Origin of life

Shanghai’s futuristic museum of science and technology evokes principles of traditional Chinese culture

April 01, 2003 |

Spiraling toward the sky with a giant glass sphere as its fulcrum, Shanghai’s ScienceLand museum of science and technology stands as a high-tech marvel in a city filled with energetic, futuristic structures.

The $200 million, 950,000-sq.-ft. concrete and glass structure curves and rises from one to four stories, west to east. At its center is a 135-ft.-high glass sphere that punches through the roofline, appearing to float freely within the building. Glass curtainwall clads much of the exterior, creating a transparent structure that houses some of the most advanced exhibits in the world, including virtual-reality games, a 3-D theater, and a miniature, working hydro-electric plant.

The largest museum of its kind in Asia, ScienceLand serves as the cultural foundation of Shanghai’s growing high-tech and financial Pudong District, which hugs the east bank of the Huangpu River that runs through the city. Education is at heart of this institute, but it is also meant to encourage continued investment in technology as vehicle for the Pudong’s economic success.

Its forward-looking design was driven, in part, by traditional Chinese philosophies that link “man, science, nature, and technology,” the theme of the institution.

The spiraling elevation, for instance, is an interpretation of a popular and prevailing notion in contemporary China that history evolves along the spiral line. “It underwrites the lifting image of architecture that I found to also be a perfect match with the curving site we had to work with,” says Xiaoguang Liu, lead designer with the museum’s design architect, RTKL, Baltimore.

In another light, the relationship of the glass sphere and the curved building is a metaphor for “egg and yolk” &m> a Chinese symbol of the origin of life.

The Los Angeles office of RTKL served as design architect and interior architect for the project. In June 1998, the firm beat out 11 competitors to win an international design competition hosted by the developer, Shanghai ScienceLand Development Co. Ltd., a quasi-government agency.

The firm collaborated with local architect/engineer Shanghai Modern Architectural Design Group on the exterior, interior, structural, and M/E/P design. Other team members include general contractor Shanghai Construction Ltd. Co. and structural design consultant Ove Arup & Partners, California.

Construction began in December 1998, and concluded October 2001, in time for the kickoff of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) World Summit. It opened to the public in December 2001.

The museum is comprised of two buildings. The four-story main building houses galleries, restaurants, shops, a large-format theater, a 3-D dome theater, multifunction hall, and an interior courtyard. An annex building, linked by a bridge, houses a research library, labs, residences for visiting scholars and support functions.

Upon entering the museum, visitors orient themselves in the glass sphere, which connects the museum’s two gallery wings and links via a bridge to the annex building. Within the central hall, a “floating” globe-shaped space is accessible by walkways from higher floors.

The east wing houses galleries and a multi-function hall. Three gallery floors cascading up the building are pulled back from the glass curtain wall, resulting in a linear atrium. On the top floor is the multifunction hall, which features an outdoor terrace and provides panoramic views of the area. Moving along the glass curtain wall on a series of escalators, visitors experience the ascending dynamics of the wing-shaped roof.

The west wing emerges from the ground at the tail of the roof form. This wing consists of a theater complex &m> cited to be the world’s only complex with both a 3-D dome and a large-format theater &m> permanent galleries, a Rain Forest, and an outdoor courtyard.

Apart from entertainment and educational events, the facility will also host news conferences, business gatherings, and social galas. Approximately one-third of the museum is dedicated to these outside events. These spaces can be modulated in a variety of meeting venues to accommodate up to 10,000 people.

Culture clash

Working in a country with such rich history and deep-rooted culture can be challenging for U.S. design firms. Overcoming cultural barriers is a major hurdle to international work.

During the past decade, RTKL has positioned itself to better handle work in China by opening offices in Shanghai and nearby Tokyo, and by recruiting a staff of Chinese-born and -educated designers to work out of its Los Angeles office.

This five-person Chinese design team, lead by RTKL vice president Richard Yuan, designed ScienceLand, incorporating the local culture and flavor into the complex. The team is currently working on the China’s first Museum of Film in Beijing &m> which is already being touted as one of China’s “best buildings,” as voted on at the 9th Annual Capital Architecture and Planning Review Exhibition in Beijing in January.

