LOT-EK Ships to Beijing

­Hired to do one building, the architects double their haul in China’s capital.

For LOT-EK’s Giuseppe Lignano and Ada Tolla, the gurus of shipping-container architecture, Beijing seemed like the perfect place to scale up their idea of reuse. After all, China recycles large amounts of Western scrap metal and handles more containers than any other country in the world. The Chinese capital’s helter-skelter real estate development also promised a dynamism that their native Naples—and, increasingly their home base of Manhattan—cannot provide. “In Europe, rules felt so ingrained,” Tolla says. “In China, everything goes.”

The Village, a mixed-use complex located in Beijing’s lively Sanlitun embassy district, includes designs by experimentalists SHoP Architects and Kengo Kuma. But when LOT-EK first presented Beijing developer Guo Feng with a concept for a retail building there fashioned from existing objects, a murmur arose in Chinese. “They said, ‘We love the idea, but we don’t think it’s appropriate for this site,’” Lignano recalls. Instead of scrapping the scheme altogether, Guo Feng wanted to reuse it a few hundred yards to the south and have LOT-EK design something brand new for the original site. “We went to China with this great potential of doing our first ground-up building,” Tolla says, “and we came back with four times as much.”

To realize its largest structure to date, LOT-EK traded in reused materials for recycled references. Blue-metal mesh wrapped around a four-story, 1.1-million-square-foot rectilinear structure evokes the scaffolding that shrouds Beijing’s construction sites. Large bay windows piercing the skin will, when the building opens this summer, act as colorful “light boxes” that advertise the wares of the shops within, reminiscent of the vertical billboards that jostle for pedestrian attention across urban Asia. “By allowing each shop to project its identity through the facade,” Tolla says, “it is less like a shopping mall than a series of boutiques with individual identities.”

Meanwhile, at the southern site a different sort of fa-cade manipulation was under way: some of the project’s signature red shipping containers were (un­beknownst to the architects) removed from the concrete structure in Jan­uary. While Guo Feng felt that LOT-EK’s design suited the Vil­lage’s more casual southern area, Swire—a Hong Kong group that acquired the development along the way—has a different aesthetic in mind. “We are undertaking an overall enhancement project prior to its opening this summer,” spokeswoman Vanessa Marescialli says. Though frustrated, the architects are taking the episode in stride. “China is no dreamland for architects,” Lignano says. “But you get opportunities for different scales and different experiences.”

For all it may have lost in Beijing, LOT-EK has gained much more. “There was always this underlying question when we lectured: What are you going to do to grow in scale?” Tolla says. By mixing prefab and standard elements—and taking some cues from the chaos of Chinese construction—they may have found one answer. “Maybe now we need to think of ourselves as low and tech rather than just low-tech.”

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