More than meets the eyes


Retail developments in Chinese cities now contain much more than just retail, and are designed to be ‘all-in-one’ destinations; the new Shanghai Jiuguang Center is no exception. Roseanne Field reports

The Shanghai Jiuguang Center, located in the northern Shanghai neighbourhood of Jing’an, was designed to be not only a retail destination, but also a central meeting point for locals. New shopping malls have for some time been developed as ‘all-in-one’ destinations in China, and this was the most crucial part of the vision for Lifestyle China Group, who commissioned UNStudio to design the complex in collaboration with Japanese architecture firm Nihon Sekkei.

The project appealed to UNStudio because of the “opportunity to create a unique retail destination in Shanghai and possibility for good dialogue with the client,” explains partner and senior architect at the firm, Astrid Piber. An interview process with Lifestyle China Group was undertaken, with various architects considered based on their previous experience with retail projects, among
other things.

In the end, says Piber, it was UNStudio’s overall design ethos that won them the project. “The client placed a strong focus on creating synergy between architecture/design and the commercial ambitions,” she says. “Our approach, which involves looking at the users and designing for numerous different experiences, became the tool to create such a synergy.”

The project comprises two 100 metre high office towers and an eight storey shopping mall – the largest shopping complex in the northern part of Shanghai. However, although the retail and commercial elements of the project were an essential element, so too was the centre’s ability to provide a public meeting space for locals that they could – and would want to – visit regularly, whether shopping or not.

Design development
The architects’ “human-centric” notion was central to the design development, with the practice viewing the project as they would any public space within a city. “We envision the centre as a destination to be taken on by people; that it becomes a place that one remembers well and wants to return to again and again for new experiences,” explains Piber. “Whether that be for consumption and shopping, or for the mere sake of being updated on what is going on and being among like-minded people, the space is open to all.”

From the outset of the project, Piber explains, Lifestyle China Group had a vision that the exterior of the building should “act as an ‘outer shell’”, and tasked Nihon Sekkei with the design of the building envelope. “For the interior, the client was looking for a concept that would help create a highly attractive destination in Shanghai,” Piber adds. UNStudio designed the interior of the buildings and the inner courtyard which they’re centred around. “Our approach to the design of these had to be the driver for the user experience throughout several zones and levels of the building,” Piber says.

The practice’s extensive work on previous retail developments, says Piber, gave them a good understanding of the different types of experiences users may have. “‘Shopping for convenience’ is usually very fast and efficient, whereas ‘shopping for desire’ is about seduction and offering the customer the new and unexpected,” she explains. “In the Jiuguang Center all these experiences are curated to immerse people in a world of retail that, although large, is still human-centric.”

The complex consists of three voids located around a large central courtyard, each with its own identity and theme. The ‘urban catwalk’ has been designed utilising “dark and glossy materials to create a night-time atmosphere,” say the architects, whereas the ‘urban oasis’ uses a natural, warm colour scheme alongside brass to “reconnect with nature.” Finally, the ‘urban playground’ makes use of bright and colourful materials, to emulate the bustle of the city outside.

The design of these voids evolved to help navigating the retail areas simpler for users. “They vertically link the shopping experience,” Piber says. “The three voids anchor the public circulation areas and create a vertical space across the different retail levels. They supply the circulation spaces with daylight and provide glimpses to the courtyard outside.”

The three voids are connected on every level by a “retail boulevard”, providing access to all the shops. “Along with the three voids, the retail boulevard forms an interior public space that creates a constant flow of people,” Piber explains. A pattern was integrated into the ceiling design throughout the interior elements, acting as a wayfinding element for users leading them to areas such as toilets, lifts and the escalators, which are located next to the voids. Combined with the boulevard this improves the “overall orientation and curated experience of the building”, says Piber.

The central courtyard at the heart of the complex was a key design element for a number of reasons. It was an important part of the brief that it act not only as a shopping destination but a public meeting place. “Shopping malls are the public spaces of Chinese cities,” says Ben van Berkel, founder and principal architect of UNStudio. “These retail complexes are not simply places to shop, they are all-in-one destinations for outings and social gatherings. They are also places where culture and commerce merge and where architecture can express this expansive condition.”

