Selling biophilic benefits


Shopping malls are a key social destination in China, and with this in mind Lead8 sought to provide a landscape-rich interior to enhance the experience of a new mixed-use scheme in Chongqing, in the form of a huge botanical garden. James Parker reports

The Ring, opened in spring  2021 in the fast-growing metropolis of Chongqing in south west China, is a new shopping centre  whose interior, by retail and leisure specialists Lead8, contains one big difference. In the first scheme of its kind for the municipality’s 32 million inhabitants, the building contains a 42-metre high ‘botanical garden,’ linked to a range of retail, sports, and cultural/entertainment spaces. In so doing, the project team says, it creates a ‘living mall,’ with its design driven by sustainability principles of maximising wellness for all users.

According to the similarly exponentially-growing Hong Kong-based firm of architects, the city’s new mixed-use development “entwines retail, nature, culture and experience.” As the interior designers, the Lead8 team also intended for it to be “truly innovative, delivering a new-generation social destination, and an urban natural community.” The scale of the internal gardens incorporated demonstrates the emphasis now being placed on biophilia-based design ambitions by commercial clients and by association, their designers. It has moved way beyond token gestures at the fringes, to a serious allocation of what is non-income generating space to greenery.

Lead8’s portfolio showcases large-scale mixed-use projects, often including retail, such as high-profile schemes in major Asian cities like MixC Shenzhen Bay, One Bangkok, and 11 SKIES in Hong Kong. According to the practice’s co-founder and executive director, Simon Chua, its “significant track record in conceiving and delivering retail-led destinations across Asia” has garnered the firm a strong reputation in the sector, cemented by various awards.

On The Ring however, the team took a different approach when it came to the landscaping-focused interior design of this distinctive project – for developer client Hongkong Land. This essentially meant allowing the very ‘green’ design concept for the interiors to guide the wider design, “with a vision to be unique to the market,” as Chua tells ADF.

However, he explains that when the architects initially received the brief from the client, the substantial botanic garden element finally achieved “was not a major component of the scheme,” although the client had four key values for the project which helped drive Lead8 towards its concept, namely: “Organic, Respectful, Inspiring and Magnetic.”

Lead8’s design team worked to expand the idea of interior retail landscape into a “major design intervention that integrated a multi-level living garden into the retail mall,” says Chua. Throughout this process, Lead8 worked to “refine the connective layers of the design,” which meant collaborating with structural engineers, landscape consultant and client to develop what would be called the ‘Oasis Walk’; a series of ramps allowing visitors to directly interact with the gardens at all levels.

Scope, location & context
Lead8’s Chua says that The Ring will “reshape the city’s expectations for what experiential retail destinations can deliver.” The development is the first to be completed within a planned series of retail developments by Hongkong Land which come under the branding of ‘The Ring.’

This 430,000 m2 “strategic” project for Chongqing comprises a seven-level retail mall totalling around 154,000 m2, with a further 14,000 m2 of ‘retail street.’ There is also 111,000 m2 of ‘super grade A’ office accommodation, and the big selling point, the 6,000 m2 interior garden, ranging over several levels of the building.

The Ring is located in the Jinzhou Business District, which is itself also in the residential centre of Chongqing, and sits next to the picturesque Zhaomushan Forest Park. Direct connections to two lines of the Chongqing Metro make for convenient access to and from the new development from across the city.

The design development process was, by necessity, “heavily collaborative,” says Simon Chua, as “numerous specialist consultants” were required to bring the vision to life. This included the range of professional input needed to ensure a multi-level indoor garden would be fully supported and practically sustainable in a commercial interior. Therefore design strategies from lighting specialists, engineers, landscapers, interior designers and retail planners were required to “all come together seamlessly.”

Botanical benefits
The major design objective of the project – led by biophilia principles – was to ‘intertwine’ nature with the commercial environment to a much greater degree than normally achieved in such schemes. As a result, the design puts the botanical garden at the very centre of the building, having the key benefit of providing great air quality to internal spaces. With thousands of plants covering a broad range of species, the garden offers a “living, sunlit environment” that enriches the whole experience for users.

The inclusion of a garden on this scale “creates a new retail habitat for people,” say the project’s designers. The garden in fact connects each of the mall’s seven levels, and the interior design augments the natural atmosphere created via the material palette and open plan approach. The ‘Oasis Walk’ combines with public seating and hanging fixtures to, in Chua’s words, “create intimacy with nature, and extend the gardens upwards.” The design creates “nodal” spaces for rest, events and
social encounters, “while immersing the surrounding retail activities in an ecological setting.”

The Oasis Walk is a series of connected, elevated ramps that allow visitors to “immerse themselves” in the botanical garden, and “take a journey of discovery” through the multiple levels. The walkways were created using an open steel truss structure with steps to allow people to walk comfortably between floors. The structure is cladded with a system of glass balustrades and flooring, which allowed for lighting and greenery to be integrated in a way that would make maintenance easy.

