“Bringing the outside in” was at the heart of the aptly named Leafy Shade, a newly renovated office building in Shanghai that offers an enchanted forest fit for fairies inside its walls. The dome-shaped entrance hall, with its backlit leafy pattern, possesses an ethereal quality, so that it feels more like entering the celestial sphere than another day at work – which surely can’t be a bad thing.
There were two reasons for taking such a bold approach to the interior of this 27-storey structure when so many other office buildings in Shanghai settle for a universal blandness.
On a practical level, the building, formerly a hotel, has a relatively small reception and very little light in common areas – which makes a moody woodland motif the natural choice, explains Nobuhiro Nakamura of Shanghai-based architects A-Asterisk.
The other reason, he says, is that the client, Haitai Real Estate, a new developer on the Shanghai scene, wanted to establish a brand name and make a strong impression on the market. “We decided to create an entrance hall that is not typical for an office building,” says Nakamura, playing down quite how unusual his design actually is.
A-Asterisk avoided the most obvious “forest” association – the colour green – and instead focused on infusing the space with light. “When thinking about the design, it was too direct to use green,” says Nakamura. “When I design stuff, I take one or two concepts and try to emphasise them. The aim for this project was simply to surround the space with trees. Therefore, the colour green was not necessary.”
The leaf motif was created with panels of glass fibre-reinforced gypsum, which were then fixed to a foundation of steel frames and spray painted. Metal halide lamps are suspended behind the panels at varying angles to achieve a twinkly magical affect as people enter the building or look at it from the outside. This recurring feature – which is also found in common areas throughout the building – paired with granite floors in reception and white crystallised glass in the lift lobbies, makes for a visually spectacular space.
Nakamura accepts that Leafy Shade is more dramatic than most Shanghai office buildings before, and probably after, it – but the design was not extravagant for its own sake, he insists. The idea came to him because the building faces an intersection of small streets with “good old people” and beautiful trees.
“I took the entrance hall as an expansion of the street, as if the trees outside are continuing into the building,” he says. “The designs for typical entrance halls in office buildings do not vary in patterns of thinking. I feel the preconception that an entrance hall should be like ‘this’ and ‘that’ needs to be cast away. Leafy Shade might look a bit too unique to some people, but I would like to emphasise that the unique design here is the result of us honestly observing and answering the conditions, rather than the result of us responding to our egos.”
This goes to the heart of Nakamura and A-Asterisk’s design approach, which attempts to push design while still ensuring that end users are well served.
“As an architect, I do not think my only job is to make shapes,” explains Nakamura. “I want our design to be popular, but I feel that it is wrong to just aim at being different. I want to make a good observation of conditions, and then answer the observation. I feel that’s the most important thing, the most important values as a designer.”
One of the challenges during the design process, he says, was dealing with pre-existing conditions resulting from the building having been a hotel. Low ceiling heights meant that carving out offices with an “open feeling” was too difficult, which is part of the reason floor plates were chopped up into 150sq m offices aimed at smaller companies. The building is being sold off in small chunks and the only unchangeable features on each floor are the dark carpet tiles and simple overhead light fixtures.
Nakamura is glad to have designed a building that stands out from the seemingly endless stream of new builds in Shanghai. “Shanghai’s architecture is decorated by many ornaments, and I wonder if they are truly necessary,” he muses. “Though this is not all about functionalism. Like I have said, observing and answering to conditions is very important in a design process. If decoration is the result of ‘answering’, then I have no problem with it.”
And if a lovely twinkling forest is the result, long may we continue to ask questions.