Big Air and Big Ideas

An Italian Architect Goes to China

When Olympic fan attention turned to the Big Air events at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing in early February, one feature stood out immediately.

Editorial Team18 Feb 2022

Behind the long ribbon of snow that launched and landed dozens of the world’s greatest skiers and snowboarders was not the expected winter-sports vista of snowcapped mountains, but a handful of tall, hyperboloid cooling towers, most familiar to many viewers as the kind used in nuclear power plants.


Reaction was mixed. A Reuters headline wondered if the location, just outside Beijing proper, was “inspired or dystopian,” and many on social media chimed in to criticise the site as being somehow unnatural, and therefore unbecoming of the games. But almost no-one who panned the look of the Shougang Industrial Park — where those conspicuous towers were once used for cooling a steel mill, not a nuclear facility — had actually walked the grounds. COVID kept all but a handful of approved visitors from attending the games at all.


If fans had been able to watch the Big Air in person, they would have discovered a vast, audacious experiment in urban renewal, where architects, designers, and engineers from around the world were challenged to both redevelop and preserve nine million square meters of industrial parkland for the Olympics and beyond.


For people watching from home, the visual centerpiece of the park was, obviously, the snow slope, but for attendees, their first point of contact would have been the site’s visitors’ center, the 11,000 square metre Oxygen Factory, where lead architect Michele Bonino and his team from the Politecnico di Torino collaborated with academics and professionals from Italy and China to create a space that holds onto its past, serves a fleeting Olympic present, and remains open to a future of yet unknown use.



Designing at the scale of China


Reached in Turin just as the Olympics were getting underway, Bonino told BODW that the origins of this collaboration date back to at least 2008, when he co-promoted a joint studio with Tsinghua University in Beijing. Then, as now, the thing that most interested him about working in China was the sheer scale of the projects — and architectural thinking — going on there. “Coming to China was great, because it’s the place where you cannot do architecture unless you have in mind the urban scale or the big scale. I wasn’t teaching urban planning or anything like that [at the Politecnico in 2008], but they invited me to teach a so-called ‘urban design studio.’ It was about a new town of six square kilometres, when in Turin I was working on sizes of about a square block at the most.”


Still, he says, Italian architecture and urban planning have a strong, worldwide reputation, and he quickly developed a rapport with his counterparts at Tsinghua, returning often and teaching there for two semesters. When Beijing was selected for the 2022 games in 2015, a continued collaboration might have been a natural next step no matter what, but the selection of the Shougang site was especially well-suited for his team from Turin.


Bonino points to two reasons for this. First, there was the history of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, which he calls “quite successful” in terms of urban regeneration and design. And second, he said, “Turin is very well recognised as one of the places where innovation in the field of industrial regeneration was done.” As examples, Bonino cites both, “the Lingotto, the former Fiat factory renovated by Renzo Piano; a huge project that lasted more than 20 years and really created a new part of the city inside this incredible building,” and also the Parco Dora, “another interesting project by Peter Latz, the German landscape architect that renovated a very large industrial area into a new urban park.”



China embraces its “Industrial Heritage”


“So,” Bonino says, “There is an environment in Turin that was very appreciated by our Chinese colleagues. They came and visited many times, and in some way our Politecnico became recognised as the university where research and experimentation in industrial regeneration was being done.”


Championing the collaboration was Professor Zhang Li, the present Dean of the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University and master planner of both the Shougang Olympics site and the ski jumping area in Zhangjiakou. Li first brought Bonino to Shougang in 2012, with the idea to collaborate on another design studio there before the Olympics were even on the table. At that time, Shougang Company’s plan was to demolish most of the “industrial heritage.” But according to Bonino, beginning around 2013, “What I observed was that in three or four years, the topic of industrial regeneration became a very high level topic of discussion in China.”


That conversation, playing out in architecture schools, magazines, and local governments, was driven in part out of a practical concern: China was moving manufacturing away from big cities to mitigate pollution, leaving vast tracts of urban industrial land to be reconsidered. When the question of what to do with all these abandoned factories met with Olympics planners’ desire to present a more sustainable face to the games, the idea of Big Air athletes soaring among decommissioned smokestacks was born.


The Oxygen Factory that Bonino and his team created is both a factor of, and showcase for, this growing movement toward reuse of existing industrial buildings in Chinese cities. But for Bonino, maybe the most interesting thing about the building is actually the collaboration that made it happen. The work between colleagues in China and Italy was one thing, but the swirling mixture of professional and academic architects, engineers, and designers created such an incredible churn of iteration that Bonino’s team has written an entire book just to explain how it all came together.


In the end, the architects envisioned a ground floor space almost entirely free of pillars and supports to allow free movement of visitors, and the engineers made it possible by employing suspension bridge like structures to support the higher floors above. When this novel strategy stumped the software used for approving building designs in China, Professor Li engaged a respected Chinese building expert who was able to finalise the structural calculations by hand.



The future of “Industrial Regeneration” in China


The building’s original exo-skeleton was preserved, creating a sort of new building inside an old building look and feel, and the spaces inside were left mainly free of walls and barriers, to allow for both variations in production needs during the games, and a blank slate for whatever may come next.


What comes next in this field of industrial regeneration is an open question. Shougang itself is slated to continue to be developed into an integrated mixed-use neighborhood of Beijing, but those plans are not entirely finalised, and the results here remain to be seen. That’s fine for Bonino. In his role as an academic tied to a university, as opposed to a professional architect cashing a chequ, he and his team are looking forward to following the future of this project in a research capacity.


As for further collaborations between his university and China, in part because of its work at the Big Air site, the Politecnico di Torino has been engaged to work on designs to convert a collection of old factories in Tianjin into an innovation park dedicated to Chinese government emergency rescue operations.


In other words, at some point in the future, when an army of first responders descends on a disaster zone in China, there is a good chance that they will have been trained in or equipped by a facility whose existence and design is directly connected to that defining image of the cooling towers behind the Big Air jump in Shougang. The architects of the future are already at work on the past.