The AOL Of China To Build A Suburban Tech Campus In The Sky

Chinese Internet company Tencent tapped U.S.-based NBBJ, the architects of Amazon’s zany biosphere headquarters, to design a suburban corporate campus inside a set of urban skyscrapers. The towers could become a model for other tech companies looking to create a campus feel with a smaller footprint.


When Chinese Internet giant Tencent began looking to build a new headquarters, representatives from the company examined corporate campuses all over the world. They were attracted to the collegiate, outdoor atmosphere of the traditional American suburban tech campus, with low-rise buildings connected across sprawling grounds. Yet the company’s urban location–in Shenzhen, one of the fastest growing cities in China–made a vast Googleplex impossible.


Architects from NBBJ, the global design and architecture firm behind Amazon’s forthcoming bubbly biosphere in downtown Seattle as well as corporate headquarters all over the world, suggested an alternative: What if they could take the notion of the campus, and make it vertical? Instead of choosing between a headquarters centered around a quad, which can encourage chance meetings between employees, and the efficiency of a single skyscraper, they decided to pull apart the idea of a tower and imbue it with some of the qualities of a suburban campus.

Urbanization and the rise of the vertical tech campus

We live in a rapidly urbanizing world. By 2050, up to 70% of the global population is expected to live in cities. Even now, young people increasingly prefer to live in urban areas. Just ask Silicon Valley’s tech workers, many of whom have begun “reverse commuting”–driving to work at suburban companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook while living in downtown San Francisco–a practice facilitated by elaborate and highly controversial private corporate bus systems.

It’s clear that the sprawling campus model won’t be feasible for the majority of companies for much longer. To be successful vying for top talent–and eventually, most of the talent, period–companies will need to learn to adapt the layout of their headquarters to fit within city blocks. That shouldn’t have to mean giving up the collaborative culture the suburban campus model aims to cultivate.

Applying the principles of a suburban campus to towers

In Shenzhen, the goal was to “create that sort of bubbling energy you would find on a really vibrant campus” by giving employees every opportunity to share ideas. Tencent, the fourth-largest Internet company in the world, has seen revenue double in the past two years, and sees fostering teamwork and connection between employees as a significant aspect of its future growth. Set for completion in 2016, with roughly 2.6 million square feet of space over 55 floors, the new headquarters will add space for 12,000 more employees.

“We did a lot of research about campuses, and we applied that to a tower,” NBBJ’s Jonathan Ward, a design partner, tells Co.Design. This meant pulling apart the design for one single tower into two separate buildings connected by three large skybridges that would function like quads, becoming places where employees could mingle and interact. Called links, each one of the connections is designed to foster something different: “culture,” “health,” and “knowledge.” Each link features a plaza surrounded by seating, cafes, and snack shops to try to encourage interaction. At the bottom of the building, the “culture” link symbolizes reaching out to the city, with Tencent Expo, a gallery about the company that’s open to the public, an auditorium for cultural events, and a lobby that’s open on both sides of the building for people to pass through as they make their way into the high-tech Nanshan District from other parts of the city. In the middle, the “health” link has a juice bar, game rooms, a basketball court, and a fitness center. At the top of the tower, the “knowledge” link contains company-wide meeting spaces.

Getting people to talk to each other

“A big challenge in corporate headquarters [is] finding that thing that is going to uniquely express the company, but also trigger innovation and new thinking among the employees,” Ward says. “I think the biggest challenge is, how do you get people to really talk to each other?” In a more horizontal campus, commons spaces like quads, kitchens, and cafeterias can provide spaces for workers to casually bump into each other, but in a tall building, it’s hard to get employees to run into people who don’t work in their department or on their floor, much less those who work in a different building.


NBBJ’s answer was to funnel people through these connector bridges as much as possible. The architects created a system of express elevators that go only to the bridges, where people can exit to a local elevator to get to their specific floors. By design, it’s quicker and easier to get to floors within each tower by passing through these links–where employees who work in the different towers have a greater chance of bumping into each other and chatting in line for the juice bar–than going straight from the lobby to a floor.

A model for other tech companies?

For tech giants across the Pacific who are obsessed with fostering serendipitous encounters among employees, NBBJ’s vertical campus could be a viable alternative to the traditional suburban campus–an expansive work environment full of plazas and gathering spaces, smack dab in the middle of a bustling city. There’s no guarantee that these link spaces will foster the kind of innovation the designers and Tencent are aiming for–what’s to say employees won’t just keep their heads down until they get back to their desks?–but with transportation in the building tailored to move people into common spaces, bumping into new faces will be unavoidable. (And if members of the public cut through the lobby on their way elsewhere or stop at the ground floor cafe, there’s a chance those creativity-sparking interactions might not be limited to just the company itself.) As more tech companies look to move to urban environments, this idea of a campus built up, rather than out, could allow companies to retain the ideal of employees mingling in a grassy quad between buildings, with a smaller footprint.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut