Critics Call Buildings Like Pearl of the North Tower a Symptom of China’s ‘Edifice Complex’
Updated Jan. 17, 2015 1:41 a.m. ET
SHENYANG, China—Shenyang last held a global profile in the late 1600s, when the invading Manchu emperors briefly made it China’s capital.
More than 400 years later, city planners are hoping architecture will finally put this chilly industrial town back on the map—despite other recent grand projects regarded by many locals as lemons.
Shenyang will soon be home to the Pearl of the North, a 111-floor office tower that will, briefly, be the seventh-largest in the world, dwarfing One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the U.S.
To the less charitable, the building will stand as an 1,863-foot mixed metaphor. At its pinnacle, a giant sphere, representing a pearl, will sit, glowing gold at night. That light is meant to evoke molten steel in a nod to Shenyang’s rust-belt heritage.
During the day, the thin building is designed to evoke a guzheng, a traditional Chinese string instrument. The main entrances on ground level flare out to suggest the tents used by the nomads that once roamed the area.
The nuance is lost on some area citizens.
“I didn’t get how the design represents Shenyang until you explained it,” says Song Yuanyuan, a 36-year-old woman laden with designer store shopping bags. “Otherwise, it’d just look like tall buildings in some other big cities.”
“Totally a waste of money,” says Qian Rufang, a retired worker. “What do we need all those tall buildings for?”
Baoneng Real Estate Development touts Pearl of the North with a message on the company website: “This iconic building marks a solid step in Shenyang’s progress toward becoming an international city.”
Analysts call the tower rising in this metropolis of eight million symptomatic of China’s edifice complex. The office vacancy rate in Shenyang reached 28.7% in the third quarter in 2014, according to data from property consultancy DTZ Research. “Shenyang already has dozens of skyscrapers and I don’t think there is the demand for them,” says Huo Ke, an architecture professor at Shenyang’s Northeast University.
Wang Guanhua, Baoneng’s project manager, says the tower won’t be a waste because of how quickly the city is growing. “I think the city needs more high buildings. Our building is characteristic and the location is the best, too.”
Shenyang until recently was better known for Siberian winds and other oddball, if more modestly proportioned, buildings. In 2001, Shenyang built a 25-story office block made to look like an ancient Chinese coin, a structure that has made its way onto lists of the world’s ugliest buildings. A representative for that building’s developer didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In 2012, local authorities tried again with the Ring of Life, a 3,000-ton steel circle designed by a California-based theme park designer known for his involvement in 2009’s Tony-winning Broadway revival of “Hair.”
A rendering of the Pearl of the North building, expected to be completed in 2018. Photo: Atkins
The Ring—which resembles the Gateway Arch in St. Louis—was supposed to give the city an instantly recognizable symbol. But it is the frequent butt of jokes
from China’s Internet community. Some have mocked it for looking like the transdimensional portal from the “Stargate” movies and TV shows. A popular online meme shows photoshopped pictures of everything from cats to spaceships passing through the ring.
The city hopes to avoid such ridicule with the Pearl of the North. Before construction began, the developer took an unusual step for a northern Chinese city: It hired a feng shui master to ensure the building was auspiciously oriented and assuage the superstitious.
Shenyang isn’t alone among Chinese cities in its itch to build big. Many of the tallest skyscrapers in the world are being built in places that few outside China have ever heard of.
By 2020, 12 of the planet’s 20 tallest towers are expected to be in cities like Shenyang, Wuhan and Suzhou, far from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square or the neon excess of Shanghai.
China’s reach for the sky is part of a construction frenzy that has freighted the country with a glut of unloved convention centers, sports stadiums, museums and shopping malls. The property sector is now a drag on China’s economy and one reason it may miss its annual growth target for the first time since 1998, economists say.
Local authorities in China have long tried to differentiate their cities through architecture, with varying degrees of success. Some have opted for homage, building government buildings modeled on the White House, the U.S. Capitol and the Kremlin. More innovative designs include a museum shaped like a teapot and a building shaped like a grand piano and violin .
This building shaped like a piano and violin in Huainan is one of the more extreme examples of experimental architecture to hit China in recent years. Photo: Panoramio
The new batch of skyscrapers will likely allow local authorities to keep building while steering clear of Mr. Xi’s style police. Ping An Group, which is building a 2,165-foot-tall headquarters in Shenzhen, once constructed a skyscraper in Shanghai that looks like a Greek temple at ground level. It is clad with rows of Doric columns all the way up to its domed peak.
Of the 100 tallest buildings under construction, 60% are in China, according to data from the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Most are in cities not known as centers of global finance, which typically draw the types of clients willing to pay top dollar for office space. Moreover, economic conditions in some of Chinese cities are already sliding. Almost all mainland Chinese cities’ office vacancy rates stand at more than 15%, according to Credit Suisse.
Meanwhile, Shenyang is just getting started. Another three towers taller than New York’s Chrysler Building are under construction here. According to Robert ten Elsen, a Dutch designer based in Shenyang, developers have floated plans to build an additional 12 skyscrapers in addition to the Pearl.
Meanwhile, according to estimates from the CTBUH, the Pearl of the North should drop out of the world’s top 10 tallest buildings by 2020, two years after its expected completion.
—Yang Jie contributed to this article.
Corrections & Amplifications
The design firm Atkins created a rendering of the Pearl of the North building. An earlier version of this article incorrectly credited the Inhabit Group. (Jan. 20, 2015)