British architects Chetwoods’ design for the tallest tower in China is an architectural medley of mixed intents, where ecology, iconic and sex play a central role in creating a proposal which is  just as bonkers as it is creative. Love it or hate it? Who cares. You simply can’t ignore it. But underneath the facade of this seemingly shallow, gigantic Vegas showgirl lies a much deeper intent to tackle important environmental problems through design… and quirk!

The Phoenix Towers first stepped into the scene in mid 2014, when Chetwoods announced its intentions for building the world’s tallest skyscraper to the public. The tower was to proudly stand one-kilometre tall, beating the current world record holder (Dubai’s Burj Khalifa) by a good 170.2 meters… and it wasn’t going to do this subtly. No. It was going to this with a statement! Was the world ready for all this? Probably not.

“In China if you come up with a slightly mad idea, it’s almost not mad enough”, said Laurie Chetwood, founder of the London studio behind the project.

Seeing this studio’s proposal for the twin-skyscrapers, no words rang more true in our ears! However, a year down the line, the Phoenix Towers continues to intrigue. As the initial design-shock is wearing out, it is becoming easier to appreciate the multi-functions which Chetwoods’ incredible design has to offer. It has some serious ambitions and yes, some serious eccentricities too. But, after all, who doesn’t have them? In a world of diluted emotions and forced-neutralities, Chetwoods’ design is quite refreshing! It has a big personality to match its big stature, and why shouldn’t it?

Renowned Danish furniture designer Hans J. Wegner (1914-2007) once said;

“We must take care that everything doesn’t get so dreadfully serious. We must play, but we must play seriously.”

This, we feel, is exactly what Chetwoods are doing.


The twin skyscrapers of Chetwoods' Phoenix Towers. [Source: Chetwoods]
The twin skyscrapers of Chetwoods’ Phoenix Towers. [Source: Chetwoods]

The Phoenix Towers are to be located in Wuhan. Known as the City of a Thousand Lakes, it is the capital of central China. The project clients are the HuaYan Group, who wanted a clear architectural statement to create global impact.

Chetwoods explains: “In response to the client’s wish to develop a new style of architecture that emphasises Chinese identity, the use of a pair of towers reflects the dualist elements of Chinese culture in contrast to a more western monolithic form.  Based on the traditional Chinese Phoenix symbol of two birds, male Feng and Huang, the plan was generated from the Yin/Yang form to represent perfectly balanced union. The Feng tower uses cutting-edge technology to ‘feed’ the Huang tower with renewable power in a symbiotic process.”

The skyscrapers display two very different natures housed in one unified scheme. “They [the clients] wanted to take the Eiffel Tower experience on a stage further”, explain Chetwoods. “It doesn’t just stand there and become an iconic symbol of Wuhan, it has to do a job”. What job? To act as a gigantic eco-filter for the surrounding area. The architects rammed the twin towers with a whole series of innovative environmental systems: lightweight photovoltaic cladding; bio-dynamic pollution absorbing coatings; thermal chimneys; suspended air gardens; wind turbines; water harvesting/recycling; waste recycling via biomass boilers and hydrogen fuel cells at ground level. The structures generate their own energy and are intended to generate enough to power the surrounding district as well.

Perhaps the most remarkable eco-feature is the pollution-filtration systems of both air and water. “The Towers have been designed to filter polluted air from the city, cleaning and recycling to improve air quality”, explain Chetwoods. “[They] are located on an existing lake which, in turn, is linked to a series of lakes in the city (hence City of a Thousand Lakes). The Towers are used to help aerate and filter the water to improve the water quality and aid local ecology.”


The Phoenix Towers are intended to act like gigantic architectural pollution filtration systems for surrounding air and water. [Source: Chetwoods]
The Phoenix Towers are intended to act like gigantic architectural pollution filtration systems for surrounding air and water. [Source: Chetwoods]
The towers come with a whole plethora of ecological features, central to both the design and intent of the mega-structure. [Source: Chetwoods]
The towers come with a whole plethora of ecological features, central to both the design and intent of the mega-structure. [Source: Chetwoods]


All this ecological intent is combined with some pretty quirky features, intended to satisfy the ‘iconic’ requirement and get people visiting. First of all, the skyscrapers are said to have different sexes: there is the male (the highest one) and the female building. The male will incorporate the world’s tallest kaleidoscope, which is connected to a wind turbine to passivly power the display. The towers are united by three giant spheres suspended between them, representing planets orbiting the buildings. These will house celestial-themed restaurants, accessed by suspended ‘skywalks’.


Proposal for the suspended 'planets' linked to the towers by 'skywalks'.[Source: Chetwoods]
Proposal for the suspended ‘planets’ linked to the towers by ‘skywalks’.[Source: Chetwoods]

With the Phoenix Towers, the HuaYan Group wish to leave their mark in the context of architecture.

“We aim to pioneer our new vision via a programme of cultural and creative dialogue and collaboration embracing a new era and new eclectic style that will make the best of China even better”, say the clients.

The scheme is intended to become an “environmental catalyst to reinvigorate the city of Wuhan, actively avoiding the disastrous consequences of developments elsewhere in China”, explains Chetwoods.  “It will form the nucleus of a wider green strategy, linking Wuhan’s lakes environmentally and socially, with the region’s landmark destinations and lake district, along a 20km Green Wall of China to a new lakeside cultural tourist destination.”

If the tower gets the green light, then the £1.2billion project should take 3 years to build and be completed by 2017/2018. It will stand on its own island on the Yangtze River at the crossroads of nine provinces. Wuhan city has a population of 10 million and has recently been designated an environmental ‘super city’ by the Regional and Central Governments of China.

The design was based on Chetwoods’ winning proposal for their 2009 competition for creating a new bridge for the city of London which, like the Phoenix Towers, merged iconic with ecology. With their designs, Chetwood have, perhaps, created a new form of architecture, which could be said to deserve its own word. ‘Econic’?


Chetwoods' 2009 proposal for an eco-iconic new bridge for London. [Source: Chetwoods]
Chetwoods’ 2009 proposal for an eco-iconic new bridge for London, the initial inspiration behind the Phoenix Towers. [Source: Chetwoods]