houston on the huangpu

IMG_2943The corner of Huayuanshiqiao and Dongtai Roads in Pudong is skyscraper nerd heaven—three 400 meter towers on three corners, including one former CTBUH record holder (that held said records for less than two years—not quite 40 Wall Street territory, but a pretty brief reign, nonetheless).

Pudong has been a hub of tall building activity since 1993 when the Chinese government set up a special trade zone on what had been shipyards and worker’s housing just across the river from Shanghai’s Bund. A masterplan by Richard Rogers that would have created a vast, circular park with mixed-use (and income) housing around it was quickly hijacked in favor of a more lasses-faire approach that consciously tried to build up the Lujiazui Road district into a new Lower Manhattan.

IMG_2896The first tower to be built was the disarmingly literal Pearl TV Tower, a 468-meter tall tourist destination finished in 1995 that irrevocably marked the new location on the city’s skyline and—for better or worse—set the bar in terms of architectural quality for much of what was to come.

Lujiazui is a smorgasboard of skyscraper design approaches—from the explicitly formal to the overtly historicist. With so much construction in so short a time, it’s clear that the need to differentiate each project in the minds of investors and potential tenants was important. Just as in Chicago in the 19th century, both style and height have played roles in this architectural branding—there are plenty of height-grabbing pinnacles, many of them completely hidden by their neighbors, that do nothing but establish a mark in the record books. And there are plenty of…uh…distinctive facades, many of them ersatz in a way that seems peculiarly suited to the history of Shanghai architecture. Projects here have often borrowed western tropes and applied them to programs or forms that don’t quite make sense in the way we’re used to—a neat inversion of the 18th century chinoiserie fad and a reminder that a little knowledge is often a dangerous thing. But—of course—a lot of this borrowing has been done by western architects anyway. The Golden Landmark, a tower that went up in 2008, was the pastiche work of Atlanta firm Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart, for instance.   (That one doesn’t hold a candle, though, to the neoclassical pile that’s the Shenzen Commercial Bank Building there next to the Peral Tower—architect unknown, but this might set the record for number of ionic columns on one tower…at least they knew to put a few Doric ones on the ground floor…)

IMG_2920OK, but what you cross the river for, really, is the three supertalls—SOM’s Jin Mao (1999, 420m), KPF’s Shanghai World Financial Center (2008, 494m), and Gensler’s amazingly graceful Shanghai Tower (now-ish, 632m). The three of them—nicely spaced both height-wise and chronologically—also show three approaches to skyscraper form. Jin Mao is perched somewhere between Adrian Smith’s postmodernism of the 1980s (AT&T and NBC in Chicago being the paradigms) and the more rationalized forms of his supertall work with SOM and on his own (Trump in Chicago, Burj Khaliffa, e.g.). The pagoda form disguises the fact that it’s really two towers—a central core office building for the first 60 or so floors, and an atrium hotel for the remaining 28 (8 being the most auspicious figure in Chinese numerology, the tower is of course 88 stories tall). That requires an enormous set of transfer structures to accommodate an eccentrically placed elevator core over the symmetrical tower below—none of which gets celebrated or acknowledged.

IMG_2970There’s a similar slickness—maybe more forgivable considering the sculptural proportions involved, in the World Financial Center. This is a pure form, tapering from a square base to a linear top, with the resulting ruling lines expressed as arcing edges. It’s an elegant way to get a mix of floor plate sizes into the tower—again offices below and hotel on top, this time without the atrium. And it made it easy to punch a hole through the thin top portion of the tower—harking back to the late 1980s when somehow every skyscraper had a top with a punch through it. Here, the punch-through makes for two dramatic observation decks—one at the bottom of the void and one at the top (with a few bits of glass in the floor that give a sense of just how high you really are—not quite as dramatic as Sears’ cantilevered glass boxes, but definitely attention-grabbing).

