Building an Icon for the Freak-of-Nature City

When you think of Chinese cities, you most likely think of Beijing, Shanghai or even Xi’An. Rarely would people think of Chongqing, a megapolis of 49 million people and one of the centres of China’s economy, finance, shipping, culture, education, science and technology. This city located in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River is not only an important base for modern manufacturing, but also a transportation hub as well as a collection and goods distribution base in Southwest China. In short, Chongqing is one of the few Very Important Cities in this country.

The mountains and hills of Chongqing would have made any building developer squirm. However, it proved to be of no serious threat as construction spearheaded after the city was granted its municipality status (the highest level of classification for cities in China, sitting under the direct administration of central government) in 1997. In fact, the integration of mountainous terrain and urban construction creates a special urban madness unique to this city. The city’s urban character is ingrained in its series of serious steps, endless stairways, elevated bridges and interloping, spiraling highways. Here, locals boast about living in buildings with “two first floors”: one on the first floor; and the other on the thirteenth floor.

A high-profile Singapore-Chongqing agreement gave birth to Raffles City, a 1.1 billion square metres ambitious mega project that aims to be the new city icon at the confluence of Yangtze and Jialing rivers. Building an iconic architecture for a city with countless towering 40-storey buildings erected on hills, a monorail line that zips through buildings, and a network of highways resembling a maze, was not going to be an easy feat. Its developer, Capitaland had to go big, rebuilding a bold icon that fits Chongqing’s eccentricity. Made up of series of skyscrapers: six 250 metre high towers and two 350 metre high towers — housing a hotel, office space, private residence, and serviced apartment, the crème de la crème of this project is The Crystal sky bridge that accommodates for an Exploration Deck, a Private Club, a Sky Garden, a members-only clubhouse; and a viewing gallery accessible to the public.

What makes this project ticks though is not the grand but exclusive features such as the restaurants, bars, and hot spring suspended 250 metres above air. It’s that the project, despite its foreign roots (Singaporean developers, Capitaland and Israeli-Canadian-American architect, Moshe Safdie), remains rooted in the city’s history and identity. If one is reminisce about city’s past as a maritime trading post, Raffles City may resemble giant powerful sails heading towards the Yangtze or Jialing. If one is reminded of the city’s historic role as an imperial city gate, The Crystal Sky can be interpreted as the imperial edict of ancient Chinese scroll.

For a project of this scale to successful though, mere-aesthetic will not do. On top of the exclusive offerings it provides for its residences, Raffles City needs to address the needs of the users: the people of Chongqing. That explains how in a densely developed city with limited public parks, the project provides over 30,000 square metre of public space in the form of outdoor and community gathering spaces. In addition, a large development in the city centre could have easily added to the traffic congestion but instead, as a result of productive collaboration between the developer and local government, Raffles City was designed and built with innovative traffic diversion system that solves many of the car and pedestrian traffic issues in the city.

Like all great art forms, architecture can be divisive. Unlike paintings, architecture does not sit inside a gallery or museum. It sits out there, available for all to judge. Paris’ Eiffel Tower, New York City’s Empire State Building and Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia were once reviled by its locals. Like those buildings that now have become the defining fixture of their home cities, not all Chongqingers have warmed up to their city’s new icon. However the 8 year planning considered the grievances of locals who lamented the prospective loss of Chaotianmen Square, the city’s main port, Chongqing’s gateway to the world beyond. This square situated right next Raffles City is an area many locals see as the heart of the city and the birthplace of the city. To maintain direct access to the square for the local Chongqingers, a new public walkway now cuts through the five levels of Raffles City’s retail mall, connecting the podium park and Chaotianmen Square. 

Like most buildings in Chongqing that integrates multiple access points aligned with the city’s undulating topography, the 235,000 sqm shopping mall is blessed with 14 exits at multiple levels. The architect himself declared, “Guided by the sheer scale and complexity of the site, our design brings people in and through the site at different levels, whether by foot, car, train, or ferry, to reconnect the city to its most historic site — The Emperor’s Landing”.

By Vanessa Intan

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