A Mixed-Use Megacomplex In China, Built On Humanism

Six years in the making, Steven Holl’s design eschews the strict rationality of his predecessors.


This month, Steven Holl completed construction on what may become the definitive building of his career. Sliced Porosity Block, a Chengdu supercomplex with a name that only sounds wordy until you know what it’s called by its developers (CapitaLand Raffles City Chengdu) had been under construction since 2007.


If you’re familiar with Holl’s other high-density projects, Sliced Porosity will feel familiar. The 3.3-million- square-foot complex is clad in a white concrete exoskeleton very similar to Simmons Hall, Holl’s 2005 dorm at MIT. Inside its perforated envelope, a series of interconnected apartment residences, stores, and restaurants mingle in a carefully planned internal ecology, reminiscent of the architect’s 2009 Linked Hybrid in Beijing. There’s nothing wrong with perfecting a typology–indeed, Holl’s “sponge” metaphor has seemingly worked very well as a model for high-density architecture.

But the complex’s real selling point is the urban proposition embedded in the project. Rather than arranging five discrete towers on a single podium, Holl has connected them to form a three-sided wall around a sprawling park. According to Holl’s office, the landscaping was inspired by a poem by the eighth-century Chengdu poet Du Fu:

From the northeast storm-tossed to the southwest, time has left stranded in Three Valleys.

It’s a funny thing that an architect who prides himself on poetry and watercolors should be so closely associated with megaprojects like Sliced Porosity Block and its oversize processors. An earlier generation of architects made frequent analogies between housing blocks and machines; Holl is more prone to compare them to ribbons of seaweed or icebergs, as he did in his book Anchorings. Holl is a humanist–and that may be what makes him a great large-scale architect.

Will Holl’s supercomplex be successful? If history has taught us anything, it’s that it takes decades–generations, even–to judge the quality of change on the urban scale. In other words, to paraphrase Du Fu, only time will tell.

More on Sliced Porosity Block is here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.