Architect Zhou Qi defends 'phallic' design of his People's Daily tower

'Phallic' look of new headquarters for party mouthpiece will be less jarring when built, says Zhou Qi, who calls debate surrounding it political

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 6:41am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 6:41am

Zhou Qi is well aware of the unflattering things people have said about the office tower he designed for People's Daily, which is now rising over Beijing's central business district.

Since the 32-storey structure first took shape last spring, countless internet users have taken great glee in the fact that the would-be offices of the Communist Party's top propaganda organ appears - at least during construction - to resemble a male sex organ.

But Zhou says he does not take the sniggering personally. He believes the mockery is aimed not at his design, but at the prominent party institution it will house when completed. "The whole controversy is not directed at us," he told the Sunday Morning Post. "It's actually a political debate in the sphere of ideology targeting People's Daily."

Zhou, a professor of architecture at Southeast University in Nanjing , hopes the smirks will subside when construction ends and work crews remove the scaffolding from the top of the tower that has helped give the building its phallic profile.

"It is a very curved, windy and dangerous zone for the workers," he said.

"But when the scaffolding is taken down upon the completion of construction, people will stop seeing it as a phallic tower."

Video: Chinese newspaper People's Daily office tower ridiculed for its penis-like shape

Built at a reported cost of 1.5 billion yuan (HK$1.9 billion), the 180-metre tower and its adjacent structures are believed to represent the largest construction project undertaken by People's Daily in its six decades.

The building will house the Shanghai-listed People's Daily Online, as well as several subsidiary tabloids, including the Global Times.

Numerous comparisons - some humorous, some head-scratching - have been made about Zhou's design since it was first unveiled in September 2009. It has been likened to a penguin, an electric iron, a juice dispenser and even a chamber pot.

Some have criticised it for too closely resembling British architect Tom Wright's design for the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab luxury hotel in Dubai.

But the phallic comparisons have proved the most enduring, with some joking that the building makes a perfect companion for the two-legged China Central Television building, dubbed the "Big Underpants".

Zhou said he welcomed the different interpretations of his work, which, he said, was never inspired by mediocre designs.

"To me, the most interesting part of an architect's work is the unexpected interpretations a design can generate," he said. "The vigorous debate and controversy so far show that our design is of a high standard."

In recent years, Beijing's skyline has been dotted by a wealth of unusual designs, often by Western architects who have been keen to use the capital's growth spurt as an opportunity for experimentation.

Among them are the National Stadium - widely known as the "Bird's Nest" - and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, which some call the "Boiling Egg" because the round structure sits in a vast reflecting pool.

Zhou said his tower was intended as a response to such novel designs.

"I'm very mission-oriented," said Zhou, who studied in the United States as well as in China. "With this design, I want to make a statement by a Chinese architect in shaping the future outlook of Beijing."

In particular, he wanted to strike a contrast with the nearby CCTV headquarters, which was designed by the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture.

"The CCTV tower portrays an irregular geometry of steel structure, with a bold grid of diagonals," he said.

"In response to that, our structure is stable, rational and rounded with curved lines. A modest design, it follows the traditions of a party newspaper."

Zhou is most proud of the building's two-layer exterior surface: gold plating surrounded by a terra cotta grid. It suits Beijing's dusty weather, helps conserve heat in winter and keeps the interior cool in summer.

"Gold has long been the imperial colour in Beijing," Zhou said. "But in our building, you can only see the gold plating through the white terra cotta grid."

The installation of the gold brought a new round of jeers, with some calling the design garish. Zhou Rong , of Tsinghua University's school of architecture, for example, said the glitter did not suit a serious newspaper.

"I feel there must have been outside pressures on the architect when he made the colour choice," Zhou Rong said.

"It's bad taste and sends out a wrong message to the public.

"Government buildings in China have long shouldered the responsibility of communicating an appropriate value to the public," he added.

"The use of garish gold conveys a message of money worship and conflicts with the modest design of the building," the academic said.

The criticism has become another reason for Zhou Qi to look forward to the project's scheduled completion date in May.

"I hope all the misunderstandings about the design will be gone by then," he said.