It would be easy to make eyes at the recently built Lafayette 148 building in Shantou and not expect much play. To think, however, that it is simply another fashionable façade wrapping a dumb box would be a mistake. The building is not just a fling, and may be a long lasting affair.
Completed in 2008 by Mehrdad Hadighi of Studio for Architecture and Tsz Yan Ng, the building houses all of the functions of the Lafayette 148 clothing label and is organized around the flow of production, literally from conception to shipment of the final product. Office and design studios are placed at the top. Each stage of production is stacked on the floors below. The entry level functions as showroom and has the ability to transform into a runway. The building is, however, much more than a diagram of production. Throughout the building the architects deftly carved into the block to allow light to penetrate into the core and even provide exterior spaces that one is able to occupy. These spaces also help to mitigate the use of artificial cooling by drawing hot air from the building. Post-tensioned beams span the entire width of the floors, thus removing any need for interior columns. The result is a truly free plan that accommodates the wide variety of programmatic needs as well as offering bright and open workspaces.
It is difficult, however, not to catch yourself staring at that façade.
Composed of a series of free flowing concrete fins, the façade flirts with the viewer offering a peek here and there. At night it becomes even more revealing. But is this simply another exercise in the recently fashionable façade wrapping? The Fabric Tower by Atelier Maferdini (Guiyang China, 2008) offers a telling counterpoint. According to Manferdini's website, the 14,000 square metre housing tower is, "an articulate response to the site's natural landscape and its minority cultures, expressing a contemporary, progressive, creative, and original vision of local traditions."
The local tradition to which Manferdini is referring is the elaborate silver head dresses worn by the women of the minority Miao population. One can easily understand Manferdini's interest. The headdresses are elaborately woven silver and offer a veritable history of the wearer. Families begin saving for the head dresses when the girls are young. The actual fabrication of the headdresses may take months and in the end may end up weighing three or four kilos. Though I would not argue the elegance of Manferdini's solution — how does one argue elegance? — Manferdini's translation from the headdresses to the housing tower is a somewhat loose translation. There is an obvious scale difference between a headdress and a tower; the original import of the headdress (as a historical record) is lost; radically different materials require different approaches to fabrication, structure, and production.
Lafayette 148's headquarter in Shantou, I would argue, actually does what Manferdini claims to do, but in a much more performative manner. Hadighi and Ng's building solution in Shantou also seems to be wrapped in woven fabric, and, is indeed enclosed by a double façade. The façade also claims a relationship back to a native culture, though not of ritual headgear, but from the local tradition of concrete construction. In Shantou, the architects found themselves in a situation in which concrete construction was the norm (though often concealed) and on-site poured in place concrete production was not prohibitively expensive and actually more efficient. This is evidenced in the façade construction. Rather than mass-produced singular pieces, as in the Fabric Tower, here the architects have designed re-usable formwork from which family of concrete fins are produced. The fins are hung at various angles, flowing into one another, to produce an array of effects. The effects are, however, not simply visual. The façade operates as a shading device and masks operable windows. The combination of shading and airflow though the building has resulted in a cost savings of 40% in energy consumption relative to similar manufacturing buildings in the region. Air conditioning is used infrequently and only to reduce humidity. The play of the façade also relates to the performance of the program within, revealing just enough to keep you wanting more.
Here's a bit more.
Each fin was produced on site and with local labor. Holes are punched out of the concrete fins. The architects explain that the holes themselves are a representation in braille of the company's name. Although this might be a rather oblique reading, the holes in the fins perform in a number of fascinating ways. The holes lighten the twisted fins to be more easily hung. During the construction process, chain pulleys looped through the holes and allowed for the fins to be picked up, transported and finally set in place. The holes also provide for a play of shadow on the interior surfaces. Contrary to the unfortunately all too typical scenario that finds large western companies exploiting the inexpensive, and often unethical, labor practices in China, at Lafayette 148 the architects are dependent upon but also develop the local tradition. The product is not, however, exported for profit but rather stays on site. In fact, this mode of fabrication could only occur in a situation such as the one in Shantou.
At Lafayette 148, the façade is less formal than performative. By building upon local traditions of construction, the architects have created an elegantly wrapped building that does more than simply make a fashionable reference. Although architects have been drawing analogies between architecture and clothing for centuries, at Lafayette 148, the analogy is reversed. In an unusual but wonderful twist, the building's façade has informed the branding of a recent clothing line for the company.
Project Architects: Mehrdad Hadighi of Studio for Architecture and Tsz Yan Ng
Architect of Record: Shantou City Construction Consortium
Design Team: Mehrdad Hadighi, Tsz Yan Ng, and Christopher Romano
Project Team: Adesh Michael Singh, Michael O'Hara, Jose Chang, Maciej Kaczynski, and David Nardozzi