Designed by SOM, Alibaba’s new Shanghai campus is said to be inspired by a cloud

Spanning 75,000 sqm, the new headquarters features a fragmented exterior concealing a courtyard layout that prioritises collaboration and wellness.

by STIRworldPublished on : Aug 06, 2022

Shanghai’s Xuhui District is expected to become home to a new 75,000 sqm campus for China-based cloud computing, entertainment, and e-commerce giant Alibaba, with the recent unveiling of a design proposal spearheaded by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Expanding on the company’s existing facilities in the city, the new headquarters has been conceptualised to accommodate their ever-growing multinational staff and operations, with an emphasis on wellness and collaboration. Featuring a fragmented façade design composed of interlocking cubical masses that exhibit a rippling play of recess and relief, the firm describes the building’s exterior as derived from the form of a cloud, paying heed to Alibaba’s “extraordinary digital presence in the cloud, as well as the technology industry’s shifting skies of innovation.”

Despite the high-tech appeal of its gleaming glass exterior, the resemblance to the aforementioned source of inspiration may not be immediately evident by virtue of the strong geometric design language seen in the structure’s massing. In fact, the nature of the abstraction channelled along the building’s faces is at a surface level that is quite conventional for office buildings today, making use of extensive unitised glazing to adhere to aesthetic norms. However, as per the designers, the façade system itself has been designed for high performance and may be able to avert up to 40 percent of incident solar heat gain while mitigating glare and wind tunnels for users inside it. Furthermore, a shading system powered by artificial intelligence will provide additional assistance on these counts.

Featuring a courtyard-centred layout, the design is said to be inspired by the form of a cloud, referencing Alibaba’s presence in the cloud computing sphere | Alibaba Shanghai Campus | Skidmore, Owings & Merrill | STIRworld
Featuring a courtyard-centred layout, the design is said to be inspired by the form of a cloud, referencing Alibaba’s presence in the cloud computing sphere Image: © SOM

“The only constant is change - is one of Alibaba’s guiding principles. We took this ethos to heart, designing a workplace capable of evolving and adapting to new needs, teams, and technologies over time. The headquarters is designed in dialogue with the existing campus, inverting the neighbouring building as it unfolds across cantilevered masses and staggered, green terraces,” states SOM Design Partner Scott Duncan in a release. Placed adjacent to a public-facing building for offices and programming, the campus’ design is centred on a courtyard, which is slated to act as its spiritual core as a hub for teamwork. The rectilinear massing of the structure rises on its four corners, with workspaces and leisure areas running along its periphery with views of the nearby Huangpu River available from these concourses. Stairways and “collaboration bridges” will provide avenues for more cooperation in close quarters between teams and individuals of various departments.

Green terraces and walkways around the building’s fragmented masses are meant to foster wellness and collaboration | Alibaba Shanghai Campus | Skidmore, Owings & Merrill | STIRworld
Green terraces and walkways around the building’s fragmented masses are meant to foster wellness and collaboration Image: © SOM

Employing a long-span structure allows for extensive column-free spaces within the building, permitting the massing to stretch, contract, and overlap for flexibility of use while permitting expansion in the future if required. In fact, the architects share that the modularity of the building as a whole will be geared to adapt to the company’s ever-changing needs, catering to a wide range of workstation layouts that can correspond to morphing team structures. Merging indoor and outdoor workspaces for hybrid operations and dynamic collaborations between teams, the program is also said to incorporate smart technology infrastructure and biophilic design features to optimise internal environments and by extension, employee well-being. Natural ventilation will also be given precedence throughout the interior design, aided by smart systems to cycle air and mediate Shanghai’s subtropical climate. The designers are also targeting a low embodied and operational carbon footprint, aiming to achieve LEED v4 and China Green Star requirements.

Section depicting passive ventilation through the campus | Alibaba Shanghai Campus | Skidmore, Owings & Merrill | STIRworld
Section depicting passive ventilation through the campus Image: © SOM

Although the scope, scale, and ambition embodied within this proposal are quite impressive on their own accord, the real extent of the project's innovation reflected in the design is still ripe for questioning until the realisation of the final completed structure on site. Beyond the ‘clouded’ visual and conceptual underpinnings that gave rise to the building’s exterior face, the nature of the program highlights a number of go-to measures implemented by major architectural studios across the world when attempting to bring sustainable versions of their design languages to foreign contexts. With many similar office design ventures currently underway in China, it is clear that if pulled off tastefully and with an environmentally-conscious outlook, the new Alibaba campus could be a huge triumph for both SOM and its benefactors.

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