Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Beijing, China

An 860,000-square-meter, mixed-use development with offices, hotels, retail space, service apartments, and a curving central park, Beijing Finance Street aims to become a neighborhood that stays active day and night, seven days a week. “We wanted to create a different model of urbanism for Beijing,” states Michael Duncan, a director in the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). “It’s all about place-making, rather than creating individual buildings,” he adds. To that end, SOM worked with the landscape architecture firm SWA to design a large public park at the core of the project and a series of smaller gardens and courtyards tucked within and around the buildings. In a city with few neighborhood parks or outdoor spaces scaled for casual relaxation, Beijing Finance Street provides important amenities.

“We didn’t want this to be like other new parts of Beijing where large, bulky buildings occupy entire blocks and pull back from the street,” explains Duncan. So he and his team designed relatively thin buildings that hold the street edge and encourage pedestrian activity. Three levels of parking sit below each of the 18 buildings on the site and connected to each other so cars and trucks can move below ground, out of the way of pedestrians. The architects pushed offices to the noisier outer parts of the eight-square-block area, while allowing the two hotels and 328 housing units to enjoy the quieter and sunnier area looking onto the main park. SOM also designed a 90,000-square-meter, crescent-shaped shopping mall with an enormous glass roof that floods the interiors with daylight. “We saw the shopping atrium as an indoor civic space, complementing the park outside,” says Duncan.

Although none of the city’s underground transit lines stops at Beijing Finance Street (the closest station is about a ten-minute walk away), municipal buses service the project. Paths crisscrossing the main park and connecting the various buildings, however, help create a pedestrian-oriented district that is attracting people from adjacent blocks. “We didn’t establish a clear boundary between our project and the surrounding areas,” says Duncan, “because we wanted the energy of Beijing Finance Street to leak out and affect its neighbors.” In fact, development around the project has moved ahead, increasing real-estate values in the entire area. Banks, financial services companies, and insurance companies from both China and abroad have moved into offices in the project, which lies west of the Forbidden City at the Second Ring Road.

The success of Beijing Finance Street has prompted the city government to ask SOM to prepare a plan for the area beyond the project. As part of this effort, the firm has proposed creating a series of linked parks and outdoor spaces along an east-west axis leading to the Forbidden City. Although it is unclear how much of this plan might get implemented, Beijing Finance Street has set a new benchmark for public amenities in a private development. “The idea was to create a public center that everyone in this district could enjoy,” states Duncan.