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Shanghai Tower by Gensler

Taste aside, the Shanghai Tower by Gensler is fit for purpose and awaits the weddings, banquets and office-party regulars necessary to pay for this megastructure

Forty-five years ago, Pudong – which literally means the riverside (pu) on the east (dong) bank – was sufficiently underdeveloped that during the Cultural Revolution many Shanghai students were ‘sent down to the countryside’ to state-owned farms in Fengxian, south-west Pudong. Nowadays, the east bank of the Huangpu River epitomises the rapidity of Chinese urban expansion. Its drama is manifested in thousands of tourist selfies taken from the West Bund of Shanghai, over the river towards the Pearl Tower.  

What most people tend to think of as Pudong is actually the development zone called Lujiazui. This built-up area is a mere speck on the western tip of Pudong’s 450-square-mile expanse and, to a certain extent, lots of Pudong district still remains rural and isolated. But what has occurred on this speck, within a mere generation of market liberalisation, exemplifies the dynamism of China’s crazy and wonderful urbanisation. In the rapid rise of its river frontage and business district, Pudong’s Lujiazui is an economic and developmental miracle. In the process, it has become an experimental urban battleground for competing architectural visions. For some people, liveability and urban quality have become something of a casualty of that war. But even though the traffic, footbridges, construction sites and blistering sun don’t make it easy to explore, it is a thoroughly exciting place to try.

‘Not to be outdone, the Chinese government has described this building as ‘a symbol of a nation whose future is filled with limitless opportunities’’

The latest addition to the skyline is the 632-metre high Shanghai Tower, designed by Gensler. It is the second tallest tower in the world when we visited but closely rivalled by another Chinese tower, Tianjin 117 in north China designed by P+T Group that comes in at 596.5metres. The project started in November 2008 and is just about to complete at a cost of around £1.5 billion. We were given rare access to this new addition to the building just before completion in the company of Gensler’s managing principal, Daniel Winey and Xia Jun, Shanghai Tower’s design leader and a star in the Chinese architectural firmament. This was Jun’s last official duty before leaving Gensler for pastures new.

As if to make the point about the rapid pace of change in this area, Jun stated that the ‘traditional design-influenced Jin Mao Tower (designed by SOM and completed in 1999) represents our past, the Shanghai World Financial Centre (by KPF, completed 2008) represents our present, but the Shanghai Tower represents China’s boundless future’. Not to be outdone, the Chinese government has described this building as ‘a symbol of a nation whose future is filled with limitless opportunities’.


Floor plans - click to expand

Ironically, the initial futuristic concept was to take a ‘traditional’ Shanghai street, including its mobility patterns, street life, courtyards and social mix – and transfer it into a vertical form. This urban ambition for a vertical street has been around for a while in architecture but this building goes a long way to capturing some of its intensity.

In terms of transportation, for instance, it has the tallest and fastest lifts travelling at 40mph to almost the full height of the tower: that’s 580 metres in 32 seconds. To put it in perspective, the lift travels approximately four times faster than rush-hour traffic. In terms of street life, the tower has a variety of ‘culture zones’ including sky gardens, business and leisure areas, hotel accommodation (as well as a dedicated museum and landscaping on the 37th floor). The ground floor becomes an ‘open market’ linked to the subway network, but also accessed from a dedicated bus lay-by (a public transport innovation almost unheard of in these parts).

And that is the key. This building is publicly accessible. In a time of heightened security pronouncements, this is quite a bold step (although after two Russians scaled the outside of the Tower last year, the owners are getting more security conscious). The architects’ namesake founder, Art Gensler says that this tower ‘weaves into the urban fabric and draws community life into the building’ and the designers have clearly tried to create little pocket parks, urban moments in the building. They have also tried to respond to the site, or at least consider the building’s integration into the general area in a much more meaningful way than the other two supertowers alongside.

Like most things in China, the necessary rush to build is effectively over and now developments are beginning to show a concern for more sensitive design. This is what was meant by President Xi’s remarks about ‘no more weird architecture’. It is a tall order for a building of this size but even here there are interesting nuances that are intended to humanise – or de-scale – the project. For example, the glass has been designed to minimise reflected light, so that people inside can see out over Shanghai rather than seeing reflections of themselves, even at night. Conversely, the glass transparency successfully allows ground level pedestrians to see inside to quite a satisfying degree.


