Shape Shifting

The resiliency of older cities lends itself to incremental modernization. The challenge is to balance their need to grow and change with their desire to maintain their character and sense of place.

Gensler’s use of strategies like suture, infill, adaptive reuse and restoration makes this possible in existing urban districts so they can continue to thrive.

2000 Avenue of the Stars

The Resilience of Established Cities

In the 19th century, cities became lively as industrialization swelled their populations. Over time, these clusters of economic activity became distinctive districts, whether “Meatpacking” or “Printers’ Row.” Today, many of these older industrial cities are adjusting to a postindustrial world economy. They need buildings and infrastructure that can attract globetrotting companies and their knowledge workers.

The economy that nurtured the growth of these cities left highly valued traces. Keeping cities fresh isn’t about bulldozing away what was, but working creatively with what remains, using redevelopment strategies that can accommodate new activities without overwhelming the inherited context.

How can a city use its “good bones” to modernize and still be attractive? The answer lies in strategies that can revive areas of real quality, healing neighborhoods and infusing old blocks with new designs. Suture is one such strategy. Just as surgeons suture skin over local wounds to heal an entire body, new development and redevelopment can be used to repair large tears in the urban fabric. These acts of renewal can reinvigorate the larger setting, making it whole again.

Infill: Working with the Fabric

The fabric of older districts in established cities makes its hard to assemble large sites, but there are usually more compact sites that are big enough for a new activity that can reinvent everything around it. This is the gist of the infill strategy: a building or building cluster that activates its surroundings. The energy of that one move can be infectious.

When the infill strategy is applied to an existing district or neighborhood, building quality, visual impact and a human-scale engagement with the larger setting are keys to successful revitalization. To be successful, infill projects need to be superb platforms for the activities they house. They also need to fit well with their context, responding thoughtfully and creatively to its scale and character.

Infill: Urban-Scale Redevelopment

Shanghai, despite its boomtown reputation, is an established city of longstanding. Its modernization involves a substantial amount of infill redevelopment, woven into a larger strategy of intensifying new higher-density construction around transit hubs. This approach, which Gensler is implementing in several Shanghai districts, makes it possible to preserve historic neighborhoods by shifting the density.

This growth is being shaped by the conscious goal of creating a sustainable, walkable city that is recognizably Shanghai. This is why preservation and infill at smaller scales is in the picture. By looking at a larger area, whether an existing neighborhood or a district, it is easier to decide what to keep as it is, what to redevelop at moderate density, and what to replace and upgrade to a modern urban scale.

Infill: Acknowledging the Past

How can cities modernize and still preserve the significant buildings and settings that are the source of their identity? There are two ways to approach this. One is to work creatively with the predominant architectural scale of the area, while achieving a higher density and supporting new uses. The other is to strike a modern counterpoint that respects what exists but doesn’t consciously emulate it.

Both strategies are rooted in established cities’ need to address the future, even as they acknowledge the presence of the past. The more valued the context, the more challenging it is to get it right. To be successful, both strategies have to acknowledge the limits of the existing fabric to accept the new. The integrity of an area — the qualities that make it memorable — have to be respected.

Restoration and Adaptive Reuse

When redevelopment can build on a resilient existing context, it often is easier to accomplish. While restoration focuses on buildings of architectural merit, adaptive reuse often takes in more ordinary buildings that can be renovated or repositioned for modern living. Keeping them in place also ensures that established cities can maintain the continuity and flavor of their different neighborhoods.

The impulse to renew existing buildings reflects the reality that they have the capacity to be what the future demands of them. Bringing this out requires special talents from the design team to restore, modernize, and — most important of all — make full use of each building’s character and spatial qualities.

Displacement: Saving the Center

Cities like St. Petersburg, Russia, are justly famous for historic city centers that draw tourists and are a valued source of civic pride. When the citizens cannot imagine losing such strong examples of their history, then the development that economic and population growth requires has to go elsewhere. Thanks to the transition of most cities to a postindustrial economy, there are usually remnants of their industrial past that can be redeveloped at a higher density, leaving the historic city center untouched.

The key to successfully displacing this growth is to link the new district “at the hip” with the greater city that it serves. St. Petersburg’s Vasilievsky Island, for example, will be served by several new Metro stations. The development of this new area, which will be reclaimed from the city’s harbor, also creates below-grade levels that allow people to walk to and from many of their destinations in the winter. The sense of the new as an extension of what exists is a kind of infill strategy, actually, respecting the city.

John Parman—Gensler Firmwide Communications

2000 Avenue of the Stars, Benny Chan/Fotoworks: pages 1—2a-c
90 High Holborn, Timothy Soar: page 2d-e
Hotel & Residences at L.A. LIVE, Project Team: page 3a-b
Club Nokia at L.A. LIVE, Project Team: page 3c
Union Pacific Headquarters, Joe Aker/Zonkovic Photo: page 3d-e
Nanjing Road West Master Plan, Project Team: 4a
Shanghai Shipyard Master Plan, Project Team: page 4b
Shanghai Tower, Project Team: page 4c

Images (continued)*
Letterman Digital Arts Center, Sherman Takata: page 5a-b
School of the International Center of Photography, Nick Merrick/Hedrich Blessing: page 5c-d
Burberry Flagship Store, Chun Lai: page 5e
JetBlue Airways Terminal 5, JFK International Airport, Prakash Patel: page 5f
ACT Geary Theater, Marco Lorenzetti/Hedrich Blessing: page 6a-b
Apple Flagship Store, Hufton & Crow: page 6c
UBS Lobby at 299 Park Avenue, Nic Lehoux: page 6d
Venables Bell & Partners, Nic Lehoux: page 6e
Toys “R” Us Flagship Store, Paul Warchol: page 6f-g
Vasilievsky Island, Project Team: page 7

*For detailed information, please roll over imagery on individual story pages.

Related content requires a more recent version of the Flash player than you currently have installed, and JavaScript turned on to view this content.

Please download the most recent Flash player.


About Us
As architects, designers, planners and consultants, we partner with our clients on some 3,000 projects every year. These projects can be as small as a wine label or as large as a new urban district. With 2,000+ professionals networked across more than 30 locations, we serve our clients as trusted advisors, combining localized expertise with global perspective wherever new opportunities arise. Our work reflects an enduring commitment to sustainability and the belief that design is one of the most powerful strategic tools for securing lasting competitive advantage.


Download Gensler's Fact Sheet (pdf) for more information regarding the the services we provide, markets we support, our locations and our leadership.


Download "Design Update: The Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott at L.A. LIVE" (pdf) to learn how L.A.'s sports-entertainment district gets its landmark.