Xiaomei Lee & Robert Price

Xiaomei Lee & Robert Price

At 2,073 feet tall, the Gensler-designed Shanghai Tower will become the second tallest building in the world upon its completion, expected later this year. AN contributor George Huaiyu Zhang recently sat down with Xiaomei Lee, Gensler Shanghai’s Managing Director and the Tower’s Project Manager, as well as Robert Price, the firm’s official spokesperson for the Shanghai Tower, who shared their insights on supertalls, designing as a global firm, and the tower’s use of a double-skin facade.


George Huaiyu Zhang: How does designing supertalls differ from designing other structures?

Xiaomei Lee: While all buildings are fundamentally similar, tall buildings are entirely different animals. When buildings get taller, engineering plays a much higher role than they would in other buildings. You need decent knowledge about everything. Structural system, vertical transportation, wind engineering… only with all that information in place can you carry out your design concept. It requires much more maturity than just a creative design.

Robert Price: There aren’t many firms who have designed buildings at this height. In the Shanghai Tower’s case, we have a lot of specialty features that are “firsts” in the industry, like the double-skin system and the atria. It’s exciting, and we are learning new things every day of the construction process.

What are some specific challenges that you have experienced?

XL: If people were to look at these challenges today, they might not be challenges anymore. But back when we started, how to implement dynamic shapes was a real challenge—parametric tools weren’t in use. We were able to come up with the shape, but how to put it into reality was the question. We reached out and found tools such as BIM/Revit, Rhinoceros, and Grasshopper, but Grasshopper wasn’t a mature product just yet. It couldn’t fulfill all the needs we had for geometry, and the shapes created weren’t exactly accurate. We actually noted these problems and worked closely with the software developers in order to make the tools work for us. So in a sense we also took part in the development of these technologies.

Another challenge was coordination. Over a dozen Gensler offices are involved with this project, and we also have over 20 other consultants from all around the world. How to coordinate between these teams was a serious question. The construction schedule here is also very aggressive, which added to the complexity. So BIM and new platforms facilitated a lot of these collaborations.

From a newcomer’s perspective, what’s it been like to work on this project in Shanghai?

RP: I transferred from my Chicago office about nine years ago. Things here are different. It’s constantly in the flux and there are constant changes. You have some sort of an emerging, but not established, design community—it’s good and bad. It’s bad in the sense that if you’re from a developed market, like Chicago, you have all the structural engineers and mechanical engineers who are responsible for buildings like Sears Tower and all those iconic structures.

That being said, it’s also exciting here in Shanghai because we have the chance to utilize technologies and develop buildings where there are no precedents for in the U.S. But it’s challenging, too, because you don’t have the design community, so you really have to be inventive and adaptable.


Tell us more about the dual-curtain wall. What’s special about it? And how could it perhaps serve as a prototype for future supertalls?

XL: It was an evolutionary process. We knew that we wanted a dual-walled building, but also realized that it would result in exorbitant complexity for the structural and electrical systems. So we came to the solution that we have today, simplifying everything and creating more natural spaces, making the inside a simple structure and the outside a complex shape.

RP: It acts like a thermos, and they have separate system of air conditioning between the two layers of glass walls. In each zone, there’s an atrium with its own mechanical system. And each of these “amenity zones” will be landscaped with plants that reflect the flora and fauna at that particular altitude. There are other double-skinned buildings, but they are more mechanical than functional.

How has Gensler grown since this project?

RP: The Shanghai Tower has changed our architectural practice completely. Shanghai’s very unique for us because 70 percent of our practice here is architecture and urban planning and 30 percent of it is workplace. Our U.S. offices are about the other way around. So we’re building a reputation in the architectural area because of Shanghai Tower. We’ve also got about a dozen buildings in other parts of China that are beyond 300 meters tall. We are also currently designing another building in Suzhou that’s over 700 meters. So our high-rise practice area has really grown since this project.

XL: One key reason behind Gensler’s growth is that it not only brings in the international expertise; it also respects local talents. The local teams have their experience in the local market, and in the meantime we will share the best of our knowledge. Our belief is that if you’re not local, you’re not global. This contributes to the success of the Shanghai Tower. It’s been an organic collaboration between international and local teams.

What have your learned from this experience? How has it been different from your previous projects?

RP: Projects like this, the big thing is that they’re long—the entire process, from planning to delivery, takes a decade. You have to really push the envelope with the design and technologies that you use because by the time your building is delivered, technology will already be passé because it’s over a decade.

XL: When we began the project, it was when tools like Grasshopper came around. Now it’s widespread, and it’s only been a few years. Things are no longer unique. What matters is not just the technology itself, but rather, how you discover and apply these kinds of tools is the key.

What’s next?

XL: The Shanghai Tower helped us to build a reputation for our expertise in supertalls, but we are also more focused on improving people’s living and working spaces. Architecture should not be frozen sculptures, they should be organic places for people to work and live in. It’s hard to expect what’s next because technologies nowadays are beyond people’s imagination. You can’t tell what the future looks like, but you can learn from the present what will lead the direction. There’s a lot to look forward to.

RP: The project is our test of ideas on how supertalls and vertical cities work. Once it is inhabited, our concepts will be put into test and we will see if they will live up to our hopes and expectations. Also, China can’t afford to build buildings as quickly and as cheaply as they used to. There’s going to be more demand on energy and spatial efficiency. There’s lots of potential in the near future.