The new Alibaba campus in Shanghai, designed by SOM, is said to be inspired by the cloud

Shanghai’s Xuhui district is set to become home to a new 75,000-square-meter campus for China’s cloud computing, entertainment and e-commerce giant, with the recent unveiling of a design proposal led by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Expanding on the company’s existing facilities in the city, the new headquarters is designed to accommodate the ever-increasing multinational staff and operations, with an emphasis on health and collaboration. Featuring a fragmented facade design composed of interlocking cubic blocks displaying an undulating play of recess and relief, the company describes the building’s exterior as derived from the shape of a cloud, considering “Alibaba’s exceptional digital presence in the cloud, as well as the ever-changing atmosphere of innovation in the technology industry.”

Despite the high-tech appeal of the glossy glass exterior, the resemblance to the aforementioned inspiration may not be immediately apparent thanks to the strong engineering design language that appears in the body mass. In fact, the nature of the directed abstraction along the faces of the building is at a roof level quite traditional for today’s office buildings, taking advantage of the overall uniform glazing to adhere to aesthetic standards. However, according to the designers, the facade system itself is designed for high performance and may be able to avoid up to 40 percent of incidental solar heat gain while mitigating glare and wind tunnels for users inside. Furthermore, an AI-powered shading system will provide additional assistance with these counts.

Featuring a courtyard-centered design, the design is said to be inspired by the shape of a cloud, referring to Alibaba’s presence in the cloud computing arena. Photo: © SOM

“The only constant is change – it is one of Alibaba’s guiding principles. We take that ethos very seriously, designing a workplace that is able to evolve and adapt to new needs, teams and technologies over time. The headquarters is designed in dialogue with the existing campus, resulting in the heart of the adjacent building as it unfolds across cantilevered blocks and staggered green terraces,” SOM Design Partner Scott Duncan stated in a statement. Adjacent to a public-facing building for offices and programming, the campus design is centered on a courtyard that is set to serve as its spiritual core as a center for teamwork. The structure’s upright crowd rises on its four corners, with work spaces and recreation areas extending along its perimeter with views of the nearby Huangpu River available from these confluences. Ladders and ‘bridges of collaboration’ will provide avenues for more close collaboration between teams and people from different departments.

Terraces and green walkways around the scattered building blocks aim to promote well-being and cooperation |  Alibaba Shanghai Campus |  Skidmore, Owings and Merrill |  STIRworld

Terraces and green walkways around the segmented building blocks are intended to promote well-being and cooperation Photo: © SOM

The use of a long span structure allows for ample column-free spaces within the building, allowing the mass to expand, contract and overlap for flexibility of use while allowing for future expansion if needed. Indeed, the architects share that the modularity of the building as a whole will be geared to adapt to the company’s ever-changing needs, catering to a wide range of workstation layouts that can accommodate shifting team structures. Incorporating indoor and outdoor workspaces for mixed operations and dynamic collaboration between teams, the software is also said to integrate smart technology infrastructure and biophilic design features to improve indoor environments and thus employee well-being. Natural ventilation will be prioritized throughout the interior design, aided by intelligent air circulation systems and mediating Shanghai’s subtropical climate. The designers also target the low carbon footprint of embodiment and operation, aiming to meet the requirements of LEED v4 and China Green Star.

A section depicting passive ventilation through the campus |  Alibaba Shanghai Campus |  Skidmore, Owings and Merrill |  STIRworld

A section depicting passive ventilation across the campus Photo: © SOM

While the scale, scale and ambition embodied in this proposal is impressive on its own, the true extent of the project’s innovation reflected in the design remains open to question until the final, completed structure is achieved on site. Besides the ‘cloud’ visual and conceptual foundations that led to the building’s exterior, the nature of the program highlights a number of transition actions that major architectural studios around the world are implementing when trying to bring sustainable versions of their design languages ​​into foreign contexts. With so many similar office design projects currently underway in China, it is clear that if done with good taste and with an environmentally friendly outlook, the new Alibaba campus could be a huge victory for both SOM and its beneficiaries.

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