EVERY STRUCTURE TELLS A story. Sometimes, it’s the relatively straightforward story of its function: train terminals, grain silos, and sports arenas generally follow the contours of their purposes. Sometimes, a building’s story is bound to commemoration or dedication. The Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, and the Parthenon all pay tribute to gods and favored mortals. And sometimes, a building’s iconic design becomes the story—as is the case with the Sydney Opera House, the Chrysler Building, or the Eiffel Tower.
However, in each of these stories, there’s room for interpretation. The Eiffel Tower’s stark geometries were famously the subject of fierce aesthetic debate. One can find both enduring romance and troubling ostentation in the Taj Mahal. And as we saw in our last issue, a train terminal’s story can launch an entire movement to restore historic architecture.
But now, in an age of monumental gestures and tourist-courting designs, we may be seeing the rise of a new class of buildings. These structures tell stories that are more didactic than open-ended, with their stories printed right on their skin. While murals, mosaics, and frescos are nothing new, these two buildings come with their interpretations pre-loaded—as if serving as architectural press releases for their regions.
Northwest of Hong Kong lies the Chinese city of Guangzhou, a wealthy port that historically connected the Pearl River to the international traders. It was here that the Silk Road met the South China Sea, and today it’s surrounded by China’s most populous and developed metropolitan region. Like many Chinese cities, Guangzhou has seen a surge of construction in recent decades, including the Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre.
Billowing like a silk scarf in the wind, the Grand Theatre would be notable enough for its rippled aluminum cladding, made up of thousands of triangular tiles. The nearly windowless crimson structure was purpose-built by Steven Chilton Architects for Franco Dragone, a theatrical impresario, and Cirque de Soleil alumnus with a flair for the flamboyant. The theatre houses a round amphitheater, rigged for acrobatics and containing a 9-meter-deep pool that can be raised or lowered for aquatic performances.
Perhaps most notably, however, is the Theatre’s embellished facade. The building’s bright red exterior boasts two layers of graphics. The subtler, darker background print recalls contemporary tattooing with its intricate, radiating line-work. Superimposed over this is a layer of golden illustrations that recall delicate embroidery and complete the effect of narrative tapestry. Based on a local myth, “100 Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix,” the building itself becomes a kind of allegory for art, patronage, and performance. The effect is like a picture book, as the building makes its case for Guangzhou as a hub for artistic endeavors.
Thousands of miles away from Guangzhou is another wealthy port city with a daring, donut-shaped cultural center: Dubai. In this case, it’s the audaciously named Museum of the Future, whose relatively vague mandate promises “a hopeful future for all” and pledges to be “a place of tolerance, inviting varied cultural, philosophical, social and spiritual outlooks.”
The $136 million project, led by Dubai’s Killa Design, contains four floors of exhibition space. Its 77-meter-tall metallic form looks like a stretched, asymmetrical ring—an opulent and shiny sculpture in the middle of the desert. Like its neighbor the Burj Khalifa, its goal is clear: to signify Dubai’s presence as a global beacon for trade and wealth and draw seven-star tourists to the lavish city.
Any reading of the Museum, however, is dominated by the building’s bold incorporation of Arabic calligraphy on its façade. The building is inscribed with excerpts from a poem written by the Prime Minister of United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. At night, the script—which also serves as the structure’s windows—is illuminated from within. Ironically, despite their prominence, the designers have yet to specify what the quotations actually say or signify. Without a transcript, the fragments mainly serve as an elaborate signature of the country’s autocratic leader.
As with the Grand Theatre, the Museum of the Future made extensive use of digital modeling technologies. Both projects feel so thoroughly contemporary that one can’t imagine them without software’s role in their conception. In fact, many of the Museum’s components were 3D-printed to bring its precise rendered forms to life, and the project even leveraged a “digital growth algorithm” to manage its wildly complex logistics.
With both buildings, one also senses the designer planned a digital appreciation, too. Both buildings feel tailor-made for Instagram feeds and blog posts with their singular ideas and narrative hooks. It’s fitting, then, that their stories are prescribed, controlled, and brief. It’ll be fascinating to see whether there’s room for interpretation of their stories in the future, or whether they simply serve as very expensive essays.
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