Shanghai Tower: The Vertical City


The 632m (2,073ft) tall Shanghai Tower (上海中心大厦) is currently the second tallest building in the world behind the Burj Khalifa, and China’s tallest building. It is the tallest of the world’s first triple-adjacent cluster of supertalls (Jin Mao Tower & SWFC) within the Lujiazui district, commanding a significant presence in the Pudong skyline. Designed by celebrated architect Jun Xia, and developed by design firm Gensler, the mixed-use tower incorporates many unique ‘green’ architectural elements that serve a self-sustaining community catering to all aspects of life to its inhabitants.


For a city gripped with a humid, subtropical climate, typhoons are common. Shanghai’s geographical proximity as a port city makes it susceptible to potential infrastructure damage as well. I have been caught during China’s coastal typhoon season in August, and it is not something to be taken lightly. Furthermore, Shanghai is situated on an alluvial plain, formed by sediment being deposited due to various river flows arriving from highland regions. As a result, Shanghai’s land is very flat with silty soil (a mixture of sand and clay) forming its topography, which means that deep concrete piles are required to prevent structures from sinking into the soft ground of the area. In the event of an earthquake, due to Shanghai’s prominent location on the Yangtze tectonic plate, the developers wanted to ensure certain key structural elements were also in place.


The city has traditionally been comprised of small-scale courtyards and local neighbourhood parks. Blocks consist of rows of streets neatly lined with all amenities easily accessible within reach. With the tower symbolising a seamless transition from past, present and to the future, the developers took this traditional neighbourhood concept and turned it on its head, quite literally, with the aim that it will function as a ‘vertical city’, stacking gathering spaces 1/3 of a mile into the sky. Gensler describes the tower rising like a tree ‘trunk’ supported by a 6m deep concrete foundation and steel supercolumns. The plectrum-like design of the base is rounded as opposed to rectangular. It is a similar trend we see taking place in the construction of mega-talls (like the Jeddah Tower) where tapered forms are needed to ensure risks are mitigated when building a structure that tall. The framework of the structure incorporates 122 floors built across 9 vertical sections mimicking blocks, akin to that of a street, encased in a double glass layer up to 60ft away from the core completing the building’s exoskeleton.

Between the inner glass layer and the outdoor curtain wall lie 9 indoor, sky-lit atrium ‘parks’ providing space, light and cool, fresh air. Each section, 12 to 15 stories high, features a certain characteristic of a city, from retail shops on the lower floors through to hotels and boutique office suites at the very top. The plan is to create a self-sustaining community where inhabitants co-exist peacefully not just within the tower but also maintaining a seamless transition in activity with the surrounding two supertalls adjacent to the tower.

Shanghai World Financial Center, Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai Tower

Its unique form is a result of the 120° rotation of the smooth curving glass façade from the base to the top. The developers knew that an asymmetrical form and rounded corners were key in ensuring the building could match up to typhoon winds. As a result, the tapered, spiral form of the tower helps reduce sway and costs for expensive materials needed to maintain the structure. The glass curtain wall is quite literally a curtain suspended by cantilevered trusses and secured by struts – the first of its kind in the world. It was by no means an easy feat as a mobile scaffold slowly descended the tower to encase it completely. It highlights Gensler continuing to push the boundaries of innovation, bringing about new technologies that allow architects to have their designs fully envisioned.

The outer skin of Shanghai Tower
The glass façade of the Shanghai Tower (Source: e-architect)

Several ‘green’ elements make this building a true example of sustainable architecture. Key heating and cooling measures are possible due to geothermal energy sources. Harvesting rainwater and recycling wastewater to irrigate the green spaces allow the building to maximise its water efficiency. Not to mention, low consumption urinals are a key feature of the tower. Wind turbines, positioned at the top and the façade of the building, enable wind energy to be converted to light up the park areas, as well as the tower’s exterior. Dan Winey, Chairman of Gensler, states that the building uses ”35%-40% less energy than that of a conventional building its size”. With the intelligent, insulated ‘skin’ of the building being able to minimise heat and control temperature changes, it provides comfort to all its occupants.

Wind turbines at the façade of Shanghai Tower
Wind turbines at the façade of the tower (Source: The Architectural Review)


Shanghai Tower is the tallest structure I have ever laid my eyes upon. So tall is this goliath structure that low-lying clouds shroud its uppermost levels. Something I cannot fathom! One thing is for sure. It stands as the completed showpiece of China’s economic offering to the world. Having bolstered tourism for the city with many rushing to the observation deck offering panoramic views of Shanghai, it has also won numerous awards due to its outstanding design and sustainability measures. The state-orchestrated urbanisation and frank obsession of building high-rises has encouraged further migration into the cities.

Winey has predicted that by 2025, 1 billion people will be living in Chinese cities and therefore, state-of-the-art infrastructure is important to accommodate that growth. However, as the project was led by the Shanghai Tower & Construction Development, a subsidiary of the Shanghai Municipal Investment (Group), the influence of the government has caused severe bureaucratic delays to the full operation of the tower. Significant red tape and failed sign-offs surrounding the tower’s letting status have only recently been lessened, thus allowing sales teams to focus on acquiring new tenants. Sadly, it has failed to attract those big multinational firms the developers hoped to entice. Instead, most leases are domestic companies hoping to build credibility for their clients, as well as internationalising their business through the tower’s ‘status’ symbol.

The South China Morning Post has labelled the tower as a ‘government-led vanity project’ further highlighting their incompetence focusing on projects that yield little return. Being a state-led initiative, it meant the development of the property would have never fallen into the hands of private developers. With the city’s financial health simultaneously corresponding to the status of the skyscraper, it was too much of a risk to put that responsibility into the private sector’s hands. Sky-high renting prices in the tower have also not helped. Businesses, overall, are moving away from the Lujiazui district and relocating towards decentralised areas where rents are cheaper and amenities more affordable. As much as China wants to project an image of opulence through its infrastructure, the truth is that the CCP has been criticised for investing money developing cities on the East Coast, thereby neglecting the West altogether, which has immense potential for regeneration. People see through the inequality so blatantly displayed.

On the whole, having witnessed this engineering marvel myself, there is a sense of purpose and excitement surrounding it. How far it goes to being fully let is for time to tell. There is no doubt that domestic firms will grab at the opportunity but for those global multinationals, the appeal of a ‘vertical city’ may just take a bit more time. I am hopeful.

Me in front of the Lujiazui skyline
Shanghai 2016

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