A pair of steel tree-columns were used to support the main structure, as they can cantilever wider spans. This meant that the number of traditional steel columns could be reduced.

In tandem with achieving the aesthetic and structural goals, what Lead8 call “cutting-edge indoor environmental protection technologies” were also needed to construct the gardens and thereby “produce an oasis for the city.”

‘Mountain City’
The interior design centres on a ‘Mountain City’ concept; “bringing together natural environments with enriched engagement and experiential opportunities to create a diversified lifestyle offer,” comments Chua. The designers hope this will resonate with local visitors, by “reimagining the natural terrain of Chongqing and expressing it in a contemporary way.”

The interiors blend these natural features through the main atrium in such a way that it “feels like one unified space,” with the assistance of flooring design, ceiling materials and last but not least, a 24-metre high waterfall. The result is a stunning, year-round green space for the community in Chongqing to shop and socialise in.

A natural, earthy interior design palette was selected to complement the biologically-inspired spaces inside. “Environmentally-friendly” products were prioritised to support the architects’ strong drive to maximise the building’s performance. Also, says Chua, “handling a project of this magnitude meant sourcing local materials wherever possible is a very vital move.” This also has the practical benefit of making future planned maintenance interventions easier, in terms of replacement materials.

A glass curtain wall opens up views to the multi-storey indoor gardens and ‘Oasis Walk’ from outside. Lastly, “a large-scale sculptural installation looks into the building from the outside, to draw visitors’ attention to the attractions within.”

The development’s programming features a “diverse collection of spaces that form a creative mix and offering that spans sports and leisure, edutainment, family, dining and culture,” says Chua. The retail planning adopted a ‘single spine’ approach, with a central garden “to create a draw for people from both ends of the building.” This strategy allows a simple circulation route as well as flexibility in arranging retail units, and also means visitors “will always be able to see all the retail units from both sides anywhere from the corridors.”

As part of meeting the brief’s requirement to “innovatively combine urban living and the beauty of nature in one space,” Lead8 introduced further spaces which are claimed to offer a unique combination of facilities in the region – in schemes of this type. These include “interactive sports and culture facilities, family and child-friendly activities, and a vibrant food area,” all integrated with the botanic garden, and all under one roof.

On levels three to five are a ‘multi-sports events area’ with ‘digital integration,’ e-gaming and an “iconic” staircase for audience seating to “entice a new generation of customers,” say the designers.  Also on these levels are an ‘Open Lab’ Cultural Forum, a “calm public space for reading and gathering with ample seating and open views.”

On level two, a themed playground “envisions a cardboard city for young children to engage with, capturing the family entertainment market.” A “children-related” trade and entertainment mix surrounds the space. Lastly, on levels four and five, the Commune Village food and beverage area is configured as an internal street with “interlocking and double storey shopfronts,” to provide a “new dining culture,” says Chua.

In terms of providing future flexibility, a “large retail grid” means the units and spaces inside can be easily changed in the future. The open mall has very few columns in the public space, which “opens up vistas inside the building.” As part of a close focus on users’ convenience, the entrances are configured to allow comfortable access into the property from different street levels outside as well as maximising footfall
for retailers.

Post-pandemic health
According to Simon Chua, the pandemic has “not only shone a new light on the significance of delivering safe environments from a public health perspective (using intelligent ventilation systems, distancing sensors, sanitisable surfaces, motion detectors and touchless systems).” He says “it has also illuminated the importance of healthy lifestyles and our desire to maintain a connection with nature.”

He adds that greater integration of nature into major schemes is “delivering new answers to how we can enhance the safety and experience of our indoor spaces in more engaging ways.” With awareness of users’ desire to be connected with nature being bolstered by research, biophilic as well as sustainable design is finding “renewed prominence,” he says. “Scientific studies have shown that living environments within indoor spaces can help to remove pollutants from the air, and new reporting has also indicated that viral infectivity decreases as air pollution decreases.”

The completed development comes with a ‘USP’ that it has introduced a brand new experience for shoppers and the community in general in Chongqing. The designers  believe it has “elevated the standard of experiential destinations and opportunities in the city.”

The project has certainly been specifically targeted to capture the interest of the community of a diverse population, and thereby ensure their engagement with the project in a competitive retail environment. Lead8 also believe that The Ring will herald further large schemes which infuse nature to a far greater degree than before, and that it will “influence a new generation of developments that put experience, nature and community at their core.”

They go as far to say that the development signals a “change of attitude towards placemaking and the evolution of ‘development’ to ‘ecosystem,’” says Simon Chua of Lead8, adding that it has already  become a ‘must visit’ for the city’s inhabitants. This vindicates the team’s ambitions to provide a viable ‘green’ retail model, by “allowing the market to see that it is possible to deliver a high-quality green space for a mixed-use, transit-oriented project.”

He adds, “As we hoped, this project has inspired many new future developments to push the boundaries of internal green space for large commercial projects.” This strikingly realised example makes The Ring a pioneer in combining urban, nature and community drivers in a retail setting, and one which is already being followed in other major cities.