Looking Through the Uncanny Valley of (in)Organic Architecture

As I am writing this in July 2020, I am currently under mandatory quarantine in a hotel room in Macau after travelling from Seoul. This is day 6, and so far I would rate the experience as ‘almost enjoyable’ — not because of the non-existent creature comforts I am enjoying, but because of the novelty of the situation and the rare chance to do some real introspection and reflection.

View from my hotel window

One of the things that I am grateful for about this experience is that I get quite a nice view from the window. It overlooks a small channel, and an island called Hengqin in Zhuhai, China. It’s west-facing, so I get to enjoy great sunsets too when it’s not too cloudy.

When looking out this window, however, I often find myself distracted by something best described as a ‘beastly anomaly’. A phenomenon in and of itself — a absolutely gargantuan oval structure that is supposedly designed to mirror a tree, or a leaf (same thing, really — the patterns of the stems within the leaf are a fractal of the branch patterns of a tree).

It is obviously designed to catch your attention, which it certainly does, but in a way that is so abrupt and blatant that it’s almost… uncivilised?

I realise that aesthetics is subjective, and some people will appreciate such a structure. According to www.hengqinrecord.com, “[The Phoenix Tree Tower] functions as a seven-star hotel, office building and shopping mall and has a commercial helicopter apron on its roof”, and supposedly some floors are oversubscribed by tenants.

But what I find almost grotesque about this behemoth is this — its attempt to emulate a ‘tree’ is supposedly done so in a rough attempt at ‘organic architecture’, where the structure is designed to integrate and harmonise with its environment. But the Phoenix Tree Tower uses the guise of ‘blending in’ with the environment to do exactly the opposite thing.

The Uncanny Valley

To me, this induces a sort of cognitive dissonance and the structure falls into an ‘uncanny valley‘ of architecture. Traditionally, the uncanny valley is an idea that at a certain level of resemblance, things that are ‘humanoid’, such as a doll or an A.I robot, start to look creepy and disturbing. i.e – “Looks human, but something is off“.

Likewise, the tower looks like an attempt to blend in, but in a way that is off and contradictory. It tries to be natural in the most unnatural way. 

However, my lack of enthusiasm for the appearance of the building is not a judgement of its value. For all I know, it could be doing a great job in its function as a commercial property. Who am I to say?

This naturally led me to think about the old question “What is the relationship between form and function?”

The Eternal Debate of Form Vs. Function

This is an old debate that goes beyond just architecture. It’s the fight between the creative and the practical.

For example, in marketing, it takes the form of brand advertising vs. direct response advertising.

Brand advertising opts for ‘creative’ ad campaigns that don’t have a clear call-to-action, and might barely even mention the product. We’ve all seen commercials that are ‘interesting but confusing’.

On the other hand, direct response advertising is strictly practical and little patience for ‘fluff’. It measures the success of the ad with direct metrics, irrespective of how the ad ‘looks’ or ‘feels’. Does “Call NOW to get 40% OFF” sound familiar?

Likewise, in real estate, if the engineers had their way, all of the buildings in the world would look like a box. A rectangle is sturdy, easy to build, and can be divided into purely practical compartments.

The creative architects and followers of Antoni Gaudi would shudder at a thought of a rectangular world. Perhaps they would prefer a world filled with structures like the Notre Dame. Captivating, but probably not the most ‘space efficient’.

Personally speaking, although function should ideally come before form, there is a ‘middle way’ that accommodate both form and function. One can compliment the other, if done correctly.

…but would I turn the ‘tree’ into a rectangular box if I could?


Sam Lee

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