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Sun Tower

The initial design brief for this project along the shore of Yantai, the coastal city at the tip of Shandong peninsula, was amazingly simple – the local municipality, a former industrial district now aspires to foster a better living for its rapidly growing population, wanted something unique to enhance its ocean front.

Looking beyond image making, we wanted to create something meaningful at least on two fundamental levels: one is to remind people the wonders of nature that are often forgotten in the hustle and bustle of daily life; the other is to bring much needed public programs into the new town where rapid urban development now finds itself deficient in culture. We hope it will be a unique cultural “lighthouse” where our ancient wisdom in respecting nature will be integrated into the contemporary urban life.

The building’s form is shaped by the sunlight — a large curvilinear structure magically sliced open by the trajectory of sunlight at a chosen time, revealing its internals to the majestic sea. At four important times of a year, the movements of the sun and the shadow are captured and marked by the building. Sunrises on the sea and sunsets over the city at certain times of a year will be framed by the building for breathtaking views.

It is a place for people to experience natural phenomena in different light, to contemplate the meaning of time, and the mystery of our universe.

Composed of three major functional parts: a semi-outdoor theater at the base that is also perfect for observing sun rise over the sea; a winding exhibition space with ocean lookouts in the middle; a library and a phenomena space on the top, the building is at once a nature observation tower and a cultural destination.

The building is a composite shell structure, two layers of slanted white concrete shells are connected and braced by horizontal slabs and ramps. Facing the ocean, the concave inner shell of the Sun Tower acts as a sound collector, absorbing and amplifying the sounds from the sea. The smaller upside-down upper shell houses the light-filled library and the ‘phenomena space’ with a breathtaking view of the ocean and the sky above. An oculus in the center of the phenomena space’s ceiling allows rainwater to enter and fill a small pool underneath in the summer. In the winter, the pool will be dry and used as a fireplace.

An upward zigzagging series of linear spaces in-between the inner and outer layers are where people hike up the tower, which also double function as digital exhibition spaces. Traversing through the tower is a journey through multimedia exhibitions with views to the ocean at each turning point.

At the base of the tower, in the plaza also designed by OPEN, a shallow pool completes the circular shape and features misting devices and spouting fountains. A specially designed water channel cuts across the plaza—a ruler of time—this is the straight line that the shadow of the Sun Tower will follow on the day of the equinox. A series of elliptical rings are set in the pavement pattern; the intersections between the rings and the water channel mark the building shadow’s footprint at specific hours on the equinox day. At one of the outer rings, a series of fountains were designed to celebrate the 24 Solar Terms of the Traditional Chinese Calendar; on normal days they are synced with high and low tides. These carefully planned water features add to the sense of liveliness, while also reflecting upon the city’s long history of oceanic culture which is rare in China.

Sitting on the steps under the parabolic shell, gaze into the distant ocean framed by the dramatic arch while the sounds of nature’s breathing echo gently throughout, one’s mind will gradually clear up.

Nature has always been there, the difference is how we see it, and how we coexist with it on this planet.

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