Shanghai Tower: A Tower for China’s Current Moment 
Ben Tranel in China, Shanghai Tower, Shanghai Tower, Tall Building Design, Tall Buildings

Image © Blackstation

When I was a graduate student of architecture at Columbia, one of my professors, Yehuda Safran, told me, “You are young, and when you are young, history appears to be flat. As you get older, history takes on more topography.” As Shanghai Tower nears completion, I’ve been thinking about Yehuda’s remark. I knew at the time that even if what he was saying was true, I couldn’t fully appreciate it. Since then I’ve come to a deeper understanding of what he meant.

Shanghai Tower came about during a unique moment in China’s history, at an apex in the historical topography where it was possible to build the tower locally, and still feasible economically before the inevitable price escalation associated with a fully developed economy occurs. Viewed against its two super-tall neighbors, the Jin Mao tower and the World Financial Center, the Shanghai Tower represents a turning point in the timeline of the city’s built history.

Jin Mao Tower was realized in the 1990’s when manufacturing for the Chinese building industry had little forward momentum. Chinese developers still relied heavily on foreign companies to manufacture various components for new building construction. The façade of the Jin Mao Tower was made by Gartner in Germany, the glass was made by Guardian Industries in Europe, and the completed and assembled units were shipped to the site. Fifteen years later, Shanghai Tower was built almost entirely with locally sourced materials and products, including the glass, curtain wall, steel, concrete, several varieties of stone, plumbing, LED lighting, and the tuned mass damper. In this sense, Shanghai Tower is uniquely Chinese, and it represents the culmination of China’s increasing capability in both engineering and manufacturing.

Shanghai Tower's unique facade. Image © Gensler

In some cases that capability was increasing so rapidly that certain materials and design details only became available as the tower was being designed and built. Shanghai Pilkington, who supplied the glass, constructed an entirely new glass manufacturing facility during the design phase, which increased their quality and capacity from a previous manufacturing facility, incidentally located on what would be the site of Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo. Many details, such as the complex movement joints in the ring beams and the mechanics of the mass damper, had to be designed and developed in collaboration with the local industries who would build these components. The original movement joint in the ring beam was designed with a proprietary slip connection product known to the structural engineer. During late design phases, this was able to be revised with a non-proprietary approach that could be locally manufactured. Similarly, the mass damper at the top of the building, intended to reduce floor accelerations that can cause occupant discomfort, was originally conceived with a proprietary foreign product typically used in such applications. This was subsequently revised to a unique, custom design leveraging the engineering expertise that had built the magnetic levitation technology employed by the high speed rail system throughout China.

The Tower's wind turbines. Image © Gensler

As the boundaries of manufacturing were expanded over the course of the ten-year Shanghai Tower project, the costs of labor in China have also been on the rise. Over that decade labor costs, and to a lesser extent commodity costs, have increased dramatically in China. As the cost of skilled labor in factories has increased, conventional construction approaches that are incredibly labor intensive will need to be reconsidered. While it was economically feasible with the Shanghai Tower to do certain things such as trowel-applying fire proofing to steel by hand on site, on future projects increased labor may preclude the level of innovation that was possible before. It was economically feasible to build a more complex building in China, and as China’s labor costs increase, those economics will change, and with it, so will the ambition of the projects. The level of complexity and innovation may be lowered as a result.

As I survey the topography of this history in which Shanghai Tower was designed and built, I appreciate more what Professor Yehuda meant. Shanghai Tower was only possible in this moment. As a recent article in Architectural Record concludes, “…its ambitious design and well-funded construction may serve as a final exclamation point to an era that saw China rise to the status of a world power.”

Ben Tranel is compelled by his belief that architects are stewards of the built environment, Ben relentlessly pursues the highest aspirations for each project. As the technical design director for the Tower at PNC Plaza with a specific focus on how to achieve the project aspiration, he takes pride in the artistry of building, where craftsmanship and a love of detail inform every aspect of the design concept and enhance the human enjoyment of the project. Contact him at
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