Christopher Chan is Gensler’s design director for the Shanghai Tower project, a 632-meter tower that will be China’s tallest building upon completion in 2014. The twisting skyscraper will complete the set of three “super-tall towers” in Lujiazui, next to the Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center. With more than 18 years of experience, Chan’s architecture work can be seen in numerous North American cities including Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle and New York City, in addition to his projects in Asia. He spoke with China Economic Review about the Shanghai Tower’s sustainable and futuristic design, and how its construction has progressed.
Q: How is the Shanghai Tower’s construction going so far?
A: It’s going really well. We’ve built up to the 12th floor and we’re starting to frame the third floor already. It’s going up extremely fast and surprisingly smoothly. I say this because, for a building of this type, it’s actually going pretty much on schedule. We have four large tower cranes that are installed on each side of the core, which means that construction can go very quickly.
Q: What kind of challenges has the project faced since you broke ground on October 29, 2008?
A: The main challenge is that there has never been a building like this in the world. It will be the most sustainable, super-tall tower, and it’s got many new technologies and construction methodologies. There’s no better place to do this than in China. They built the Great Wall, the Three Gorges Dam – it’s the kind of country that when they put their mind to something, they just do it. So, when the thought of building this super-tall tower came to mind, I don’t think they blinked. They just proceeded forward. For a project of this scale, it’s really important to have a great design team and engineers, and also a great client. We were encouraged by the client to explore things that are innovative.
Q: How does the Shanghai Tower advance sustainable building design?
A: The architecture industry only recently – say in the last 20 years – started really focusing on sustainable design. In order to make sustainable technologies work in what will be the second-tallest tower in the world, and with occupancy of 20,000 people, you have to advance existing solutions. For example, rainwater collection is very common, but there needs to be a design of intricate pumps that push the water around a tower that’s 632 meters high. We’re using normal things in new ways. There are a lot of lessons, where people will look at how we reconciled these challenges. It’s in itself a research project for sustainability.
Q: How does the building’s twisting, double facade design make the building more sustainable?
A: The atria, the area between the two walls that comprise the twisting shape, form an insulating barrier. It helps reduce the cooling load, the amount of energy necessary for the air conditioning system. We’re also exhausting excess air conditioning from the hotel and office spaces into the atria. So, in this large area, there’s no mechanical system, no artificial cooling. This will be the largest double facade curtain wall in the world. To do this on such a mammoth scale is simply incredible, not just from a cost standpoint but also in terms of technology and construction.
Q: What is the most common question you get about the tower’s design?
A: The most common question I get asked concerns the design. How did Gensler come up with this unique design? A lot of other iconic buildings around the world have such a focus on shape and style that, unfortunately, there is a trade-off and they sacrifice efficiency. They are all beautiful, it’s not a criticism. Gensler has designed the Shanghai Tower from the inside-out. The way you see it spiraling up to the sky is a reflection of how it’s actually working. The twisting and tapering shape has been designed according to wind tunnel studies, in an effort to reduce wind pressure on the facade. That also means you reduce the amount of structure – the steel and concrete – required to hold it up. By doing that, we have reduced spending by an estimated US$60 million, a 40% saving on construction materials. We came up with the building’s shape as a result of finding the optimal way for how the building should work – making it a high-performing investment. Gensler’s approach to designing iconic buildings is to ensure that they do not become white elephants – something that is difficult to use and undesirable, or that it’s useable but uncomfortable. The occupant experience and usability of Shanghai Tower will be of high, international quality.
Q: Super-tall buildings seem to be going out of fashion around the world. Why is China going against this trend?
A: Economics are a huge driver in architecture. For example, you will find that in the US the tall building market is around the 40-60 storey range, which is largely based on an economic and financial formula. In China, the cost of materials and labor are so different that the country can construct buildings that probably couldn’t happen elsewhere. There’s very little building being done anywhere outside of China – besides India, Qatar and Abu Dhabi and a few other places. So, it’s not so much that there’s a trend away from doing tall buildings, but that economics aren’t making it feasible. Also, in a city like Shanghai where there are 22 million documented residents, there’s an incredible amount of urban density. You have only two choices – you can build really tall, or you can build low and take up all the land. But then you end up with a mega-city, which has other problems with traffic and infrastructure.
Q: Shanghai Tower is supposed to represent China’s future. How does its design symbolize this?
A: When the project first started, the client asked for something that would symbolize “China tomorrow.” So, we asked ourselves: How can it also be a symbol for who they want to be and what they’ll be capable of tomorrow? That calling really drove the push for innovation. We wanted something to make people think, “How did they do that? How did they pull that off?”
Q: What other projects is Gensler currently working on in China?
A: We have many. We’ve been fortunate; in the nine years we’ve been in China, we’ve had a strong impact on the market, working with both local and foreign clients. We’re doing everything from small boutique projects all the way up to large mixed-use projects. In Xiamen, we’re working on the 350,000 sq m Shimao Straits Tower, and I’m also involved with the 430,000 sq m Nanjing World Trade Center. We’re doing a 70,000 sq m technology hub in Shanghai’s Jiangwan district, and the 200,000 sq m headquarters for China Merchants Bank. China is an incredible growth market, and we have great momentum moving forward.