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SWFC, Shanghai, China

Issue 51 Oct / Nov 2009 : Architectural : Exterior


The latest addition to the Shanghai skyline and China’s tallest tower, the SWFC has been given top billing with a scheme by Motoko Ishii Lighting Design.

Since its inception as an economic development zone back in 1990, the Pudong district of Shanghai has used iconic architecture as a means of raising the city’s profile and promoting itself as an international financial hub. The first striking addition to the skyline was the Oriental Pearl Tower, completed in 1995. Rising up over the former-farmland of the Huangpu River’s east bank to a height of 468m from pavement to antenna tip, it easily became China’s tallest building – a title it retained until August last year when the Shanghai World Financial Centre (SWFC) officially opened for business.

The SWFC is the second of three superscrapers planned for the Lujiazui area of Pudong. The first, completed ten years earlier, was neighbouring Jin Mao Tower which, with its distinctive steel tier structure, tops out at a height of 421m. For the SWFC, Japanese developers Mori Building Corporation wanted to create something bolder: a tower whose record-breaking height wasn’t reliant on the addition of spires or antennae. They turned to architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) who produced a design that would gracefully “create a link between earth and sky”. 

Symbolism and iconography are very important to any major Chinese project; the Oriental Pearl Tower is inspired by an old Tang Dynasty poem, and Jin Mao Tower’s tiered shape is an obvious nod to traditional Pagoda architecture. For the SWFC symbolism proved a particularly important factor. The tower starts with a square prism-shaped base that slims at two corners as it rises, forming a diagonal blade at the building’s top. To reduce wind resistance on this top section, KPF designed a huge circular portal – a shape which, in Chinese symbology, denotes ‘heaven’. When placed within the square shape of the building (the square representing ‘earth’), it created a pleasingly appropriate cultural back-story for the project.

It came as a surprise to KPF and Mori Building when they encountered local resistance to the plans. Some reports suggested that a circular design on a Japanese owned building was a little too close to the rising sun on Japan’s flag, although this was never given as an official reason for the public’s objections.

Whatever the cause, KPF returned to the drawing board to alter the circular portal, making it a trapezoid and, in doing so, giving the SWFC its distinctive bottle opener shape. This was just one of a number of changes to the design during the construction process. Though the foundations were laid in 1997, the Asian financial crisis brought a halt to proceedings just one year later. When building work resumed in 2003, it had also been decided that the tower should be made 32m taller than originally planned.

Changes to shape and height had implications for lighting consultancy Motoko Ishii Lighting Design who joined the SWFC project in 1998. The initial scheme emphasised the (subsequently rejected) circular shape at the top of the building. Their revised plan shifted focus onto the full length of the building instead. Eighty 2,000W metal halide lamps were placed at the base of the tower. This, combined with the gentle narrowing of the building, gives rise to some unusual visual effects; viewed from the pavement outside the main entrance, the tower appears to climb up forever.

A further twenty 400W metal halide lamps were placed in the lower edge of the opening at the building’s top. Careful consideration had to be given to the placement of these uplights as the 101st floor – the horizontal section closing the portal at the very top of the building – houses a public observation gallery with glass floored sections. To avoid creating excessive glare that might obscure the view of visitors, custom designed louvers with a dense grid of fins were added around the lights. This ensures the beams are directed only where required.

In addition to uplighting, the building’s shape was emphasised with colour changing LED strips. These were installed along the edge of the building and in the triangular areas formed as the tower tapers at the top.

Stroboscopic lighting is also used around the tower’s opening. 1,192 units from Ushio Lighting are used to create a sparkling champagne effect, triggered on the hour and at 15 minute intervals.
Within months of the SWFC’s grand opening, construction began on Lujiazui’s third skyscraper – Shanghai Tower. Set for completion in 2014, it will take over as China’s tallest building. Until then, the SWFC stands as an impressive symbol of Shanghai’s aspirations as a global financial centre.


Project Details
Shanghai World Financial Centre, Shanghai
Client/Project Engineer: Mori Building Corporation
Exterior Lighting Design: Motoko Ishii Lighting Design
Architect: Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates PC

Lighting Specified
• Beijing Matsushita Electric Works Ltd: Tower Bottom Up-light : 80 x metal halide lamp Top Opening Up-light : metal halide lamp - YAC54320K1
• Shanghai Langtao Guangdian Science Co Ltd. Slope Light (Inverse triangle area) : 1724 x multicolour LED (custom made)
Tower Edge Light (vertical edge) : 1456 x multicolour LED (custom made)
Tower Edge Light (skyline) :  298 x multicolor LED (custom made)
• Ushio Lighting Inc - Tower Top Flash Light : 1192 x stroboscopic light - OC90A-E26/200V


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