Written by JFK Miller  www.shanghai.urbanatomy.com

Bill Pedersen talks about creating SWFC

Towering over the skyline, the Shanghai World Financial Center stands as an indomitable symbol of a city quickly reemerging as a global player. It became an instant icon when completed in 2008 and in the same year was recognized as the best tall building in the world by leading authority The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which called it “nothing short of genius.”

The genius in question is William Pedersen, the principal design partner of Kohn Pedersen Fox, the international architecture firm he founded, along with A. Eugene Kohn and Sheldon Fox, in 1976. Below, he talks to us about his superstructure and the controversy the building found itself in because of its aperture…

Let’s deal with the controversy first. It’s well known that the opening at the top of the SWFC was changed from a circle shape to a trapezoidal one because it was considered too similar to the rising sun design of the Japanese flag. How did you deal with that?

When the circle was perceived as in opposition to Chinese culture, we suggested a bridge passing through the aperture, which diminished the purity of the form. Ultimately, the desirability of reference to anything in the circular family was challenged and the circle was abandoned. But the circular geometry with a bridge embedded never felt successful, so I was frankly relieved to find another form. The geometry of this aperture more clearly relates to the fundamental geometry of the building, and in retrospect, I find it superior to the circle.

What purpose other than aesthetic does the aperture serve?
A tall building is essentially a beam cantilevered from the earth. The pressures at the top of the building are more fundamental to design than the actual weight and gravity of the building. Relieving some wind pressure through the aperture was an efficient way of reducing the structural load; the aperture allows wind to pass through. The building would have been possible without the aperture, but the quantities of steel used would have been far greater and would have resulted in an increase in building energy, thus it was not as sustainable.

Do you mind that the building is colloquially referred to as The Bottle Opener?

So what was the inspiration for the SWFC’s design?
It was a square prism – the symbol used by the ancient Chinese to represent the earth – which is intersected by two cosmic arcs, representing the heavens, as the tower ascends in gesture to the sky. The interaction between these two realms gives rise to the building’s form, carving a trapezoidal sky portal at the top of the tower that lends balance to the structure and links the two opposing elements – the heavens and the earth.

Was the design of the SWFC meant to complement the existing Jinmao Tower or was it conceived as a stand-alone building?
The Jinmao reflects one way of understanding Chinese history and the SWFC represents another. The two buildings embody different points of view in terms of connecting to traditional Chinese thought. The Jinmao is a more literal interpretation of Chinese thought, while the SWFC is a more abstract representation of Chinese symbolism, which can be traced to ancient roots. Together they form a balance of opposites. Juxtaposition is a successful form of architectural response when one uses the context as a fundamental point of departure – creating a dialogue of opposites. The height of the tower (492 meters) was a function of attaining the perfect proportion for the form, and finding a complementary height with the Jinmao and the future Shanghai Tower, so the three buildings create a balanced composition on the skyline.

My primary focus over my 35-year career has always been to make the tall building a social participant within the modern city, so as to encourage connection between buildings rather than standing as isolated objects. The tall building has been the dominant component of the modern city for almost 100 years. By its nature, it tends to be insular and autonomous. My goal has always been to find ways for the tall building to relate to the urban street wall and to be a participant in its context. Our buildings aim to transform by acknowledging the pressures of surrounding context, and in a way, attempting to summarize the specific characteristics of that context.

How does the SWFC relate to the Oriental Pearl TV Tower?
The SWFC’s primary orientation is actually with the Pearl TV Tower; the two buildings create a dialogue in space. Originally, the sphere complemented the circular aperture, but there’s still a strong relationship. At the base of the SWFC, a series of smaller, human-scale forms connect the building to the earth, relieving the abstractness of the tower. Autonomy is inevitable, but we tried to temper the insularity of the gesture by the manner in which the pieces at the base of the tower relate to its function and civic responsibility.

KPF has always been at the forefront of sustainable architecture. What are the sustainable features of the SWFC?
The SWFC’s sustainable strategies focus on the reduction of embodied energy needed to produce the building, through the maximization of efficiencies, minimization of materials and rationalization of the building’s geometry. The tower’s tapering form is compact – from large floor plates at its base for offices to rectilinear floors near the top for hotel rooms – the form is exactly the right size and shape to fit the functions precisely within. The building’s facade, structure and mechanical systems are tightly integrated and organized in a modular system that repeats every 13 floors, facilitating the fabrication and installation of components and reducing construction time, material waste and structural inefficiencies. Every 13th floor is a refuge floor – a safe haven during fire – which makes the SWFC not only sustainable, but very safe.

Another factor which is not often discussed, but relevant to sustainability, is longevity. The initial input of construction materials, labor and energy to create a tower such as the SWFC is a sustainable proposition only if the building has a long life span. The SWFC is designed for a 100-year life span – twice that of a typical office building – with the structure lasting even longer. The SWFC is at the forefront of not only building sustainability but building quality.

In addition to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat awards, the SWFC has received numerous other architecture accolades. Do you regard the building as a career highlight?
Of course, it’s very satisfying that so many people feel it’s been a success. The SWFC is especially important in terms of globalism and the effect of the connection and the meaning of this building. We sought to find a way of making a building that had meaning within its place and context, and that was connected to the Chinese culture. Within the visual cacophony of Pudong’s context, one creates this connection in a simple and elegant way.  I certainly consider it a highlight of my career.