Suzhou Zhongnan Center, Suzhou, China
Suzhou Zhongnan Center, Suzhou, China

A New Type of Tall Building Design for China

Editor's note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

China boasts some of the world's tallest skyscrapers, and according to Emporis, the country is home to six out of the 10 tallest buildings in the world. The newest supertall addition to China’s skyline will be the Suzhou Zhongnan Center. At nearly 500-meters high, it will be the world’s tallest apartment tower by occupiable height when completed in 2026. With its ample open space and elevated sky gardens, this mixed-use high-rise tower represents a new paradigm for tall building design and the promise of vertical living.

Recently, the Chinese government called for a “new era” of architecture, banning cities from “blindly designing and building” towers taller than 500 meters (1,640 feet) and requiring new structures to be “practical, economical, ecological, and beautiful” with designs that “strengthen cultural confidence” and “highlight Chinese characteristics.” Tall building design in China is shifting in focus from height and iconic symbolism to people — the end users of the spaces. As practitioners with tall building design expertise, we aim to curate authentic experiences for the people who live, work, and play in these spaces.

With panoramic views of Jinji Lake, Suzhou old town, and neighboring skyscrapers of the central business district, Suzhou Zhongnan Center will become the anchor connecting the city’s past and future.

A map of the project's location within the city
The project is located in the core of Suzhou’s Central Business District, along the city’s Garden Ring green belt.
Reconnecting with the urban fabric

The project is located in the core of the Suzhou Central Business District (CBD), on the city’s Garden Ring green belt. Suzhou’s CBD lacks open public spaces around the buildings due to the high density of developments, so we looked for ways to open up the site and the building.

After careful analysis, the design team and the developer proposed an urban design strategy to remove the podium, thereby increasing the distance from the adjacent buildings, creating view corridors, and enhancing the urban arrival experience. The open site suggests a modernized Suzhou Garden, which allows the urban green belt to continue, returning open spaces to people, communities, and the city.

An analysis of the center's relation to public places and gardens.
Analysis to remove the retail podium, creating view corridors and access to urban green spaces.
Vertical ecological community in a sky garden city

The inspiration from Suzhou Garden extends from outdoors to indoors. The tower consists of 10 zones (each with nine to 10 floors), an observation deck, and the crown. The design uses a hollow-core structure system and a unique design approach combining landscape, artwork, and digital technology to create seven vertical-ecological communities in the sky with different themes, creating places where people meet, collaborate, and discover. The sky atria will provide convenient catering, fitness, and cultural facilities within the tower.

In order to build an ecological community, we worked with consultants to introduce outdoor natural light into the sky atrium through a fiber-optic lighting system. The technology will create a real ecological environment that is connected to nature and brings in new, innovative environmental solutions such as full-spectrum LED lighting, under-floor air supply system, high-ceiling fire exhaust system, occupancy sensors, and CO2-controlled ventilation.

A rendering of the building's vertical sky atria.
The sky atria includes seven different vertical ecology communities.

The design team also introduced digital experience design (DXD) into the sky atria. Cutting-edge technologies, such as holographic 3D projection and innovative digital content, create an interactive experience in the sky.

A rendering shows a digital projection within the atria.
Digital experience design concept with a curated digital projection.
Inside-out design approach

Panoramic views of the apartment maximize the natural light intake and optimize the unit layouts, while the stepped and tapered massing create multiple corner visual opportunities.

A sketch shows the building's different corner views
Stepped corners sketches illustrating multiple corner views.

Tapered and cut corners effectively reduce the wind load by approximately 20%, thereby saving structural and façade cost. The cut corners taper gradually to the top, forming the golden ‘Osmanthus’ shape of the crown, symbolizing success in traditional Chinese culture.

Massing diagrams
A rendering showing an aerial view
Aerial view rendering

Traditional Suzhou culture is also reflected in the curtain wall design. The façade design is simple and elegant, with various mullion patterns that recall traditional Suzhou flower windows to create a rich, visual fabric.

A close up of the curtain wall shows how the design used traditional Suzhou culture elements
Curtain wall details show how the design team incorporated traditional Suzhou culture in a modern expression.
A curated observation experience

At the top of the Suzhou Zhongnan Center will be the region’s highest 360-degree observation deck with unobstructed views of Suzhou’s historical towns, rivers, and lakes. The unique observation deck will not only provide views to the public, but will also function as a club and amenity zone for the residents. On display will be the 300 ton Tuned Mass Damper, which is custom designed for the tower, minimizing wind-induced movement and to achieve the highest level of comfort for supertall residential towers.

A rendering of the observation deck with a clear tower crown
Observation deck rendering

The Suzhou Zhongnan Center provides a platform for understanding how our priorities for the future of tall buildings are shifting to reconnect with the urban fabric, emphasize social connections, and create vertical communities.

This type of authentic design approach requires new levels of focus, as well as progressive thinking on the part of public and private stakeholders to achieve this vision.

As architects and designers, we remain optimistic about our ability to positively affect the future of cities and societies. We believe we can shape the future of vertical cities through the power of design.

For any media inquiries, please contact Kimberly Beals at .

Xiaomei Lee
As Regional Managing Principal for the Greater China Region, Xiaomei closely oversees the growth and development of our Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong offices. Xiaomei has more than 20 years of experience and has directed projects of diverse and complex scale, from master planning and tall building architecture to corporate campus and workplace interiors. She is based in Shanghai. Contact her at .
Hasan A. Syed
As a design director in Gensler's Shanghai office, Hasan promotes a culture of design exploration. With more than 20 years of experience in concept design and project development, Hasan has assembled a portfolio that includes the design and planning of large-scale office buildings, high-rise towers, mixed-use developments, hospitality facilities, and retail projects. Contact him at .
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