The Man Behind the Tower

Published for TALK Magazine in September 2010

canton-towerMark Hemel TALKs ‘supermodel’ politics.

Perched 610m above Guangzhou’s Pearl River (well, 600m actually, but we’ll get to that later), the Guangzhou TV Tower enjoys the ‘tallest tower in the world’ title, handedly beating out long-time titleholder the CN Tower in Toronto. Architects Mark Hemel and Barbara Kuit are not your average designers either. This Dutch couple/team put everything they had on the line to take a run at the TV tower project, and against all odds, got it. It wasn’t to be all smooth sailing them and their firm, Information Based Architecture, though. Having accepted their first big project in China, they would have some lessons to learn along the way.

How’s she coming along?

Hemel: Well, we’re done with the exterior now. It’s been an extraordinary few years to say the least.

And the interior?

Hemel: That’s another story. My firm is not really involved in the decisions made on the interior of the tower. We’re acting more as consultants at the moment. From what I gather, the interior is almost complete.

What would you have done differently from the way things are going now?

Hemel: (laughs) We had a design in place to create a large green space atop the tower. I feel other interests won out, and the green space was shelved. In any case, they’ll have a nice roof.

SEPTEMBER ISSUE (dragged)How did you go about getting the design for the tower in the first place?

Hemel: Big projects are won via competition in high-stakes architecture. We had to design two scale models for the tower, as well as a full set of blueprints on top of the numerous presentations we had to give. After everything, we were informed that we had won. Little did we know that we were one of three ‘winners,’ which is quite unique to the industry. One of those ‘only in China’ things I suppose. We ultimately won out over a Japanese firm that had proposed a rather precarious 1km high structure.

How did the whole process go? I understand you work closely on these things with your wife.

Hemel: Yes, she’s handles function and I handle the abstract. I bait the hook and she reels them in (laughs). In all, it’s a great balance for us to keep things intact. Something that’s quite unique in our industry. 

The tower’s been given the title: the Supermodel. Is this Ms. Kuit’s female influence talking?

Hemel: We didn’t get to name it that. An architectural magazine in London gave it that moniker. I’m alright with it though. It’s a nice compliment. These sorts of projects are usually expressions in masculinity. This is overused, I feel. It’s nice to be able to use curves because curves in architecture give life and affect character. This deepens the TV tower so that it’s not one-dimensional – there’s a different perspective on it from every angle. Multi-element design is really important in Chinese culture, too. A kind of ting/yang idea. 

Tell us about something not widely known about the tower. A hidden fact, if you will.

Hemel: There’s going to be a wine cellar. Not our idea though (laughs). In terms of design and construction, it’s extremely green efficient. The amount of steel used on this project was very light for its height and complexity.

How has the TV Tower project opened new opportunities for your firm?

Hemel: We’re doing the Nan Yue museum and part of the Velodrome for the Asian Games. This has taught us a few lessons about guannxi and politics that we’ve certainly had to learn as we go along.

Were there any unexpected setbacks for the project?

Hemel: We never know when the unveiling is going to be. That’s a political thing that’s decided by the bureau. A little bit frustrating. That, and they had to recently cut 10 meters off the top of the antenna because of a reception issue. It’s mostly been all right though. Six years and RMB 2.2 billion later … what a trip! I hope Guangzhou appreciates its new landmark.