Waltzing with the elements

Shanghai Tower: the highest building in Asia and second-tallest in the world.


WORDS  CHIQUI JABSON CHUA

On a clear day, the skyline of Shanghai’s Lujiazui district is postcard-perfect. It’s hard to imagine this small peninsula as it was before the ’90s —  a stretch of farmland that citizens across the city’s Huangpu River called “backward.” These days, it’s the city’s most iconic image, with buildings reaching ever-higher into the skies, and the Shanghai Tower curving up in the center.

The Shanghai Tower (Shanghai Zhongxin  Dasha in the vernacular) is the culmination of decades-long urban planning for the Lujiazui financial district. It broke ground in 2009 and formally opened to the public this year, the last in a trio of buildings that transformed the area into the power broker it is now.

The Top of Shanghai Observatory, offering a 360-degree view of the city at 546 meters high. Photo by Connie Zhou, courtesy of Gensler.

“The vision behind the Shanghai Tower is to make Shanghai… the new world financial center, and also to represent China rising up,” says Xiaomei Lee, principal and managing director of Gensler Shanghai, the firm that designed the tower.

At 632 meters from ground to tip, the Shanghai Tower is the highest building in Asia and second tallest in the world. It’s also the first in China to breach the 600-meter mark, placing it among the elite rank of the world’s megatall structures. But while most megatalls, both completed and under construction, tend to taper upward into spires or poles that pierce the clouds, the Shanghai Tower has a curved profile that doesn’t jut out but appears instead to waltz with the elements.

A closer look at the tower’s spiral form soaring skyward. Photo by Connie Zhou, courtesy of Gensler.

And it’s precisely Shanghai’s moody coastal weather, as well as logistical barriers to building high-rises, that led to the tower’s asymmetrical form, rounded corners, and tapering shape. A 120-degree pivot lends grace to its silhouette, making it not only visually pleasing but, perhaps more importantly, more structurally sound by allowing wind to stream around its sides. Indeed, through wind tunnel testing, Gensler and structural engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti found this spiral form could cut wind loads by 24%. And with its double-skin curtain wall, Shanghai Tower can withstand strong typhoon winds hurtling from the Pacific.

Shanghai Tower’s double-skin curtain wall with a glimpse of one among several landscaped atria or sky gardens for building occupants. Photo by Blackstation, courtesy of Gensler.

Location is paramount to its design. In a dense, urban center like Shanghai, with a population of over 24 million and where land price is steep, the only way forward is to build upward. When designing a building, however, one cannot ignore those who will ultimately use it. “Before, the megatall buildings were places that people hated because they were inconvenient. [You feel trapped] in a big box. You need to go up and down; you waste a lot of time and energy,” recalls Lee, adding that building occupants gravitate toward smaller structures for ease of access and proximity to public areas.

To meet the basic need for space, Lee says the idea of community — the physical “horizontal” space — must be brought within the building’s walls. In the case of Shanghai Tower, vertical space is divided into nine zones each comprising around 12 to 15 floors of top-grade office spaces, trading floors, and even a five-star hotel. At the base of each zone is a sky lobby, a floor where people can transfer from a dedicated express elevator to local elevators servicing several floors within a zone. But more than acting as an interchange, sky lobbies at the Shanghai Tower also serve as social and recreational spaces featuring shops, cafés, and restaurants. Building occupants can also step into the intermediate space between the tower’s interior and exterior glass walls, which open up into well-lit atria with seating areas set against young bamboo trees and flowering plants. Here, one can either look out into the city or examine the structural web supporting the building’s double wall. “It’s an amenity, a recreational area for people to get together. There’s no need for people to go out [of the building],” says Lee.

In effect, each zone in itself is a compact yet complete community, not too different from the shikumen, or the traditional Shanghainese dwelling with its narrow lanes, a courtyard, and atrium. Lee likens these zones to neighborhoods or districts which, when stacked, form a vertical city.

Shanghai Tower and its neighbors, Shanghai World Financial Center (left) and Jin Mao Tower (center), making up the first adjacent grouping of supertall structures in the world. Photo by Blackstation, courtesy of Gensler.

The feeling of community and connectivity is also reflected in the way Shanghai Tower relates to its immediate environment. There’s a sense of familiarity with two other buildings in the area — the Jin Mao Tower, its intricate design evoking feng shui symbols of balance and prosperity, and the Shanghai World Financial Center, known to some as the “Bottle Opener” for its tapering profile and the gaping center on its tip. Not only do their gleaming façades blend well visually, they actually form the world’s first adjacent grouping of buildings over 300 meters high. The synergy among these buildings, each exceptional at their time of completion, is striking whether one is viewing them from across the river, right below on the elevated walkway, or even through open courtyards in the pedestrian pathway that connects them underground.

Synergy among its neighbors is only one among many milestones that have set records and world firsts for the Shanghai Tower. It is the only building over 400 meters to be LEED Platinum certified — the highest level of certification for energy-efficiency given by the US Green Building Council — and has received the China Green Building Three Star Rating for sustainable strategies used throughout the course of the project.

At present, construction of tenant space is underway, though tenants have begun to move in this first half of the year. Cultural spaces are open to the public, such as a classical art museum and sky garden on the 37th floor. Visitors can also take the world’s fastest single-span elevators and, in less than a minute, be transported from the basement-level exhibition hall to the Top of Shanghai Observatory on the 118th-119th floors, an indoor observation deck where they can enjoy a sweeping view of the city.