Even with RTKL’s in-house expertise and international presence, the client was not confidant that a foreign firm could meet the project goals, especially the tight, 22-month schedule.

“It was a risk for the client,” admits Liu. “So, as a contingency plan, they had a local design institute produce a set of schematic design in case they could not reach an agreement with us. Of course, the project went to plan and that scheme never reached daylight.”

Liu says RTKL had anywhere from 20 to 30 designers working on the project an any given time, sending completed files to China at midnight to “beat the clock.”

Teamwork with the local firms was critical, and, in some cases, a requirement of Chinese law. For instance, RTKL was required to hire a local design consultant (Shanghai Modern Architectural Design Group) because law prohibits foreign design firms from completing construction documents.

“You literally can’t seal and sign the documents,” says Liu. “So we designed the building up to design development, and then had the local consultant take it from there.”

But Liu says it wasn’t as if RTKL was cutoff from the project after that DD. “The client actually gave us the authority to review the construction documents, shop drawings, and contractor’s submittal, which, in turn, gave us great leverage to control the quality of the design and construction,” he says.

World’s largest clear-span ellipsoid

Centerpiece of the project is a glass-and-aluminum sphere that measures 221 ft. long, 165 ft. wide, and 135 ft. high. The world’s largest clear-span ellipsoid, the structure is composed of 2,628 triangular glass panels supported by a single layer strut and gusset framing system. The aluminum frame was manufactured and supplied by Gardena, Calif.-based Temcor. The company worked closely with the Shanghai Gaoxin Aluminum Engineering Cooperative in development of the glazing details. The glass, battens, and sealing material were supplied locally by Chinese manufactures.

The irregular shape of the dome originally called for more than 1,200 groups of different length struts and over 1,000 glass panel measurements. Temcor engineers, however, were able to simplify the design so that just 422 strut groups were required.

The solution, says David Brahm, lead engineer with Temcor, involved adjusting the offset distance at the gusset plates.

“By adjusting the offset on the gusset plates, struts with very close theoretical lengths could be manufactured to the same length, thereby reducing the amount of different strut groups”.

Temcor also developed a custom extrusion that was used to accommodate the glazing detail for this project. Locally supplied battens were attached to a screw slot on the outside flange of the struts to hold the glass panels in place.

The frame was manufactured in Temcor’s Southern California production facility and shipped to Shanghai ready-to-assemble. A Temcor construction consultant oversaw the erection process, which took just 50 days.

“It’s like a big tinker-toy set &m> very repetitive,” says Brahm.

Liu says the design team originally wished to go with a more transparent glass-and-steel tensioned dome structure, however, a combination of a tight schedule, limited budget, and lack of contractor experience by local firms, forced the Building Team to go with the Temcor system.

4,000 points of data

A fully automated, Web-browser-based control system, based on the BACnet protocol, controls and monitors all building systems and exhibits. Supplied by Automated Logic Corp., Atlanta, and installed by Beijing-based Bei-Wong Automation, the control system includes more than 3,200 BACnet control points, and monitors an additional 1,000 points in non-BACnet equipment, according to Steve Tom, director of technical information with Automated Logic.

“A project of this magnitude requires a control system flexible enough to interface with a multitude of vendors, providing monitoring, alarming, and trending capabilities,” says Tom. “One of the greatest benefits of an open-protocol, browser-based system is the ability to do this, with all vendor information presented graphically.”

Everything from lighting and HVAC to pumps and boilers is carefully monitored and controlled. For example, the air-handling units (AHU) depend on chilled water provided by a central chiller and ice-storage system. The AHUs respond directly to changes in the cooling load by opening or closing chilled-water control valves. The position of these valves is communicated to the chiller system via the BACnet network, alerting the chillers to the change in the building load and allowing them to respond accordingly.

Some exhibits, such as the miniature hydroelectric plant, are equally as complex. The system features a small lake and dam, an indoor activity area, areas with custom lighting, physics exhibits, and mechanical and electrical exhibits &m> all produce widely varying loads, says Tom.

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