IMG_2957World Financial Center held records for height to tallest occupied floor and height to architectural top—until Burj Khaliffa blew past it less than two years after completion. (For the record, it’s 30 meters or so shorter than Sears in the height to tip category, but beats it in the unofficial but not uninteresting category of highest observation deck…) Now, of course, it’s not even the tallest on its block—Shanghai Tower is a good 40 meters taller and its undulating skin emphasizes its status as the eye-grabber of the three. I first saw Arthur Gensler present the idea for the Shanghai Tower at a CTBUH meeting in Chicago in 2009, and in addition to being a gorgeous form it’s remarkably clever. The skin is actually hung outside of a very simply structured cylindrical office tower, with nine skygardens where the floor extends all the way out to meet the exterior. This means that the form of the skin can pretty much be anything—there’s a much simpler façade that encloses the floors themselves. The skygardens are thus 20-story tall spaces that allow the building to breathe naturally; they condition the outside air a bit, which provides a reservoir of still, moderated air for the spaces inside to take in. The shape helps with vortex shedding, the same aerodynamic principle that stabilizes the Burj, but in this case the skin is literally a wind-breaking surface that hung from the offices inside. Shanghai Tower isn’t open to the public yet, but it promises an even taller observation deck than the Financial Center (though, honestly, all that might mean is that there will be more smog between you and what you want to see…)

IMG_2966All three of these make you look up, and when you do you get rewarded by three very resolved forms that follow a pretty evident rigor—formal, geometric, or aerodynamic. The three of them also play well together on the skyline, making a sort of instant classic much like Chicago’s big three (now four) that always seem to be having a long distance conversation as you’re coming into town on the Ike. But at the ground level? That’s a different story. All three have a retail component that is either integrated into the tower base (World Financial Center), set adjacent to the tower itself (Jin Mao), or sort of smashed together (Shanghai Tower). Just like some architects have trouble resolving a front door (Bucky Fuller, anyone?), the real aesthetic and urban shortcomings of the supertalls seem to be the way they relate to the ground—and, worse, the street. Jin Mao in particular seems to slam into its site almost violently. It opens up into three very obvious front doors (and what might be the world’s largest breezeway connecting the shopping mall). And Shanghai Tower’s base building really seems to have come from another team altogether—its curving forms are clearly nothing to do with aerodynamics, and it sort of cheapens the logic of the tower to see some of the same swoops deployed to no particular functional end.

Part of the issue, of course, is the planning of the district itself. One thing that did make it through from the Rogers masterplan was the idea of superblocks—all of the streets are arterials, leaving very large parcels in between. Too large, really, to reasonably negotiate between some kind of street life and the scale of even the largest office floor plate. So what’s left is a sort of urban planning horror vacui, what looks like a need to fill space in some kind of meaningful way. This is the grownup equivalent, I think, of the studio site plan that comes together the night before the review, when all sorts of crazy planting patterns emerge from nothing more than a graphic logic. The superblocks in Rogers’ scheme, of course, were designed to be shot through with public circulation—pedestrian circulation. With the towers and retail malls (a combination that continues on virtually every block—how many Prada stores does one neighborhood really need?) there’s no meandering, and the pedestrian routes are slowly getting raised up onto skywalks to avoid the city’s notorious traffic—red lights here are generally read more as suggestions than anything else.

IMG_3004What’s really interesting elsewhere in the city, though, is the friction between similarly scaled buildings and the untouched neighborhoods around them. The hotel we’ve been staying in, a John Portman deal, springs right up out of a funky hutong, one of the city’s original, alleyed neighborhoods. That’s all tucked away behind the hotel, of course—you only see it if you decide to wander around the block instead of heading out in a taxi—but it’s fascinating to see the incongruous scale difference and to wonder if there might not have been a better way to handle the superblocks in Lujiazui. Those contrasts in use, in size, and in style remind me totally of Houston—as do the superblocks’ landscaping, which is a way of filling up blank space with maintenance…

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