Part of the courtyard is sunken, with ample integrated seating meaning it serves “not only as an event space for the mall itself, but also as a destination for the wider community,” says Piber. Carefully designed landscaping/planting and lighting also features throughout the space, making it usable both during the day and in the evenings, as a ‘garden’ for the city’s inhabitants.

The courtyard also has the benefit of reducing the depth of the building, though this wasn’t necessarily a key part of the design brief, says Piber. “We looked at the building organisation in a holistic manner,” she says. They wanted the exterior and interior spaces – including the three voids – to feel connected, and have a strong relationship with one another. “Horizontal window bands in the facades surrounding the courtyard create a strong visual connection between the external spaces and interior area,” Piber explains. “Light enters the void spaces through the facade, creating vertical spaces flooded with daylight, bringing it into the depth of the floor space,” she continues.

Connecting the interior and exterior spaces was aided by the somewhat constrained footprint of the overall site. “It enabled us to think of ways to create a fluent transition between exterior and interior, guide the daylight deep into the spaces, and organise the different floors around a continuous looped routing system,” says Piber.

Semi-enclosed walkways and balconies line the edge of the courtyard and connect to the three voids which, says Piber, further “blurs the relationship between interior and exterior.” The balcony detailing was colour matched to those used within the voids in order to “accentuate” these features within the space. The basement levels and upper levels are connected via the courtyard by a series of staircases and escalators, which also lead up to a rooftop garden.

The heart of the complex – the courtyard and its internal facades – was designed to represent a ‘pearl set within its shell,’ with curved champagne-coloured aluminium alloy strips and pearlescent ceramic tiles. This contrasts against the harsher, tessellated metal facade of the centre, which “opens up to a fluid experience, and a mother-of-pearl effect, as you enter the central courtyard,” says Piber. During the day natural light is reflected off these pearlescent tiles into the interior spaces, further enhancing the connection between interior and exterior.

Nihon Sekkei’s initial sketches for the exterior had already been done when UNStudio began working on the project. “We liked the contrast that would result if this was coupled with our more fluid approach,” Piber explains. “In terms of geometry and the continuity of the experience based on colours, a simplicity of facade pattern and colour accents.”

When designing the facade, Nihon Sekkei shared and understood the desired impact the complex as a whole would have in the city: “This building complex has an impact not only on the surrounding roads, but also on the entire surrounding region and the city itself,” says Nihon Sekkei’s Wenjie Li, chief architect on the project.  “We always understood the sculptural approach as enabling the unexpected and suggesting there is something to be revealed or discovered on the inside of the building,” adds Piber.

There are various elements to the facade, with the volumes facing the road on the south and east side of the building clad in bright white elements which have been rotated at varying angles to resemble origami. A glass curtain wall at ground level gives passers by a glimpse inside at the retailers and provides an entrance to the complex.

The building’s west facing facade features carefully configured golden triangular blocks, a design inspired by diamonds to represent the luxurious element of the shopping experience. The black blocks containing the upper levels of the building feature aluminium alloy plates and metal louvres.

The building’s scale (it has a gross floor area of approx 120,000 m2; comprising 50,000 m2 retail and  18,290 m2 office) meant the facade was always going to be a substantial area. And this was a key reason behind the overall tessellated design. “A building with a large volume usually gives an oppressive impression,” says Nihon Sekkei’s Li Shen. “By breaking up the volume, we eliminated the oppressiveness and gained the unity and individuality of the building at the same time.”

Although it appears ‘random’, the pattern of the aluminium pieces cladding the facades – of which there are 14,000 in total – was rigorously controlled. Each was numbered before being placed, in a painstakingly specific way to also adhere to mechanical ventilation and smoke exhaust system requirements. “The aluminium materials were neatly lined up in a spiral pattern, which satisfies the ventilation requirements and gives a unique appearance from the outside,” Shen explains. He adds: “Parametric design brought convenience and reliability to the construction.”

An overall aim with the material choices on the project, says Piber, was to use natural materials wherever they could. “From wood inlays to ceramics and textiles, our focus was to use natural materials as much as possible throughout the whole scheme,” she says, adding that it was particularly possible in the facade cladding and fit out aspects to achieve this aim.

As well as providing retail space to high-end brands, previously uncatered for in the Jing’an district, the complex will also bolster Shanghai’s so-called “debut economy,” by providing a platform for businesses to open their first stores. With work having begun on the complex in 2014, it had its official opening ceremony in November 2021.