OPEN’s Sun Tower brings sweeping views and cultural programming to China’s Shendong Peninsula

Soaking It Up

OPEN’s Sun Tower brings sweeping views and cultural programming to China’s Shendong Peninsula

Now under construction, Sun Tower will rise over 150-feet above the Yellow Sea in the port city of Yantai. Seen here is an exterior view of the building’s library and individual lookout points. (© OPEN)

Best known for designing landmark museums, galleries, and concert halls that rank among China’s most conspicuous new cultural destinations, the Beijing-based OPEN Architecture has revealed its latest singular work: a curvilinear, multi-purpose arts hub-slash-observation tower perched on the edge of the Yellow Sea in Yantai. Dubbed Sun Tower, the project is a 2021 winner of the Jeu d’Espirit Special Prize of AR Future Project Awards and is currently under construction on a coastal site within a fast-growing new waterfront district in the historic port city of Yantai in the eastern province of Shandong.

Sun Tower is also a featured project in the forthcoming monograph, A Radical Vision by OPEN: Reinventing Cultural Architecture. The book will be published by Rizzoli later this April.

night view of a curving, cone-shaped tower
Night view of Sun Tower, a coastal landmark and cultural hub for the city of Yantai (© OPEN)
rendering of a curving tower from a frozen sea
Winter view of Sun Tower (© OPEN)

A contemporary nod to the coastal watchtowers erected during the Ming Dynasty (the name Yantai roughly translates to “Beacon Tower”), the 164-foot-tall Sun Tower will include semi-outdoor performance space on its ground level, exhibition areas spread across multiple levels, a “library in the sky,” and an observation area at the top of the structure known as the “phenomena space.” From this dramatic seaside perch, visitors will be invited to view a slew of celestial goings-on including spectacular sunrises across the Yellow Sea. As detailed in a press release, the multistory space features an oculus at its center. During the wet summer months, rainwater passing through the oculus will fill a small pool beneath it; during the winter, the pool will be used as a fire pit to help warm the partially open space.

OPEN’s design for the bowed structure, conceived in collaboration with Arup, gives it the appearance of being “sliced open by beams of light, revealing the interior spaces to the majestic sea,” per the firm. The building is a composite shell structure comprised of two layers of slanted white concrete shells connected and braced by horizontal slabs and ramps. The firm described the concave inner shell of the structure as functioning as a “sound collector” that absorbs and amplifies “sounds from the sea.” The tower’s smaller, upside-down upper shell will house the library and phenomena space.

rendering of an exhibition space with curving walkways
Sun Tower’s digital exhibition space (© OPEN)
an observation area looking out a cross the sea with an oculus
View of the phenomena space with oculus and multi-tasking pool (© OPEN)

Also designed by OPEN, a gently sloping plaza flanking Sun Tower at its base will be anchored by multiple water features including a circular shallow pool featuring misting and spouting fountains along with a water channel that cuts across the plaza and functions as a “ruler of time.”

As the firm explained: “… 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.”

rendering of a library looking out above an ocean
Interior of Sun Tower’s sky-high library (© OPEN)
people on steps look out to a sunset above the ocean
Sun Tower’s semi-enclosed theater at ground level (© OPEN)

OPEN’s husband-wife team of Li Hu and Huang Wenjing elaborated on the design of Sun Tower in a joint statement:

Today it’s so important to find ways to connect and embrace nature, we wanted to keep this central to the concept of the Sun Tower and pay respect to the power of the surrounding landscape. Immediately when we conceived of the design we wanted to reference ancient human rituals, honouring the sun, moon, and stars, and offering a space for reflection and contemplation. On the other hand, we also wanted to ensure the building had an authentic purpose and function, something that would be of benefit to the citizens of Yantai rather than just a folly on the beach. Creating spaces that juxtapose the incredible ocean views with the forward-thinking digital exhibitions that explore nature.”

As for the “forward-thinking digital exhibitions” mentioned above, Sun Tower’s exhibition spaces were conceived in the early design phases by OPEN in collaboration with multidisciplinary French scenography practice dUCKS scéno with “a focus on digital exhibitions and big data technologies, while also simultaneously being an energising force for the long-term growth of this new city.”

a building under construction next to the sea
Sun Tower under construction in Yantai © OPEN)

Aric Chen, the current general and artistic director of Rotterdam’s Het Nieuwe Instituut, consulted on the project from a “curatorial perspective” while serving in his previous role as director of the D&I Curatorial Lab at Tongji University in Shanghai.

“OPEN has a remarkable ability to take on an architectural assignment and infuse it with meaning and purpose; in their hands, form follows content,” said Chen. “From educational institutions to cultural projects across China, they’ve shown time and time again how architectural innovation and social innovation go hand in hand”.

As mentioned, Sun Tower is currently under construction and is anticipated to open to the public in 2024.

diagram of a building
Diagram depicting how the design of Sun Tower interacts with astronomical phenomena. (© OPEN)