A story has always got more than one angle, a story is open to interpretations, a story can generate different opinions but nevertheless it is always very important to start from the facts. I like to think that one can have its own opinions but not its own facts.
Galaxy Soho can be told in different ways. It can be told in the words of Zaha Hadid Architects as: “Five continuous, flowing volumes coalesce to create an internal world of continuous open spaces” and this is a fact, and as: “a re-invention of the classical Chinese courtyard which generate an immersive, enveloping experience” and this is an interpretation that illustrates the intentions of the architect. http://www.zaha-hadid.com/architecture/galaxy-soho/
The experience of Galaxy Soho can also be described in the words of Archdaily: “As users enter deeper into the building, they discover intimate spaces that follow the same coherent formal logic of continuous curvelinearity”. And this is to me is both a fact and an opinion. A fact because yes the interiors are still curvilinear! (it would be almost impossible otherwise) but it is the author´s opinion that these spaces are intimate: I personally find them life-repellent. http://www.archdaily.com/287571/galaxy-soho-zaha-hadid-architects/
So why do I write about a project that I find so controversial? After all the intentions of this web page are to explore the diverse urban spaces that celebrate life and beauty in our cities. The answer lives in the desire to understand; especially when a project like this one won the Royal Institute of British Architects RIBA award in 2013 with the praise that the white aluminum and glass bands “give the development an almost geological solidity and presence”. Galaxy was also defined as “a welcome democratization” of the architect’s work, asserting that the public space that weaves between the complex “demonstrates a rare generosity in a country determined to outdo the west in terms of commercialization”. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/architecture-design-blog/2013/aug/02/zaha-hadid-destroying-beijing-heritage
Are these facts or opinions?
My writing is always a mixture of facts and opinions so why would this project review be any different? Why am I giving Galaxy Soho a “tough life”? This is the reason: in the moment we only look at the form of a building like if it was a sculpture, perhaps even without having seen it, and no other considerations are taken into account, we commit the dangerous act of stop thinking. We stop thinking of what architecture should also be about: compassion, social issue, and public good, besides the ethic, political, ecological, economical, and social responsibility that architecture ought to have. We limit ourselves to see architecture as the art of building beautiful objects.
Dezeen magazine tells us another story. The story of a heritage group in Beijing that has written an open letter to the Royal Institute of British Architects saying it is “disappointed and offended” that Galaxy Soho has been given a RIBA International Award. And also adds: “The Galaxy Soho project has violated a number of heritage preservation laws and regulations. It has also caused great damage to the preservation of the old Beijing streetscape, the original urban plan, the traditional Hutong and courtyard houses.” The letter urged the RIBA to “have a deeper understanding of the current situation in modern Chinese society.” It claims the award could encourage developers and authorities to continue with the “destruction of cultural heritage sites”, which it says has “been a very common offence committed by many of the growing rich and powerful.” I do invite you to read the full letter of the Heritage Group at: http://www.dezeen.com/2013/08/03/zaha-hadid-galaxy-soho-riba-award-lubetkin-prize-chinese-heritage/
There is a time to understand and a time to judge. Let´s now try to understand the Galaxy Soho. If architecture is about “shape” than Galaxy Soho is a masterpiece. If architecture is the art of joining of putting materials together and the relationship among them then it is a catastrophic example. Drawings and models are not architecture. Architecture as it is defined by Peter Zumthor is the art of joining. “Buildings are artificial constructions. They consist of single parts which must be joined together. To a large degree, the quality of the finished object is determined by the quality of the joins” Zumthor, Thinking Architecture page 14. This is to me a fact.
Galaxy Soho has the beautiful shape of the Guilin hills in South China but that is to me as far as it gets in understanding Chinese culture. The complex is formed by four connected domes the highest is 16 storeys (the Chinese Hutong are rarely higher than two storeys). It is a 330,000-square-metre retail, office and entertainment complex. It fails to generate an immersive enveloping experience because it lacks the scale and the details which instead are at the base of the Chinese courtyards. Since the grand opening ceremony on the 27th of October 2012, the Galaxy SOHO stands almost completely empty. It is very difficult to colonize curvilinear spaces, very difficult to build them and to maintain then. The panels of reflective white aluminum are aching being forced to have a curvilinear type of dialogue with their peers. It is more of an argument than dialogue. The joints between the materials are always at the constant point of snapping, they are in tension, a tension that in my eyes generated a state of irritation because it is so profoundly illogical and so not ecological at all to conceive a building put together by silicon’s joints.
So the sculpture falls apart, reality bites and architecture cannot be a sand castle unless it is really a sand castle as the amazing Moroccan city of Quarzazate, but even there the joints are present between sand and the openings of the windows, between sand and timber doors and they are spectacularly solved. This is not happening in Galaxy Soho. It could have happened at a much smaller scale, at the scale of a product of an object. But architecture is no object.