The Intercontinental Shimao Shanghai Wonderland, a luxury hotel now under construction, will be nestled against the side of a former rock quarry some 260 ft deep. Read more…
© Atkins Ltd.
Visible as only a modest two-story structure from ground level, a luminous new luxury hotel in Shanghai will extend 17 stories below ground into an abandoned quarry filled with water features.
April 24, 2012—The building boom in China, where no small number of American and European architects have turned to work in recent years, has been all about sky’s-the-limit highrises and instant cities. Rarely has it been about designing buildings that vanish into the landscape.
But the innovative Intercontinental Shimao Shanghai Wonderland, currently under construction, is making a virtue of building down rather than up. Conceived by one of Asia’s major developers, the Shimao Group, the five-star hotel is the centerpiece of the luxury development Shimao Wonderland. The hotel is, according to Shimao, part of a 105-acre “large-scale theme project integrating residential, hospitality, leisure, and entertainement elelemtns,” including a shopping center.
Ritzy hotels may be a dime a dozen, but no one has yet submerged one down the side of an old rock quarry some 260 ft deep. The 17-story, 388-room hotel is reported to cost $95 million and is slated to open in 2013. The 9.5-acre quarry, which was abandoned more than a decade ago, will be transformed into an idyllic lagoon.
The hotel was designed by the Shanghai office of the UK-based design firm Atkins, under the guidance of former Atkins archtiect Martin Jochman. The design has already won a gold medal in the 2011 MIPIM Asia Awards, an awards program affiliated with WIPIM, an international real estate trade show.
Situated in Songjiang, an hour’s drive from Shanghai, the Intercontinental is nestled on a plain between two mountains. “Because of that it’s a place of natural beauty; there’s natural water coursing through the site,” says Jason Hutchings, Atkins’ director of archtecture and urban design in Hong Kong. “It’s a very, very nice place to have a hotel.”
That is, if designers could come to grips with the fact that the hotel couldn’t rise up out of the earth. “I’d love to be able to tell you it was our designers who championed the idea of putting the building in the hole,” says Hutchings, “but it was more of a collaborative process,” between Atkins and Shimao. “But that said, there are different ways of skinning the cat.”
The trick was to give a complicated building program a “light touch.” But how exactly do you bring a light touch to a luxury hotel affixed to the side of a quarry? You make the hotel disappear. Chinese officials had already imposed a two-story height restriction on development of the site to preserve the area’s natural beauty. That constraint turned out to be an opportunity for Atkins and Shimao, which were both “prepared to take advantage of those opportunities as they came along,” says Hutchings, by remaining “open to innovation throughout the design process.”
The form of the building, being dubbed by some as a “groundscraper,” was driven by the shape of the rock. “The idea was to do as little as possible to that rock face in terms of its shape and its form,” says Hutchings. “That’s why we have such a convoluted shape of a building.”
The building’s structure is essentially split into two by a glass
“waterfall” atrium that runs like a river from the two-story podium
down the face of the hotel to the water’s edge. © Atkins Ltd.
From the quarry side, the single-stack hotel design reads as two wings—one convex, the other concave—appearing as an almost inevitable extension of the quarry itself. The façade is split down the middle by a glass “waterfall” atrium that runs like a river from the two-story podium at the top of the building down the face of the hotel to the water’s edge. The podium appears at the egde of the quarry like an undulating, green-roofed hill, sliced through with curving glass entryways.
Unlike sky-reaching architecture that announces itself from afar, the pleasures of the Shimao are meant to unfold gradually. Hutchings explains it this way: “When you approach this hotel through this lovely landscape, you’re just approaching a two-story building. It sits quite modestly in the landscape.You come through that reception area, you’re still in a two-story space, and then wham!” Instead of looking at a dark-lit corridor leading to your room, you find yourself looking over a cliff.
“One of the opportunities that this configuration presents is that element of surprise and exctiement and wonder,” he continues. “You don’t often get that—because you can’t see the building. The whole concept of this building is that it’s hidden from view as you approach it.”
Perhaps the greatest on-site challenge was dealing with the stagnant water in the quarry. “The first technical challenge was actually preparing the site to the point at which we could occupy it and do something,” says Hutchings. The team had to drain the water to build foundations for the project. “One of the initial hurdles is the quarry is full of water, so there is no drainage,” he says. “When the building puts its feet into the water line, so to speak, you can’t have water coming up over its ankles. We have to very carefully monitor the amount of water going into the quarry and the drainage from it.”
Throughout construction, engineers have had to constantly pump water to clear the quarry, filtering it as they go to improve its quality. When the work is done they’ll need to refill the quarry with the filtered water. “We can’t have all of it drain away, otherwise your hotel will be looking into an empty hole,” Hutchings explains.
Surplus water will be used to irrigate the landscaping around the quarry. “Quite a lot of the success of this project,” says Hutchings, “will be hidden from view.”
While he’s referring to the site’s complex water circulation demands, he could just as well be talking about the other hurdles Atkins had to clear, especially the incorporaation of the rock face of the quarry into the structure. The quarry needed to be stabilized first to prevent the rock from crumbling—a crucial point, given that the interior corridors and atrium of the hotel directly face the rock walls.
Atkins engineers installed rock dowels, bolts, and anchors, and in
some cases sprayed concrete, to hold the unstable rock face in
place. Weep holes and inclined drain holes will release
groundwater pressure from behind the rock face. © Atkins Ltd.
To accomplish this, Atkins employed various measures: engineers installed rock dowels, bolts, and anchors to hold in place the unstable and variously sized pieces of the rock face. They also sprayed concrete to cover weak parts of the rock face to prevent erosion and installed weep holes and inclined drain holes to release groundwater pressure.
The design team also had to reconsider something as straightforward as fire escape access; normally fires are racing up buildings while occupants are escaping down through them. Basements are usually quite prohibitive and require increased compartmentation and escape requirements. Here, the entire building is, in effect, a basement. “Obviously people are not escaping downward, they’re escaping upward,” adds Ian Milne, an architectural design director for Atkins who is also based in Hong Kong. “Firefighters are fighting fire in a different way than they normally do.”
Still, the more Atkins designers looked at the site, says Hutchings, “the more opportunities threw themselves at us to make this a sustainable building.”
For instance, because the hotel sits right up against the cliff face, it has very minimal exposure to the north, where colder winds blow in the winter. And the huge thermal mass of the quarry rock should help stabilize the temperatures inside the hotel. Further, notes Hutchings, water at the bottom of the quarry will naturally be cooler than the landscape around it. “By allowing the air from outside at water level to come into the hotel, it rises up through the voids of the hotel and ventilates the public spaces at no energy costs,” says Hutchings.
Ulitmately the hotel will succeed or fail on the basis of how successfully it brings visitors from their balconies and fully into the environment of the quarry. The hotel plans events for the water that range from fireworks to opera performances to light shows. At the top of the quarry, a cantilevered platform will allow such outdoor activities as rock climbing and bungee jumping; on the water there will also be sailing and kayaking. The kicker is that the bottom two levels of the hotel will actually be underwater—an idea that Atkins successfully brought to fruition in one of its previous projects, the sail-like Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai. The lower two levels will feature restaurants, a ports complex, a pool, and an aquarium.
The designers hope that the natural landscape of the quarry and the hotel work harmoniously. “This was a fairly ugly brownfield, postindustrial site,” says Milne. “We’ve taken this ugly scar on the landscape and turned it into what will be a great amenity.”