The site is just 200 x 200m at its widest point, and within that, the ground-floor building plan is just 12,000m2, with one-third of the site given over to urban-scale landscaped gardens and shaded seating: a much-needed addition in this barren place and a pleasant way of reducing the heat island effect.

With car parking below ground, the first five storeys above ground comprise the commercial retail podium. Clad in bronze glass, this is an unmistakably Postmodernist shopping aesthetic, about which the less said the better. It cantilevers at the eastern edge to provide a quirky circular open staircase leading down to a sunken piazza. Above the podium is a large rooftop garden and observation deck public space that can be used for events. The public access to these spaces is reasonably free but clearly managed so that there are dedicated public circulation paths through the lobbies and stairwells. Since 20,000 people will work here, orchestrating their unimpeded flows takes precedence.

‘Taste aside, it is all fit for purpose and awaits the weddings, banquets and office-party regulars that are necessary to pay for this megastructure’

This is undoubtedly a project of superlatives. Less so the interior which has its fair share of corporate conference suites in obligatory gaudy decor: chandeliers and loud stain-resistant carpeting. Taste aside, it is all fit for purpose and awaits the weddings, banquets and office-party regulars that are necessary to pay for this megastructure.

The construction comprises a huge central concrete core surrounded by 12 ‘super columns’, each measuring 5 x 4m and tied together to form a composite core. All this sits on a 6-metre deep concrete mat foundation that bears onto 830 piles. The substructure alone used 61,000 m3 of concrete but, being China, was completed in a 60-hour continuous pour!

The composite core is effectively the building structure with the external skin offset by as much as 15 metres or as little as 5 metres. In other words, the perimeter supercolumns form a notionally circular plan, but the glazed curtain walling that gives the tower its distinctive appearance above the podium block is more triangular in plan. As the triangular outer skin rises up the building it rotates and creates its unique swirling form (although from a distance and from some angles, it does look disconcertingly bent). An external groove has been incorporated within the external skin to help viewers ‘read’ the building as it twists, says Jun, but actually it primarily helps to prevent the formation of vortex air patterns that could induce resonant frequencies in the tower. This simple design solution – with aesthetic benefits – has reduced the wind load by 24 per cent and allegedly resulted in structural cost savings valued at £37 million.


Section AA

The building is separated into nine zones, each separated by public sky lobbies. These 12- (or 15-) storey-height voids are formed within the twisting space between the external glazing and the structural core. The floors of these lobbies extend out to the curtain wall and therefore close each volume off from the one above and below. The community intention is that these areas act as social hubs for the ‘neighbourhoods’ in each zone. Admittedly, there is no residential zone in the building, something, says Winey, that they regret not getting approved, so the sky lobbies will be used by office workers occasionally mingling with public in certain designated places.

The external curtain wall is suspended from a relatively simple structural system. A series of steel ring beams held in place by spokes radiating from the supercolumns. These in turn are fixed by 150mm diameter cables that are hung from the soffits, 60 metres or so above. The double-layered insulating glass facade – designed with a high tolerance for shifts in temperature – is then fixed to this flexible framework.  

Each sky lobby is landscaped with a mixture of semi-mature trees and local varieties of shrubs in planters. The greenery may accentuate the sense of isolation from below, but the architect hopes that it will also create some visual connections with the city beneath. As well as its aesthetic benefits, the landscaping will primarily act as a means of shading, cooling and a way of refreshing the air quality. With these sky gardens acting like Trombe walls, there is no requirement for heating or mechanical ventilation in these airy spaces. As testimony, even though it was 38 degrees at ground level when we visited, it was pleasantly cool on the 22nd floor.

There are many other nifty things here. The building is designed to withstand an earthquake of up to 7.5 on the Richter scale with the help of the world’s largest tuned mass damper, for example. Other energy-saving devices in this LEED Gold building range from geothermal heat sources to gas-fired co-generation. While most of the tower’s energy will be provided by conventional generating systems, a bank of 270 wind turbines at the top of the tower should create around 350,000 kWh per year (equivalent to the power consumption of 80 average homes in the UK).

The Shanghai Tower is a masterful piece of civil and environmental engineering, but it is still the ambitious architecture that sets the building apart from all others. Staring down on the tops of the Jin Mao and World Financial Towers from the top floor makes you wonder whether maybe China’s future is really filled with limitless opportunities.

Shanghai Tower

Architect: Gensler

Photographs: Blackstation

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