The French Concession district of Shanghai is not unlike New York City’s Soho, a centrally located area with an eclectic mix of business and residential properties, some of them former industrial buildings, many elegant; others quite modest. But none reflects the latest step in the city’s fast evolving cultural identity as well as Z58, the new headquarters and showroom for Zhongtai, one of the most famous and largest lighting companies in China, designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Shanghai is well known for its urban battle of shapes - new high-rises in concrete or mirrored glass, many of them very flimsy design products of American influences - that bear no real connection with their surroundings. Z58, however, has a more complex cultural identity. Firstly, it is a conversion of an old, three storey watch factory which is modestly set at number 58 Fanyu Road, a quiet, elegant street lined with plane trees. Chinese buildings with numbers ending with an “8” are already considered lucky, and its next door neighbour is a 1930s Spanish-style villa formerly owned by the family of Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of modern China, providing Z58 with an attractive, verdant garden to overlook. On the street façade Kuma has introduced his personal interpretation of the mirrored surface in the form of “green louvres” - rows of stainless steel planter boxes creating a dense, evergreen vine cover to the building separating its atrium from the street. Kuma says his façade offers an appropriate “meta-level” creating a new randomness within the chaos of Shanghai. Like a hedge blending in with the city rather than confronting it, it also offers a gear shift from the city’s octane-fuelled pace of living, and signalling a low speed ambient space that looks and feels more like a contemporary living space than an office building. “I tried to keep away from the conventional perception of ‘architecture is rigid, landscape is organic’, but use the façade to express this confrontational composition of the two in a unified way”, he says. Accordingly, the foyer-atrium with its exposed elevator and top floor bridge access takes the identity of a second filter - a “glass waterfall” separating it and the quieter spaces within the building, which on the ground floor has nothing but an open plan exhibition gallery. The atrium which Kuma created by removing three portions of the existing span and filters noise very effectively from the street. On the back wall of the atrium, a continual, bubbling flow of water runs down over a surface of 5000 small individual glass bars 20 mm x 20 mm in section bonded to plate glass, creating a gently ribbed surface. His decision to use stacked lamineted rather than transparent glass avoided his custom-designed wall reflecting the curtain walls of the other buildings in the street. This lining up of small glass pieces revealed the green-blue colour of their edge, bringing out a visual sense of the glass’s intrinsic materiality and inner structure rather than simply its transparency. Viewed from the working spaces behind the wall, when light hits the louvres, its patterns play across their floors, creating a changing phenomenon Zhongtai says encourages the staff to feel as if they are inside a laboratory dedicated to light - one about exploration but free of any sterile or clinical associations. Above two floors of open plan and enclosed offices set around a smaller display space for lighting designers lies, on the top floor, the third filter in the form of four glass boxes. Here the domestic analogy is accentuated by the very mixed use nature of the facilities. A meeting room, bar, kitchen, library, wine cellar, gym, two luxuriously fitted out guest bedrooms and accompanying sauna are shoehorned into four glass boxes with adjustable screens. The smallest box is a simple meeting or reading space, set like an island with a causeway over a shallow pool of water extending to the rear perimeter, garden-side of the building at this top floor level. A huge, electronically operated aluminium “pergola” screen deflects the rays of the sun from an intimate space that imaginatively blurs the boundaries between work and play, interior and exterior natural environment. The water layer is treated like a dynamic architectural element, similar to the way it was in Kuma’s 1995 project Water/Glass in Atami, Japan, a small guesthouse. Kuma preserved as much of the framework of the old reinforced concrete industrial structure as he could. The “green louvre” and “waterfall” were created by replacing the concrete frame on the street side with a large steel beam structure, and adding a light steel structure on top of it to make the fourth floor with its water pool. His policy was therefore one of maintaining a gentle connection with the old, rather than its destruction and demolition, as in so many other developments in this fast-paced city. Interestingly, Kuma’s office is currently designing two projects in Japan which preserve and convert existing structures, and he was initially doubtful as to whether this option would be accepted in China’s “scrap and build” culture, but this decision was completely backed by Zhongtai. It was vital for Zhongtai that its new headquarters was multi-functional allowing the space to function as a venue for cultural expression and communication. Since the traditional Chinese practice of Feng Shui, the placement or arrangement of space to create harmony with the environment is still given great credence, the building also had to incorporate a creative use of water. The firm admired Kuma’s design philosophy and had seen it at work in his first project in China, Bamboo Wall, a single storey bamboo house built on a lush green hillside beside the Great Wall for SOHO China, young developers who invited twelve Asian architects to create a Commune, a group of privately-owned houses in 2003. Bamboo Wall attunes the rough simplicity of its construction with the equally rough, unrefined nature of the landscape in such a way that they relate harmoniously. Impressed by the subtle effect achieved and with his growing portfolio of Japanese work, Zhongtai gave him the job, which took 2 and a half years to realise, without any need to stage a competition. Z58 redefines an existing Chinese tradition that identify a workspace in rather more integrated, holistic terms than the strictly divisive functions dictated by 20th century office planning. Kitchens, and space for dining, allowing the people who work in an office to eat and drink together, is a longstanding habit. Kuma wanted to honour this accepted value of physical interaction in a professional setting by retaining the natural “roughness” of the space. The presence of the water on the top floor and its dynamic relevation of the new structural frame there offers a representation of the direct sensory quality he sought. Kuma has long been renowned for his ability to create transparency in his architecture. In fact he says his “ultimate aim” is to “erase architecture”. This he has done very effectively with his anti-monumental observatory on top of Mount Kiro in Ochi-gun (1994), which blends into nature like a recess in the mountainside, and Museum of Ando Hiroshige (2000) whose dense grills of wooden slats facilitate a sensory blurring of boundaries between inside and outside, formal substance and the immaterial. The impact of his stainless steel louvres and glass rib water wall is direct, not abstracted as stone or wood is more likely to be, because of the integrated impact of nature creating what Kuma likes to see as a “microscopic” structure for large surfaces. “I don’t like walls. I prefer semi-transparency”. His architectural approach bears an authenticity to it at a time when there are already growing signs in China to get away from the practice of copying the West evident in the SOHO China scheme and others by more progressive developers. Bringing a unique twist on the typically Japanese ambiguity between architecture and natural things to China, Kuma was lucky enough to find a client who also imagined its new headquarters in immaterial, yet physically dynamic terms, as “a box of light”.