A Planetarium

Beijing's adventurous new planetarium stands out in a country still adjusting to the idea of Western architectural Modernism. With its compound- curved glass walls and variety of high-tech display spaces, the building projects the progressive, modern image that Beijing hopes to buff when it takes center stage during the 2008 Olympics.

It was those forward-looking qualities that Beijing's mayor demanded when he rejected the four submissions he received in an invited competition for the planetarium. One team, impressively called the China Space, Civil, Building, Engineering, Design & Research Institute, invited architect Nonchi Wang to help them amend their entry. Rather than revise it, he boldly designed a new building from scratch in 14 days-and snared the commission.

At once didactic and allusive, the planetarium incorporates forms that represent essential concepts in physics and cosmology, like relativity, warped space, and string theory. The 210,000-square-foot building is an extended rectangle with a long, north-facing glass wall, with gray granite cladding its other three sides. Within it, three deformed spheres "signify the fundamental particles of quantum mechanics in dynamic states," says Wang. They house a 240-seat digital-projection planetarium (the only one outside of New York), a 48-seat theater equipped with motion simulators, and a "4D" theater featuring 360-degree image projection. Five undulating vertical tubular forms, meant to evoke string theory, contain elevators and stairwells and wrap the planetarium and 4D theater.

To represent the warps and curves of outer space, Wang designed the glass curtain wall with bulges and depressions, marking the entrances with distinctive saddle-shaped curves depicting half of a "wormhole," the term for a "shortcut" in Einstein's space-time continuum. (Wang is careful to call his design an analogy, since these phenomena resist direct or literal representation.) He built virtual models of the building using RHINO software, which also enabled their manufacture.

A Planetarium

Photo: Fu Xing

The double-curved glass walls were of two types, one more complex than the other. Inside, the tubular "strings" are detailed like shingles, with each course of glass slightly overlapping the one below. But the external curtain walls had to be weathertight and double-glazed for thermal insulation, and thus the glass was designed to fit into metal T-bar frames with gasketing. In the curved segments, each frame and pane (approximately 3 feet by 10 feet in size) has a unique shape. To complicate matters further, a tight schedule dictated that the glass and frames be fabricated simultaneously, rather than by the usual method of building the frames first and then cutting the glass to fit. It was the first time anything like this had been tried in Asia, and Wang calls it "a new benchmark for China."

Appropriately, Wang bridges the worlds of East and West. He's a Taiwanese native who earned his first architectural degree in that country and his second one at Yale; his small firm, Amphibian Arc, is based in Los Angeles. So far, he's shown an uncanny affinity for public projects related to science, with the Shangyang Science Museum and the Beijing Planetarium under his belt, and soon, a monument to Copernicus to be built in Poland.

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