An ideas laboratory filled with contradictory references to the past, present and future forms the spine of a recent workplace project in Shanghai by design studio X+Living, also based in the city.
The project, Ideas Lab, is identified as a hub for innovative thinking – something that has been achieved throughout the versatile and innovative design concept suitably located within a renovated two-storey warehouse. The 170sq m retail, research and office space, in the city’s central Minhang district, takes the Industrial Revolution as one of its main points of reference. A time of transition towards new manufacturing processes, with the use of steam power and machine tools between the late 1700s and early 1800s, was an era full of technological innovation and one that marked a pivotal turning point in history, affecting every aspect of daily life.
X+Living also drew inspiration from the Information Age – characterised by a rapid shift from industrialisation towards an economy based on information technology, where society became less about the physical world and more dependent on machines.
The space is a blend of these two pivotal moments in time. The client, and occupier of the space – investment holding company Powerlong Real Estate – requested a multifunctional area where consumers and its employees could come together to form ideas, and for research and development work in information technology. The outcome is a rather futuristic vision – a postmodern collage of old and new, with steam engines, 18th-century factories and agile workstations aesthetically blended with today’s technology.
The project was headed up by X+Living’s design director Li Xiang, who graduated from Birmingham City University before going on to set up her award-winning practice in China in 2011. When discussing how the brief and overall approach came about, Li explains that it was a direct commission by Powerlong Real Estate – part of China’s vast Powerlong Group, which has business interests in sectors spanning hospitality, culture, arts, industry and information.
“We have cooperated with them before. They wanted it to be a co-working space for researching the future development of commercial space, so we created a design with the theme of the Industrial Revolution,” she says. “The main concept was to link the Industrial Revolution with the Information Age, which is what informed the design.”
This can be seen throughout the interior of the building, where plant facilities with oil tanks and steel pipes – familiar symbols of the past industrial age where hand production methods were swapped for machines – are strongly referenced. Metal stairs and grey concrete walls complete the industrial picture. But because the Information Age has no similarly explicit symbols, the design has been mapped solely via the imagery of the previous era.
What’s interesting is that both ages share some similarities. According to Li, each came equipped with subversive technology and research, and both had a massive impact on the development of business – an accredited choice for design inspiration, it seems.
In terms of layout, the ground floor is marked out as the public space. The floor plan includes a pair of shared commercial and coffee areas, arched around two out of four “experience areas”, along with a shared meeting room, a washroom and numerous places to perch, work and socialise.
These experience areas – which Li refers to as “experience buckets” – take the shape of tanks, circular and structured with clear references to an industrial past – you can most definitely imagine a propeller or some array of steam pipes lodged in its core.
Instead, these areas have taken on a new purpose – users can break out and take some time to think, either in private or within an enclosed meeting space. As Li goes on to explain: “The experience buckets are mainly used for discussing results comprised by the research and development team on the second floor.”
The upper floor is kitted out with a co-working space that can accommodate 150 employees. Formed on the edge of an omnipresent balcony that allows the users to peer out at the lower level, the space upstairs features seven designated workstations – plus hot desks and multiple working options to meet varying needs – as well as two private meeting areas and a washroom.
“The slabs are interweaved with the tanks that we restored, which create shared work and transportation platforms for the staff on the second floor,” says Li.
“In this sense, the staff work on platforms in the air while consumers downstairs are enjoying the commercial experience brought by new technology and information.The interaction [from the balcony] in this high space makes them feel connected to each other and allows the space to feel more interesting.”
She continues: “The design task assigned to us was clear: to create an offline experience hall for customers to experience the future of unmanned retail mode.”
The existing building’s basic elements and practical compositions also serve as the starting point for the new design. By this she means the space is a blank canvas filled with tanks that offer consumers and employees alike a new way to experience technology.
She adds: “For the shape of the whole space, though we took the factories from the Industrial Revolution as a prototype, we cut off the complex parts and kept only the most basic functional parts, which includes practical compositions such as reaction tanks, energy delivery pipes and walking platforms for engineers.”
Overall, it’s evident that clients are paying huge amounts of attention to the uniqueness that can be achieved through design. X+Living’s work with Powerlong Real Estate has resulted in an imaginative and inspiring land where work, retail, socialising and, most importantly, thinking can take place.
Li concludes with her ideal office solution: “Maybe everybody has their own ideal workspace. For me, I prefer a pure and spacious area, maybe like a gallery, but one that also has some basic furniture and office supplies.”The Ideas Lab certainly fits all of these criteria, all the while provoking a new line of thought and potential trend for the future: should offices look more like space-age galleries?
As originally featured in the August 2018 Future Issue of OnOffice (134)
X+Living’s Ideas Lab in Shanghai mixes inspiration from the Industrial Revolution and the Digital Age in a unique workplace