or guidance, the Qianjiang New City area got rid of the slow development in the past 10 years or so and was stimulated rapidly. Therefore, strategically, architecture plays the role of an engine.


Hangzhou Civic Center and constructions in the neighboring area (©  Atelier L+)

Panoramic skybridge bridge in Hangzhou Civic Center (©  Atelier L+)

I think this strategic aspect may be unique in the development of new cities in China, an opportunity for architecture and urban public space as well as a challenge. In my opinion, the final achievement of the openness of building public space is also a difficult gaming process. For example, at the top of six high-rise buildings, at an altitude of 90 meters, a panoramic skybridge with a maximum span of about 72 meters runs through them. At that time, we assumed that this public space would be completely open to the public and could be reached by a special sightseeing elevator. We hoped that in the future, it would include an exhibition gallery or art gallery open to the public, or even a footpath for viewing the city and natural landscape, overlooking a public place of Qiantang River and West Lake.


In the end, this open space could not be realized, because of possible problems such as security and functional interference, but the key is that there is no agreement on the concept of space openness. As a huge building, the complexity of its internal system determines that its construction practice is indeed a process of constant gaming. In the whole process, some systems have been well preserved and fully realized, and some systems have left many regrets in the end, which is also a unique part of Chinese reality.


“As a huge building, the complexity of its internal system determines that its construction practice is indeed a process of constantly playing a game.”

Underpass in Hangzhou Civic Center and Qianjiang New City (©  Atelier L+)

Night at Hangzhou Civic Center and Qianjiang New City during G20 (©  Atelier L+)

The G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China was held in 2016, and the citizen center was put into use and played an important role. What we see today is a real urban complex and a public space practice in the form of urban cluster.


IV. Post-Pandemic

ChinaGSD: In the context of the current epidemic, high-density crowd gathering becomes difficult. If "dispersion" and "isolation" become the new normal of urban life in the future, do you think it is possible to transform the large-scale urban public spaces just like the Hangzhou Civic Center?


Li: Regarding urban building density, I don't think it was an issue that was raised after the epidemic. In fact, this has always been a controversial topic in China's urban development. For example, Shanghai's urban center stipulated a floor area ratio ceiling of 2.5. From the perspective of the overall occupation of the city, everyone feels that such a floor area ratio is very low. In the new areas of Shanghai's urban renewal such as the North Bund or Yangpu Binjiang, the government is constantly adjusting the density and functional complexity of the city. Today we see that the given density may reach 3.5-4.0, that means its density control standard is being iterated.


Hangzhou Civic Center at ducks (©  Atelier L+)
I think the challenges on density always exist for architects. The epidemic does not mean that the density of cities must be dispersed and isolated. The density of buildings in urban centers may not decrease, or even increase. I think this may be what makes China different from European and North American cities. Agglomeration is still the root of urban vitality.


This brings a very important challenge to architects: how to ensure high quality design while maintaining high density or even ultra density in the core area of the city. The urban development strategies of New York and Singapore give a lot of inspiration to Shanghai, Hangzhou and Shenzhen. I think how to introduce and utilize more natural and functional elements in the high-density urban space to maintain a high-strength and high-quality health and publicness is a practical issue after the pandemic.


“I think the challenges on density always exist for architects. [...] (The pandemic) brings a very important challenge to architects: how to ensure high quality design while maintaining high density or even ultra density in the core area of the city.”

Village in Mt. Tianmu where the interview was conducted (©  Atelier L+)

Professor INAKI ABLOS and I have been promoting some research on building thermodynamics and thermodynamic cities since 2014. Linhe Architecture Studio (ATELIER L+) and I have been doing research and construction practices in large-scale public buildings as well. In 2015, we aimed at the high-density area of Lujiazui, Shanghai, and made a series of research designs to deal with smog to discuss how to improve the air quality in the core area of the city. This issue will become more crucial after the pandemic. For Chinese cities, decentralization is not a good strategy because there is not enough land and space to accomodate decentralization in a large scale. Bringing innovation and vitality through the agglomeration of metropolises is still the direction that continues to strengthen. The mega urban public space such as the Hangzhou Civic Center will continue to be developed and tested. It is still a challenge on how to introduce more urban natural elements while maximizing the benefits of open space.

这里对建筑师自然带来一个非常重要的挑战:怎么在保持城市核心区域高密度甚至超高密度的情况下,来保证一种高品质,尤其是整体公共空间的高品质。如果我们看纽约,看新加坡,他们的城市发展策略,实际上给到不论上海也好、杭州与深圳也好非常多的启发。所以我觉得在疫情之后,怎么在城市高密度空间里边引入和利用更多的自然与功能要素,来维持一种高强度与高品质的健康性与公共性,是一个切实的议题。自2014年以来,我与阿巴罗斯教授(INAKI ABLOS)一直在推动建筑热力学和热力学城市的一些研究,主要也是关注这方面的一些问题,我与麟和建筑工作室(ATELIER L+)也一直在做大型公共建筑集群方面的研究与建造实践。在2015年的时候,我们针对上海陆家嘴的高密度区域,做了一系列应对雾霾的研究性设计,来探讨如何提高城市最核心区域的空气品质。疫情之后,这个问题将变得更为迫切。对中国城市来说,分散不是一个好的策略,因为没有那么多土地和空间,去做一个比较大的分散,通过大都市的集聚带来创新与活力,依然是一个在持续加强的方向。类似杭州市民中心的巨构型城市公共空间,还会持续发展和接受检验,如何引入更多的城市自然要素,同时最大化的创造一个开放的空间体系,依然是一个充满挑战的公共议题。

Finally, I am happy to share something about my location for this interview. This is a small village located on the halfway of Tianmu Mountain with ancient bridges constructed during the Song Dynasty. Nature, history and rural construction form the local culture. This is a great contrast compaired to the agglomeration of big cities such as Shanghai and Hangzhou. It is a remarkable picture depicting the tension between the public space in China's urban and rural areas.


Project Credits:
Hangzhou Civic Center
Location: Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China
Client: Hangzhou Civic Center Engineering and Construction Headquarters
Area: 580,000 m2
Height: 110 m
Program: Urban complex, municipal administration offices, administrative services, public service center, municipal library, municipal youth activities center, urban planning exhibition center, etc.
Design Team: Linxue Li, Lizhi Ren, Jie Wu, Jianqiu Chen, Liping Zhang
Dates: 2003 - 2015
Status: Completed

Interview by: 王轶群 Yiqun Wang,吴逸欣 Yixin Wu
Graphics:  高盛枫 Lisa Gao,秦瑜 Qin Yu,吴叶 Bella Wu
Editing/Layout: 汪宸宇 Claire Wang,吴叶 Bella Wu,  施云子 Yunzi Shi
Proofing/Overview: 何牧 Clara He,汪子京 Tommy Wang,曾迪 Di Zeng ,陈勇图 Toby Chan

2020 | ChinaGSD