Natural Structure, Not Just Natural Objects

Sara Barnes says, ‘Melbourne-based architecture firm studio505 has designed and completed the Lotus Building and People’s Park that’s located in Wujin, China. Its impressive physical form resembles the flower for which the building is named, and its petals dramatically rise out of an artificial lake. Accompanied by an eight acre park, it’s used as a civic building and a landmark whose distinctive presence ties the community together.’ The Lotus Building is positively fantastical from the outside:

Notice how the petals’ horizontal ribs are elegantly slanted, in keeping with the organic character of a lotus. Necessarily the appearance is stylized, but in a way that respects the integrity of nature. The statement is clear and beautiful.

At the centre we see a rounded cone that contains the building’s functional heart.

The Lotus Building houses part of the city’s planning bureau, as well as exhibition halls and meeting rooms. Although it serves a practical purpose, the structure was conceived as an inhabited sculptural form. It’s wrapped in a display of metal-ribbed petals and both the interior and exterior are covered in hand-laid mosaic tiles. They form a smooth gradient of color that ranges from white and beige to pink. In addition, a stunning 23-foot-long suspended chandelier hangs in the center of the building and resembles the stamen of a flower.

But the structure of this interior is less than appealing, especially given the expectations set by the exterior.

Meant to be the centre of the flower, this room merely dwarfs the human in a crude display of mass and – oh, yes – modernity. The ribs of the vault are massive things with no subdivisions for the eye. The horizontal window bars, moreover, are flat, forming uniform rectangles. If there were a way to give the lie to this building’s being organic, this was it. Here the architects had a chance to use a kind of tracery imitating the forms of nature yet controlling them in a stylized, cultivated, refined – in short, a civilized – manner. Instead we are given an equalizing travesty of order that only the heirs of the French Revolution could contrive, and the kitschy stamen chandelier does not help matters.

Persian contrast

In contrast, the (admittedly much smaller) mausoleum of Persian poet Omar Khayyām is, while modern (1963), sensitive to human scaling. Though it too is basically conical in shape with a rounded top, its divisions of larger space are not arbitrary but integral to the structure of the whole:

On a smaller scale are floral and calligraphic adornments, on some of the more prominent surfaces, fitting for the mausoleum of a poet.

And here is the mausoleum’s ceiling, not silent but singing with the music of coloured light, not stone-cold but blooming with the flowers of Paradise, in an order that refuses to be easily reduced, and yet is clearly harmonious:

Something is expressed: an aspiration toward Paradise, both on behalf of the great poet and in union with the universal desire expressed in his poetry. Colour is not meaningless decoration but form given to meaning. (For more of this kind of colour, one might also look at the tomb of the great poet Hāfez.)

In general, Persian decoration is rich and detailed to humanize and animate architectural structures that can be quite massive. Even on a large scale, however, there is a hierarchy of larger and smaller structures by which the whole looks graceful and dignified.

In context

Now, the building in question, the Lotus Building, is in China. Obviously one cannot simply import Persian idiom arbitrarily; the building, being where it is, must fit into the existing social fabric. Uniform rectangular window panes, even if staggered, will not cut it. Facelessness will not cut it. Without reducing its cultural provenance to caricatures – no pagodas! – the architects need to situate the building in China and make it belong, both to the order of God’s creation and to the tradition of vernacular and high Chinese architecture. The image of the lotus is a strong and important element; but the structure inside the petals, besides serving physical functions, must also transfigure into Chinese æsthetic form the more ultimate aspirations inherent to these functions.

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