Super-tall aspirations: Architect Marshall Strabala envisions a gift to the people of Shanghai

Culture | by Michaela Kron
Posted: December 17th, 2010 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
In the third of a series on contemporary Shanghai architecture, Michaela Kron takes a closer look at Shanghai's super-tall (and getting taller) skyline. Long famous for foreign concession-era Art Deco and Neoclassical buildings that speak of a past replete with "unequal treaties" and Western economic dominance, 21st century Shanghai has a few new things to say about the relationships between architecture, power and influence... and the world is definitely listening. But what, exactly, is the message? Here, Shanghai Tower chief architect Marshall Strabala shares his thoughts on what his super-tall signature building might mean to the people of Shanghai. >>> There's a joke that goes something like, "What bird is the symbol of Shanghai?" …"The crane!" I know, I know. It's a disappointing punch line. And not a great joke, either. But it is pretty true, and it does have a point for the purposes of this post. It seems like almost everywhere you look in Shanghai, no matter where you are, you see cranes grazing the skyline, signifying the vast amount of construction taking place throughout the city. [pullquote]If you try to design a symbol, you're probably not going to do it ... " —Marshall Strabala[/pullquote]But the largest construction project in Shanghai by far is currently taking place in Pudong, where, as I said in my previous post, the rapidly-developing skyline will soon have a new—and super-supertall—addition: the Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center once completed in 2014. "It will be loved by people, it will be hated by people, and people will basically ignore it. But no matter how you look at it, it will be a part of Shanghai's skyline." Those are indeed a lot of 'will's, and they're coming from Marshall Strabala, the chief architect of the Shanghai Tower. But, then again, it makes a lot of sense; the building was designed to be an architectural representation of China's dynamic future, hence the already-generous use of future tense in this post. Strabala, formerly the Director of Design at global architecture firm Gensler, recently left the company and started his own firm, 2DEFINE Architecture. Although he designed the Shanghai Tower while at Gensler, he still remains involved in the project. A few weeks ago, I met with Strabala at his office to interview him about the Shanghai Tower project. Surrounded by pristine white building models and meticulous pencil drawings, he shared some valuable insight about the tower and what it will mean for Shanghai—and the rest of China—once it's built. With many skyscrapers, there's a lot of talk about symbolism—how the buildings represent the cities where they're built. For Strabala, however, there's no real point in labeling the Shanghai Tower a symbol of the city just yet. According to Strabala, it's going to take more than the tower's immense height and innovative design for it to represent Shanghai in a meaningful way. "If you try to design a symbol, you're probably not going to do it," he said. "But if you try to design something with the spirit of the city and the people of the city in mind—if you're building of today rather than trying to make it look like something that was built yesterday or last century—the chances of it becoming an icon are much higher." In many ways, the Shanghai Tower will be a building about people and for people. In addition to being accessible to everybody, the tower will essentially be a gift to the people of Shanghai, Strabala said. At the entry of the building, there will be stone clad with glass with the name every family in Shanghai written in characters on the glass. There will be about 3,000 names, and once the tower opens, the city's residents will be able to go and find their name. I found the "name card" idea to be quite an amazing concept. In addition to acting as a nice design element of the building, it will give the tower a meaningful connection to the people of Shanghai. In other words, it won't be just another pretty building among others in Shanghai. It will, in Strabala's words, embody the spirit of the city and its people. The Shanghai Tower is often perceived as a representation of China's future, which Strabala described as "that which is open, that which is dynamic, that which is thoughtful, creative, and about people." With China's population of a billion, I think the word "people" speaks for itself. What's the big ideal? Shanghai's mile-high bars and skyscrapers with "Chinese characteristics" What's the big ideal? Shanghai's skyscrapers, foreign influence and hypermodernity
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