When I meet Winka Dubbeldam at the lobby of her Venice hotel, her phone is blowing up. Congratulatory texts keep pinging in from friends who have had a chance to view her Strange Objects, New Solids and Massive Things exhibition, with its impressive five-metre-long 3D-printed model, at Palazzo Bembo. Along with the publication of a book of the same title, the show marks a momentous occasion: the home of the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, one of the major works included in both, is now officially open and complete.
“It was supposed to open last September, but because of COVID it was postponed until now,” Dubbeldman explains. “We thought we were building something for the Olympics and then later they can convert it into a concert hall. But it actually started as a concert hall and shopping centre, and it’s now being converted back into an Olympic stadium.”
The lead of New York firm Archi-Tectonics, who is also Chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Architecture, Dubbeldam had set out early on with her team to create a plan based on hybridity: the sports stadiums – one for table tennis, the other for field hockey – should be able to be seamlessly converted into cultural centres or facilities for other purposes and avoid becoming “white elephants” on a neglected site. So the inversion of the original plan – that the buildings would first host the 2022 Asian Games (also known as XIX Asian) before being transformed for use by the surrounding community – delivered proof that these buildings have lasting power.
But the project is much more than just a pair of stadiums. It’s an idyllic landscape, co-designed with another Dutch-born, New York-based practitioner, Jerry van Eyck of !Melk, that stretches 116 acres and includes rolling hills, a valley, a river and a series of bridges. It’s connected to the surrounding, skyscraper-dense neighbourhood by three subway lines.
“You don’t see most of the buildings because we were asked to make it 85 per cent park,” explains Dubbeldman. “People are full-on camping in it.” Altogether, the total construction area is 188,000 square metres, which includes the 32,500-square-metre tennis stadium, the 5,000-seat field-hockey stadium capped by a wing-like, 125-metre-span parabolic roof and – below this plane, under 20-metre-high rolling hills and nestled into the valley – 60,000 square metres of parking and a 36,000-square-metre shopping mall and fitness and community centres.
For the overall landscape strategy, the team deployed their “sponge city: zero-earth” scheme to control floods. But the approach also has a much more holistic purpose: it contributes to wetland restoration and to the cultivation of native plants and an extensive tree canopy. “Zero-earth” refers to the practice of re-using excavated earth to sculpt the site’s topography: the soil dug up to create the subterranean mall was re-moulded into the green hills on the surrounding below-level parking garages. All of the valley structures are naturally illuminated via skylights.
The bold proposal won an invited competition in May 2018 – even though the team broke some rules. The brief called for both stadiums to be located by the road that intersects the site. “But if you do that,” Dubbeldam says, “it feels like the park is the backyard for the two stadiums.” They decided to separate the two buildings and place them at either end of the park, positioning the verdant public space between them as a valley with underground shopping. This would ensure a more dynamic experience for visitors, with activities spread out between the two main nodes. The client, it turns out, was thrilled: In this way, the main stadium, for table tennis, ended up in his district.
That stadium is a feat unto itself. Shaped like a spinning top frozen in motion, and inspired by a jade stone artifact native to the area that combines cubic and cylindrical volumes, it represents an exploration into how “multiple, non-stable geometries” can merge into one “smooth object” or “unibody.” The “strange object” in Archi-Tectonics’ exhibition and book titles is derived from these ideas of both hybrid functionality and form-making.
The stadium’s inner area is a concave sphere clad in bamboo that guarantees no bad seat in the house – a result of the self-supporting ellipsoid roof, which eliminated the need for internal columns. The stadium’s external structure – a shingle system of natural aging brass tiles that diagonally intersects with a diagrid of glass “shards” that measure seven metres in diameter – also eschewed the need for perimeter columns.
The immense scope of the project (which also includes a viaduct and an aqueduct) combined with the ambitious level of detail with which every element is executed (the 80,000 brass shingles, in 85 variants, were individually coded for assembly), and the engineering prowess at play (Thornton Tomasetti avoided the use of scaffolding, and saved tonnes of steel, by craning in the roof segments) makes both the speed and the circumstances (the pandemic) under which the entire project was executed seem miraculous. Or not: In China, entirely new landscapes seem to emerge out of nowhere.
For Archi-tectonics, setbacks morphed into opportunities. The last time the firm was on site was in 2019. “And the rest we did with drones,” says Dubbeldam. The local team commandeered robotic devices to capture images from various vantage points, including incredibly close up. “The funny thing is, when you’re there in person, you could never see these buildings from the ground because they’re enormous. But with drones it was really good. So we learned something from Covid, that site visits in that remote way are better than standing there.”
The New York firm Archi-Tectonics has completed the bucolic and transformational setting for the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.