Banking on the Future

An office tower symbolizes the transition of the country's third-largest bank toward a more open and technologically advanced marketplace.
August 11, 2010

When a nation of 1.3 billion flexes its economic muscle, the result is a building boom of unprecedented proportions. Last year, China consumed half the world's concrete and one-fourth the steel, most of it for buildings and infrastructure.

Energized by the government's efforts to thrust the ancient culture into the 21st century, the Chinese business community is looking to integrate Western business methods with its own, while at the same time adopting a more modern architectural style.

That is what executives at the government-owned China Construction Bank, the third-largest banking system in China, wanted to achieve with their new regional headquarters office in the coastal city of Xiamen, where the East and South China Seas meet.

After conducting an international design competition, the bank selected MulvannyG2 Architecture, Bellevue, Wash., to bring Western flavor and expertise to the project, which had an otherwise all-Chinese Building Team. With the completion of a 42-story office tower last September, the bank put its brand on the city's skyline. At 588 feet in height, the building is the tallest in Fujian Province; at night the bank's logo shines like a lighthouse beacon overlooking the ocean.

"It's our bank's branding," says Cai-yun Chen, the bank's director of engineering, who feels that the building not only stands out, but is "reflective of the largest bank system in the city," creating "a value that is measured by more than just money."

 
The curving, ocean-side exterior of the 42-story China Construction Bank recalls the movement of wind and wave and signals a new, modern, more open banking environment.







Rising from the waterfront, the 675,000-sf high-rise occupies a small 5,330-square-meter site, and is separated from the ocean by a main thoroughfare and a waterfront park. Although small to begin with, the bank site includes a plaza on the building's southwest side, which acts as an extension of the waterfront park.

Symbolizing a more open market

The building's exterior design respects both the ocean view and the city's history, while also making a statement about the future of banking in China. With ocean views on its south, west, and north sides, the broad, curving glass curtain wall façade along its southwest side and main entrance has double meaning. While "inspired by the movement of the waves and wind," says Ming Zhang, AIA, senior vice president and design partner in MulvannyG2's Los Angeles office, it is also symbolic of China's more open banking environment. "We tried to translate this transparency by opening the building up to western views."

On the base and northeast side of the building facing the city, solid granite, indicative of large rock formations that break through the ground along roadsides, is evocative of the bank's stability and power. The granite blends with the city's traditional brick and tile-roofed architecture. Being a coastal city, Xiamen has a tradition of being receptive to other cultures. "Shipping has had a major influence on the city," says Zhang. "Over the years, people have moved away and then returned, bringing Western influences back with them."

Higher-quality imported glass and granite were used on the building's four-story podium, which contains three levels of banking and customer service and an auditorium topped by a roof garden, but the bank opted for less-expensive domestic materials for the body of the tower.

Although the economy and customary use of concrete in China led to the choice of reinforced concrete instead of steel for the tower's structure, larger columns (1.4 meters at the base) and higher floor-to-floor heights (3.8 meters) created inefficiencies of space, says Zhang. With the strength of concrete in China (8,000 psi) half that of concrete in the U.S., Zhang says there is a big market in the country for higher-strength concrete.

More than simply modern looking, the building features intelligent automation and safety systems on a par with Class A office buildings in the U.S., says Zhang. Containing a centralized control system, broadband, and satellite, as well as a raised floor system for the building's data centers, all the mechanical/electrical and communications equipment is imported. The technology has made the building "much easier to manage than we expected," says Chen.

After an analysis showed that bank officials wanted a building that was too large for its use (400-500 sf per person), MulvannyG2 convinced bank officials to put up half the building's office space for lease, a rarity for large corporations in China, which prefer to be the sole occupant of their buildings. "Typically, you'd want your asset to make money," says Zhang. "But before, corporations, especially those owned by the state, didn't care."

 
The granite-clad side of the tower, which faces the city, symbolizes banking’s stability and blends with traditional brick and tile-roofed architecture.


The bank occupies the lower half of the tower and the top two floors, consisting of a banker's club, which includes a lounge, restaurant, game room, and exercise facilities. The upper floors are commercial office space, 20% of which is currently leased.




Bank officials may have one foot in the modern business world, but some traditions are slow to change. Unable to fully convince officials of the safety and reliability of the building's security technology, MulvannyG2 compromised with the bank on the need for a separate entrance and elevator bank for corporate executives. While employees and executives enter the building through the same lobby, each group has its own elevator banks.

Observance of the spiritual traditions of feng shui caused a functional change in the design of the building's east entrances, wherein the entrance was repositioned so that it was not directly opposite the west entrance. "Banks collect wealth," says Zhang, "and they didn't want it coming in one end and going out the other." Such are the adventures of working with clients of differing spiritual and cultural background.

         
 

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