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Christopher Chan Class of '92

Christopher Chan Class of '92

Building a Chinese "Supertall"

It was perfect timing.

It was 2008 and the economy had tumbled. Christopher Chan BArch ‘92 was a design director at the Los Angeles office of the international design firm Gensler, but many U.S. architects were sitting on their hands. Meanwhile, halfway across the planet, China was experiencing one of the biggest construction booms in history.

So when a Gensler board member told him the firm needed his talents in Shanghai, Chan sensed opportunity. He and his wife had just welcomed a baby boy and bought a home in the Los Angeles area, but they opted for adventure.

“I went from zero to 60 immediately after I left L.A.,” says Chan. “I walked in the door at Gensler Shanghai and they said ‘Chris, here’s four projects.’ And they were all huge.”

Within six months, firm founder Art Gensler had asked Chan to take over for the original design director on the Shanghai Tower, which ultimately will define Shanghai’s skyline. One of the “supertalls” of the world, at 2,073 feet and 162 stories, the tower will be the highest building in China and the second tallest in the world when it is completed in 2014.

Chan - who came on midway through the project - oversees all aspects related to design on a daily basis. “A collaborative team effort,” is how Chan describes the project, which at one point included up to 50 Gensler professionals.

Many iconic buildings are designed around a fancy shape; the Gensler team instead believes design should be driven by function. Take the tower’s iconic twist. In a wind tunnel lab, Gensler architects rigorously tested different tapers and degrees of twisting, and found that a 120-degree turn was optimal. This concept reduced the size of the structure by 40 percent, at a savings of more than $60 million in building costs. Sustainability is another key driver. Wind turbines at the tower’s crown will generate more than 50,000 kilowatt/hours per year, and a rainwater collection system will deliver water for toilets, machine cooling and other “gray-water” uses.

Chan credits his years at USC with inspiring his quest to travel abroad. “At USC, I was introduced to an immensely international pool of students and teachers,” he says. “I had not traveled internationally by myself at that time, so being exposed to this global community on campus was very impactful.”

A European backpacking trip at age 25 sparked an epiphany: He quit his job at an architecture firm and bought a one-way ticket to Taiwan, insisting there had to be more to life and career. He informed his parents only a few weeks before departure. “I didn’t want them to waste too much energy trying to talk me out of it,” Chan explains.

He had saved enough money to travel around Asia for two years, but he was recruited to a Taipei architecture firm several months after he arrived. In 1999, he returned to the United States to get his master’s in architecture at Columbia University, where he met his wife, Anny Shu BArch ’98. Chan then worked on large-scale projects in Asia at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates in New York, before being recruited to Gensler.

Although four generations of Chans have been born in the United States, he still sees China as a homeland. “It’s where we came from,” says Chan, reflecting upon a Chinese proverb: “The leaves of a tree always fall back to its roots.”

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