Shenzhen, China

Urbanus, an architecture and design firm with offices in Shenzhen and Beijing, first made a name for itself designing public open spaces; some of its earliest commissions in the late 1990s were for squares, plazas and parks, mostly in Shenzhen. Today, the firm has assembled an impressive list of completed buildings, including the Dafen Art Museum (which also won a BusinessWeek/Architectural Record China Award this year) and the Shenzhen Planning Building (which won two years ago). On occasion, the firm’s partners also turn their attention to shaping the indoor environment, applying the same design skills they use on urban and architectural commissions.

For Vanke, one of China’s largest real-estate developers, Urbanus designed a dynamic showcase for new projects inside the east exhibition hall of the company’s architecture research center in Shenzhen. With high design becoming an increasingly integral part of Vanke’s brand and business model, the company wanted a place to show off the innovative architecture of its latest properties and the work of its research group. Urbanus responded to the client’s brief by creating a curvaceous, three-story exhibition structure, essentially a building within the existing building. The sculptural form and its insertion within a large atrium space recall Frank Gehry’s work at DG Bank in Berlin.

“It’s a big bubble inside an existing shell,” says Urbanus partner Yan Meng, describing the project’s distinctive form. The project’s lightweight design serves as a counterpoint to the heavy concrete structure in which it is housed. Yan Meng calls the existing structure “a good, solid, modern building that was the first exposed concrete structure in China” and wanted his project to initiate a dialogue between old and new. So he designed a  floating pavilion that doesn’t crowd the atrium and allows light and air to circulate. A complex latticework of angled steel columns and rods carries most of the structural load, while panels of expanded aluminum mesh serve as the skin and allow the spaces inside to breathe. Because there are no partitions inside the bubble, the Experience Center feels like one continuous architectural space spread out over three levels. Its fluid form and see-through metal-mesh skin prevent any sense of claustrophobia and inject a sense of playfulness inside the more serious concrete research center.

Urbanus’ experience with outdoor placemaking  informed its work here, helping the architects create a series of different experiences within a continuous loop of space and provide visitors with clear cues about moving through the project. It also drove the architects to treat the project as a public sculpture within an airy, parklike setting, an aspect that is emphasized at night when the pavilion is lit from wthin and can be seen from outside the Vanke research center. “We designed this to be as public possible,” notes Yan Meng. “One of our central concerns was how to get people involved with the space.”

Future plans call for the remainder of Vanke’s research center to be converted into a larger “experience center” for exhibitions, as the company moves into a new headquarters currently under construction, designed by the American architect Steven Holl.