Shanghai Tower: Collage City?

— article and photographs by Li Yirong —


Three super-high towers in Lujiazui

On 19th November 2014, when the last glass panel was fixed to the façade, a 632-meter-high skyscraper named Shanghai Tower entered the public view. However, the conception of this building could date back to 1993, when the planning and design of Lujiazui District was made.
In comparison with the Jinmao Tower and Shanghai World Financial Center, which represent the past and present of Shanghai, the Shanghai Tower’s importance extends far beyond its role as an icon for a global financial capital. It is also required to embody the city’s rich culture, and anticipate an innovative means of living in the future.

Under much pressure, a local team of Gensler architects won the bid in 2007, competing with nine other offices, such as SOM and Foster. This summer, editors form MPTF got the chance to meet architects from Gensler Shanghai, and visit the Shanghai Tower – ascending to the uppermost storeys – before its official opening to the public.

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Competition entries

To most citizens, the construction of a super-rise tower might be exciting. On the one hand, the height of 632m could make it not only a new landmark of the metropolis, but also the second highest building in the world. On the other hand, the skyscraper could provide people with a privilege of overlooking the whole city on high. The psychological requirement of this privilege could be understood similarly with the desire of reaching the mountain top, where people can see the layout of cities, and enjoy the experience they can never gain on the ground. Nevertheless, many problems are addressed at the same time, such as the relationship between public and private; of separation and integration; and the application of high technology versus energy use and pollution. It is suggested by the architects and developer that the design of the Shanghai Tower will go a long way to solving these problems.

Nowadays, when people living in skyscrapers that are raised from ground level, it seems the public outdoor activities are not raised with them. As a result, the only way those people could be connected with outside world is by watching through the transparent façade. However, there should be more ways for the perception of space that sight: such as sound, touch and smell. To embrace and stimulate the spatial experience, the design team harkens back to the city’s vibrant neighborhoods and historic open courtyards, which combine indoors and outdoors in a landscaped setting.

The Shanghai Tower is divided into nine vertical zones, each 12 to 15 stories high. As a mixed-used tower, lower zones of the building mainly house offices, while upper ones are dedicated to hotel and observation deck. With a rotation of 120 degrees, the building is an asymmetrical form, a tapering profile, with double skins. According to Xia Jun, Gensler’s principal architect for this project, this innovative shape is a result of the concept and its technical requirements.

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Struts from the inner ore to support the exterior glazed facade. Scale model on left.

The outer building skin, for instance, is suspended from above on massive cantilevered trusses and stabilized by hoop rings and struts. The space between two skins serves as an insulation of the building, which reduce energy use for heating and cooling.

Moreover, since the outer façade encloses a triangular space in plan, and the inner facade encloses a circular one, the geometry describes three open spaces – ‘sky lobbies’ – that are formed in the corners between the two skins. Those lobbies work as public atriums for people to gather, and they also play a role as a light-filled garden, where urban amenities like shops, restaurants and plazas are collaged to the skyscraper in a building scale. In consequence, the Shanghai Tower could be considered as a city within a city. It will have an inside-outside transparency and is the only super-high rise building wrapped in public spaces and sky gardens.


Views from observation deck on 118F


Daniel Winey, Gensler’s managing principal, explained that the three ‘sky lobbies’ in each zone are not connected with each other, in consideration of noise protection. That is to say, people’s public activities are limited in the nearest atrium. That is, if people want to reach another one public area they probably have to leave and re-enter. It might have been better if the design of Shanghai Tower not only stimulated blocks and neighbourhoods, but also provided people with more chances to choose where they could go.

This idea reminds me of Peter Sloterdijk’s essay, “Architecture As an Art of Immersion”. In the essay, he believes that architecture is concerned with immersion: a designed environment where both the body and soul of the inhabitants could be fully submerged. To be immersed in architecture or urbanism confirms the notion that architecture “is concerned with immersion, that is, with the production of an environment into which its inhabitants submerge, body and all.” Just as with music, he suggests.

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Spiralling Shanghai Tower twists 120 degrees from top to bottom

It is important to note that this kind of immersion is not ‘totalitarian’ which would occur if there was one possible structure, an unchanging context, or the subsuming the human in the built world.

Architecture is nothing – or ought not be anything – about control or mastering, but is a production of different forms of ‘obsession with choice’ abetted by architects, or a method used to shape situation. It should be a designed environment replacing the original environment, and the space in which is possessed by inhabitants and created by them.. like the ‘grey space’ discussed by Kisho Kurokawa.

The idea of this high-rise communality is an honorable one, but here in the Shanghai Tower, people might be more unconscious space, free space, occasional space where people might find themselves – rather than the structural objective to situate them in an enveloped space. In the real street, there are opportunities for chance encounters and for surprise to happen. If the ‘sky lobbies’ in each zone could be connected more organically, and is the space in each part of the tower could allow more circulation this might be possible.

Near the base of Shanghai Tower stands a six-storey high retail podium, which concentrates shopping, dinning and conference. Xia Jun says that the design of podium illustrates another strategy: accessibility. Each functional zone may have specific entrances, and could be approached to by various transportation modes – foot, metro, car, etc. Public transport has been designed in at street level which helps to convey the ground floor as an ‘urban market’, connecting people to each other, to nearby services, and to Shanghai’s metro.

A UMI DissertationWill there be more ways to be accessible? Maybe. For instance, the neighbourhood of traditional lilong housing in Shanghai could be stimulated in the Tower. In the lilong, each neighborhood, with courtyards inside, may usually be an enclosed space to the outside world. However, shops run by residents on the ground level of houses near the boundaries, could provide inhabitants with one way to interact with outside. Since in the podium of the Shanghai Tower will be primarily retail units, it might have been more more community-spirited if that retail had led directly onto the street. Although many pedestrian routes and arbitrary green spaces are provided, genuine street life should be a more important element. In this way, Shanghai Tower could thus be better named as the real ‘Shanghai Centre’.

Though there might be some criticism on concept design of the Tower, the project is worth appreciation, in terms of technology, construction and sustainability. Shanghai Tower’s structure design overcomes many challenges: a windy climate, an active earthquake zone and clay-based soils. Constructing such a complex building shape that had never before been conceived and solving so many problems requires the most innovative tools. The tower rises like a tree, with a strong central ‘trunk’ (concrete core and steel supercolumn) and ‘branches’ that support refuge and mechanical floors at the base of each zone.

The super-rise Shanghai Tower will be completed in November, 2015. When it opens to the public, the tower will be at the centre of discussion, undoubted criticism and more rows about its cost, its style and so-on. Whether the Tower could represent a future living method in super-rise building seems still uncertain now, since none of us could forecast what ‘future’ is. However, it is beyond all doubt that the Shanghai Tower is at the forefront of a new generation of super-highrise towers, achieving the highest technical and socialized level of performance in China so far.