Hangzhou, a city in eastern China with a population of 9 million, is best known for its tourist-magnet West Lake area and historic buildings – even if local authorities have allowed the latter to be converted into McDonald’s and Starbucks branches.
Despite the pace of recent developments – partly due to Hangzhou becoming a business hub for technology companies – the city has largely left the macho tower-building to its neighbour Shanghai, located 180km northeast, and China’s other expanding megacities.
There is, however, another reason why artist’s impressions of a major new Hangzhou development, set to begin construction next year, have caused a stir. The Zhejiang Gate Towers, designed by Australian-German firm Lava, bear a striking resemblance to New York’s twin towers.
Their shape is so similar to the old one and two World Trade Center buildings that, on first glance, it’s hard to quell suspicions that this yet another case of China’s obsession with copycat architecture. Hangzhou already has its own version of the Eiffel Tower, while in Tianjin, north-east China, a version of Manhattan is being launched.
But talking to the Guardian from his Berlin office, Lava’s co-founder Tobias Wallisser laughs off the twin towers comparison. “Well, I did live in New York when I studied there, and of course the World Trade Center was an iconic structure,” he says, adding that a World Trade Center copy was never part of Lava’s Hangzhou design brief or specifically mentioned as a marker point.
“Put any two buildings together and they will probably resemble the World Trade Center,” Wallisser adds. “But there are a few famous twin structures we have compared our new one to recently, such as Petronas Towers [in Kuala Lumpur]. The client wanted to have a simple, commercially viable building with a simple silhouette.”
Zhejiang Gate Towers will stand at 280 metres, making them the tallest buildings in Hangzhou, and as is the modern trend, will feature a mixture of retail, residential and office space. According to Wallisser, the original design had been more complicated than a basic twin tower structure, but was simplified to lower costs.
Rather than New York’s famous twin towers, one of the main design ideas for the new Hangzhou structure was to have it reflect the Chinese character for the word “gate”: 门
Following from this, the towers are apparently designed to offer visitors a grand welcome to the city, being visible from the road route in to the centre from Xiaoshan airport. “They [the client, Shimao Property] said from the beginning that it needs to be something that works from a distance,” Wallisser explains. “That’s how the idea that it should be marked as a gate came about.”
But Wallisser says he will understand if some people don’t immediately make the connection between the towers’ appearance and the Chinese gate character, on the structure’s expected completion in 2020.
“The client wanted to have a strong image but we didn’t want to be too blunt or direct. It’s a subtle translation but it wasn’t an afterthought. It was something that was a starting point for the design.”
Speaking more generally, Wallisser admits there can be differences in design ideals between China and the west. “We are usually [designing] too subtly for what they expect, and perhaps they can be more direct than what we are comfortable with.”
While clearly very proud of the Zhejiang Gate Towers, he identifies an issue that other architects have encountered while working on Chinese projects, which may not have been such a concern for the designers of New York’s World Trade Center. “Briefings in China are sometimes difficult,” Wallisser says. “On one hand they want to have something iconic, but at the same time it should also be as cheap as chips.”