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July 2016

PLP’s masterplan in the Pearl River Delta proposes a vertical city within the central complex of the world’s largest city.

The Pearl River Delta in Southern China links nine Chinese cities – Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Zhaoqing, Foshan, Huizhou, Jiangmen, Zhongshan and Zhuhai – which led the Chinese government to announce in 2008 that they would be grouped into a future megacity. According to the World Bank, the Pearl River Delta is the world’s biggest urban area in population and size.

What was mostly farmland as recently as 1979 is today the site of huge infrastructure projects to link transportation, energy, water, and telecommunications networks from the nine cities. The authorities are also building a 30-mile long bridge and tunnel to connect Zhuhai to Macau and Hong Kong, making mega even bigger.

At the centre of the Delta, PLP Architecture from London has proposed a master plan comprising four structures: Platform for Contemporary Arts, Lizhi Park Tower, Concourse, and Nexus, the centrepiece of the plan and at 600 metres the tallest skyscraper in the region.


Although it is one building, Nexus works as three separate buildings with a central core. Each part is oriented to a different point of reference. In the architects’ words, the bottom section of 44 storeys “responds directly to the Lizhi Park” below. The middle section of 39 storeys is oriented to the “urban context.” The top section of 41 storeys is oriented to a bird’s eye view of the city and the mountains beyond. The 124 storeys “form a propeller-like configuration with three equidistant axes,” none dominant.

PLPs architects also note: “As a prominent feature of the skyline, Nexus acts as a location reference, establishing territorial relations with the neighbouring districts. Different to an extruded tower, the perception of the proposed silhouette changes depending on the position of the viewer.” Unlike in other leading “traditionally established” Chinese cities – Beijing, Shanghai, for example – Nexus “not only defines a centre among many others, but gives distinct identities to other parts of the city.”

Inside Nexus

The goal for PLP was to create an office building more flexible than standard designs offering limited possibilities due to “uniformly repeated floors with only minor variations in geometry.” These kinds of office spaces are monotonous. In order to make spaces not tied to “an inflexible floor plan – then the relation between core and building needs to be reformulated.”

That is done in Nexus: “The core remains at the centre of the overall composition, securing structural stability, and the usable space of each component is liberated to the outside, in a centrifugal manner. This … establishes diverse architectural and urban relations, closer to a vertical city rather than to a traditional skyscraper.”

In a very tall tower like Nexus, moving people up and down can be a problem. PLP has solved it by designating lifts as a “vertical transport system” operating on a schedule. Lifts will arrive and depart at appointed times, not when someone pushes a button. On the journey to the top, there will be two intermediate transfer levels, “treated in the project as very special public destinations.”

The transfer levels are the height of two storeys and visible from the outside during day and night – to act as “elevated urban streets.” On these “streets” retail and amenity services as well as areas for rest and relaxation can be found, “reducing the need of the occupiers to return to ground level.” Moreover, the transfer levels will be available to the public, “extending and bending upwards the horizontal streets into a vertical zone of circulation.”

Because the transfer levels “coincide with the tops of the two intermediate wings,” they also provide “access to the roof gardens located on their tops. Working together with the retail functions, these gardens in the sky” will be an “attraction for the public and amenity for the building’s tenants.”

But that’s not all. To go higher than the transfer levels, riders will go “to the outer perimeter of the building on panoramic double-decker lifts” … Thus, “building users are constantly exposed to the metropolitan spectacle of the surrounding city through lifts that operate as mobile observation decks.”

Flexible space

The flexibility of Nexus allows for two levels of incubator spaces above the transfer levels, reached by escalator. Because of internal atriums, the spaces will be “visually connected to the levels below and borrow from their energy and dynamism.” They are designed for start-up companies “that rely on interaction and public exposure as well as on the ample meeting spaces centrally located at each level.”

Away from the panoramic lifts is “a series of independent and free standing boxes” for various uses including “amenity and recreation facilities, conference and meeting rooms, hot-desking, workshops.” The boxes have ceilings five-storeys high, “offering fantastic views out to the city. From outside they form legible ‘villages in the sky’ giving identity to the tenants within.”

For a large company leasing several floors, the ramps and bridges that connect the boxes allow movement between floors via ramps and bridges. The boxes could also be amenity spaces and social hubs. For groups of tenants using smaller spaces, the boxes could provide shared meeting rooms and other common spaces. The result is a building with “rhythms of occupations” that can be found in mid-rise buildings but seldom in “traditional high-rise buildings.”

Platform for contemporary arts

This structure combines public areas, a 1,700-seat theatre, a music hall, and a flexible performance space and multiplex. In order to “free its footprint for public use,” the building is lifted approximately 35 metres off the ground on three legs and linked to Lizhi Park next door by a cascade of water, making for a “powerful new urban feature, an unforgettable civic spectacle.” Most important, the Platform’s “task is to prevent passers-by from becoming desensitised to either the natural realm of the park and to the height of the Nexus.”

Lizhi Park Tower

At 300 metres, Lizhi Park Tower to the north of the Platform is half the height of Nexus. The building’s two parts are oriented differently: the lower to show more of the city from the park, while the upper looks to the middle of the site to balance the top portion of Nexus.


The Concourse connects the buildings and provides space for big retail and leisure facilities. Its main bridge seven metres above the street, the Concourse also includes several small bridges that connect to Lizhi Park and an adjacent mall.

What it means

The PLP masterplan envisages “a city above the city.” It also represents an attempt to use passive design to keep Nexus cool by orienting four fifths of the building away from the low western sun. The façade uses panels in a “saw-tooth pattern that points away from the building.” Some panels are moveable to further shield the surface at times of peak sun.

Nexus is designed to showcase “the city’s commitment to move towards an Ecological Urban Regeneration … and a leading example of low carbon commercial district redevelopment.” The approach “integrates energy, water, waste utilisation not only on the site of the project itself but by taking into account the entire surrounding developments.” Once the project is finished in 2020, the city within a city may well be the visual heart of the Pearl River Delta megacity.

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