by STIRworldMay 12, 2022
As ever ambitious, Heatherwick Studio has unveiled 1,000 Trees, a mixed-use development posed as two, forest-capped mountains along the Shanghai waterfront in China, merging lush flora and concrete infrastructure in an engaging, multi layered retail and urban sprawl. Evocative of the hanging gardens of Babylon, verdant vertical greens cascade and grow across the western half of the site as the first phase of their latest endeavour that stands impressive and realised as a delightful, comprehensive mix of shops, cafes, everyday stores, restaurants, new public spaces as well as handsome promenades, aiming to integrate an existing riverside park and heritage structure on the former derelict factory site, efficaciously knitting the new with the old.
The15-acre site takes root on a bend in Suzhou Creek, bounded by the river to the north, the M50 art district to the south and a small, wooded park and residential area to the east. Once all phases reach completion, more than 1,000 trees and 250,000 plants will dramatically swathe and grow with abandon as part of the project, including individual plants, smaller shrubs, grasses, perennials, flowers and climbers.
The British architectural firm proceeded to delve into routes that could open up this formerly inaccessible and abandoned early industrial space, a flour mill, to the cityscape and tie it succinctly with the healing power of greens. Instead of adopting the typical style of sterile, monotonous and monolith towers growing out of an expansive podium, Heatherwick Studio, led by globally sought after British designer and architect Thomas Heatherwick, explored ways to pull the landscape across the site, to create a fresh type of artificial, urban topography, "where the landscape is raised up to form the volume of the buildings,” the architects share, reminiscing their fresh take on large-scale urban developments as open, social spaces.
In order to do so, they had to navigate a strip of government-owned land that bisects the two plots. This division emerged as an advantage by defining itself as a natural valley between the two imagined mountains. The levels step back as the structures rise to establish a thorough gradient of the slopes, where terraces emerge at each floor. Unusual for a mall, almost every unit enjoys its own outdoor space and panoramic views. Built for developer Tian An China Investments Company, the nine-storey project’s first realised section comes alive with tree-topped pillars as decorative planters, the greens as natural extensions winding their way through the myriad levels and shooting up the roofscape towards the open sky.
The collective planting strategy mushrooming across the jumbled terraces of rippling concrete forms provides a remarkable net biodiversity gain on the site, creating its own august micro-climate that will significantly help cool the environment and become a sponge for the city’s noise and pollution. Footpaths weave around the lower terraces of 1,000 Trees, and the buildings can be reached by pedestrians from all sides from the nearby residential district of Putuo, home to more than 1.2 million people.
The planters crowning each concrete column of the sprawling shopping area, also dubbed the West Mountain, contain a mix of locally sourced deciduous, evergreen, fruit and flowering trees, combined with shrubs and hanging plants, while blossoming species are integrated across the lower terraces and riverfront walkway, creating an appearance of a mountain slope which subtly transforms seasonally. The approach to planting was kept wild and natural, to minimise the need for excessive pruning and maintenance in the long run, and to encourage biodiversity. All the trees and plants are fed via a watering system concealed inside the pillars, and sourced locally, with species carefully selected. The design team identified 27 unique conditions across the planters, which formed the basis for selecting species that would thrive naturally on site.
Verdant and striking, the terraced mountain is supported by an exoskeleton of columns, instantly evocative of their plant covered Little Islands project in New York. The concrete architecture grows out of flexible nine-metre grid base, rotated to permit views to the stretching river, and to align with the road’s boundary. The cubic elements, like a frozen game of plant infested Tetris in 3D, have been imagined as pixels, to break the building’s scale visually, and to interrupt and disrupt the repeated towers looming tall in the near context. The columns, instead of being concealed, are revealed in magnificence, liberating the internal space and providing the structural means to “lift up a park, tree by tree. It is as if green shoots have sprouted up through the building to bloom on the skyline – the top of each column extends into a broad planter, bringing nature close to each level and every terrace,” shares Heatherwick.
The cascading and rising columns also help distribute the weight of the trees to the earth, each seemingly floating freely. In reality, they are tied back to support the levels they grow out of, and to provide seismic stability. Heatherwick Studio shares that the background research for the columns’ design as well as the types of flora employed took close to two years to finalise, and the building’s construction delayed thanks to the pandemic. Akin to a termite mound, the group of pillars also ensure open, more light filled interior spaces and lends porosity to the skin, in tandem with outdoor terraces that accompany each facet of the building’s programme.
“1,000 Trees is inspired by the idea of making cities into social spaces,” says Heatherwick, throwing light on the crux of the project. “It breaks down the monolithic scale of a typical retail development into a multitude of human-scale spaces. I think it will be transformational for people who live and work in this dense residential neighbourhood,” he adds.
The site also resides next to the city’s main art district, the M50, and in response, the entire southern façade of 1,000 Trees has been sliced through to become an angled canvas for a boundless melange of street art. “Sixteen local and international artists have been commissioned to draw the energy and traditions of M50 into this first phase of the development. Their work, curated by Paul Dezio, a French street artist who began frequenting the area in 2007, references the street graffiti for which this district has been famous,” the British architects relay. Forty metre high murals were also created in the elevator shafts by the artists, visible through the glass cars. Each lift shaft has been worked on by a different artist, lending the zones distinct identities that guide visitors to find their way around.
A glass atrium at the summit of the capacious retail architecture channels sunlight into the heart of the levels, while the external atria come across as cliffs of the mountain’s face. Bold red and yellow painted steel structures, softly visible, suggest the involvement of artists inside as well. “We wanted to create a place that brings together nature, commerce and wellbeing. It’s turned an ex-industrial site into a new destination exploring the powerful relationships between art, landscape and architecture,” said Lisa Finlay, Partner and group lead for Heatherwick Studio about the recently unveiled, 1,000 Trees.
Currently under construction, a loftier, 100m tall tower called the East Mountain with hanging gardens comprising workspaces, a cinema, a hotel, as well as a large park and an amphitheatre will bring up the second part of 1,000 Trees, which is touted to open in the next two years, as a green lung that engages the city, according to the Shanghai Municipal People’s Government.
As for the true advantage and value that is lent by adding live plants and trees to a built disposition, is up for larger discussion and clearer research. Many argue that while the inclusion of vegetation in architecture, especially in towering skyscrapers and high-end housing schemes might be well-intended, but can simply be to maintain a perception of sustainability, as opposed to actual, supportive evidence that equates the carbon levels of construction and building with its supposed environmental benefits.