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Zhongrong Jasper Tower

The Booming Onion

The project sort of became fantasy for a while...it was like reality went out the window.

By 2020 Shanghai’s central financial district of Lujiazui will be a global economic, financial, trade, and shopping epicenter. At the heart of this area is the GS&P-designed Zhongrong Jasper Tower. Through an international competition, GS&P’s eight hundred thousand square-foot, forty-five floor new high rise was selected as a striking addition along the Shanghai riverfront. Critical to the client’s selection, Jasper Tower’s unique shape sets it apart from other buildings on the horizon.

The high rise's design has been described as “a diamond embedded in jade.” Where did that concept arise?

Wilson Rayfield: We started with three very different concepts in early 2002, and the concept that ultimately ended up being selected was developed off the idea of, “peeling layers away from an onion.” If you look in close to the top of the building, it kind of steps back into layers that appear to overlap one another, and that was the original genesis of the idea. I think the interpretation of a diamond in jade came through a conversation that Kevin Kim had with our client. I guess no one really wanted to build “The Onion Tower.” [laughs]

At the time GS&P was designing the office tower, there was no GS&P China office. Did that present any challenges?

Wilson: In some ways Kevin was the client and our sole source interaction because he was the only one that had that direct line of communication.

How did the design team respond to the limited communication flow?

Julia Bradley Rayfield: This was a job where you basically had to rely on renderings, and when the client saw what they liked, you got confirmation on it. In the end, we ended up getting a whole load of images scanned that covered different possibilities, and the client would choose the ones that appealed.

This process sounds different than how GS&P normally approaches design. Do you agree?

Wilson: Normally, if we were starting a project like this, we would spend a ton of time with the client talking about the project, the concept, goals, and ambitions. We would bring staff from the architecture and interior design teams to meet with several people on the client side. This experience was unique. Kevin was the primary contact with our client, so he would discuss all of our ideas and the client would relay his team’s thoughts. The client interaction was much different than we’re used to, but it forced us to focus on giving extremely clear concepts to avoid miscommunication.

Julia: There were a couple times we misunderstood the design direction or we went down the wrong path, but we never shied away from the challenge.

Wilson: We had a lot of time on the front end to explore concepts, both architecture and interiors, and we spent a couple of years literally on developing multiple architecture concepts and changing pieces and parts of them. And, yes, a few times we went in a wrong direction.

So there’s a design lesson here: having no boundaries is not a good thing.

Julia: Oh, absolutely. We talked about this on the St. Joseph’s project, where having guiding principles helped measure our decisions. If you have three really good ideas, you can use the guiding principles to pick out the best one. Without clear direction, you can’t really execute.

Eric Sweet: You always think you want to work on a project that doesn’t have any boundaries, but in the end somebody has to like it and agree to it, so it makes it difficult to shoot for a target that doesn’t exist.

Wilson: A lot of times with our clients we’ll sit down and discuss a concept and a way forward. Then we will go away and work. When we come back and present to them a fully developed conceptual design, it avoids having to stop and verify a lot more frequently in the early stages. Taking it through our usual process, where we have a better up-front understanding of what the goals are, avoids having to stop and constantly make sure we are correctly interpreting the intent.

A lesson learned is to establish guiding principles and goals for a project as early on as possible and make sure you are all literally and figuratively speaking the same language.

Several of the interior designs differ greatly. What were some of your thoughts while developing the concepts?

Wilson: During our early attempts at “something that hadn’t been seen before,” we tried to come up with some wild things that we were impressed with. An early concept incorporated a full-blown running river in the lobby with plants and wildlife. It was a pretty interesting concept.

Eric: We proposed a system that elevated a glass floor so that we could run water underneath it. The water would wind through the lobby and eventually flow outside to an exterior fountain.

Julia: That was part of the canyon concept. At one end was the river and the fountain, and at the other was the elevator tower acting as a canyon wall.

Wilson: Like layers of rock — heavy textures.

Julia: Then we went more cultural with the jade concept for a while. We did a lot of research and tried to bring jade into the building.

Wilson: We did probably four or five very different concepts for the elevator lobby, and one of the later ones had everything clad in glass. It had a white or translucent greenish tint to kind of bring the outside in. The one that ended up speaking the most to the client has the limestone on the elevator tower and the word “Jasper” engraved in gigantic letters on it.

Another captivating space was the request to include a rooftop atrium. What concepts did you develop?

Wilson: The first idea we were given was to make it a winter garden. There are more than a few high rises in Shanghai that have a lot of glass and open areas for vegetation inside. A second concept they gave us was to make an exclusive multilevel private bankers’ club.

Julia: And it was interesting to try and create such different types of spaces. Is it a restaurant? Is it a night club? Are we having performances up there? Are we seating 150 guests? With the extreme differences there was an element of the project that just sort of became fantasy for a while. It was like reality went out the window. So it felt a little bit like sitting in school at six years old and being told to draw a picture of your dream house. You know, it could be anything.

Regardless of the creative path, the new building now graces the Shanghai skyline. What makes you the most proud?

Julia: It was a unique process to go through as a designer. I think the outcome was work of a really high quality, and it was great fun getting to think that big and crazy at times. I got to call and research leather floors. I mean, you probably have one job that you get to do something like that on.

Wilson: I see magazine articles about this burgeoning, booming district in Shanghai, and every now and again I’ll see Jasper Tower in a photograph. In an area that’s got more high rises than Manhattan, I would put Jasper Tower in the Top 10 more unique structures. Having been a part of that is something that we collectively as a practice should be extremely proud of. It is a signature building. It is unique.

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Project Info

  • Client: Shanghai Zhongrong Property Development Co., LTD.
  • Location: Shanghai, CN
  • Market: Corporate + Urban Design
  • Services: Architecture, Interior Design, Planning
  • Team:
    • Kevin K. S. Kim, AIA Principal-in-charge, Project Designer
    • Wilson P. Rayfield Jr., AIA, NCARB, LEED AP Project Manager
    • Julia Bradley Rayfield, CID, IIDA Project Professional
    • Eric Sweet, CID, IIDA Project Professional
  • Awards:

    Global Landmark Association, Top 10 New Landmark Buildings in China

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