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Rather than present “a hindering wall of office space,” the Hangzhou Gateway engages pedestrians by connecting two commercial zones.

Julien De Smedt’s latest project, the Hangzhou Gateway office tower, responds to the shape of cities and the movement of human beings.

One of modernism’s greatest shortcomings was the delusion that people do as they’re told. Consider the case of shortcuts: we walk diagonally, sometimes trampling through gardens, where planners and architects would have preferred us to turn at right angles.

Julien De Smedt belongs to a generation of practitioners who are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Such ambition is evident in the Hangzhou Gateway project, a 16-storey office building in the Gongshu district of the Chinese metropolis. Here, a pedestrian-friendly walkway bears witness to the Belgian architect’s belief that a building, regardless of its primary purpose, must give something back to the community. “A structure like the Hangzhou Gateway can’t be reduced to a hindering wall of office space,” he explains. It easily could have been, had it been designed by someone else.

Tracing De Smedt’s history back to the days when he launched the architecture firm Plot with Bjarke Ingels in 2001, one finds that his concern for human flow has been a constant, from the skatepark aesthetics of projects like the Maritime Youth House to the snaking harbourfront promenade Kalvebod Waves a decade later.

As De Smedt’s practice matured, the underlying philosophy remained intact. For the Iceberg, a mixed-use cluster of buildings in Aarhus, Denmark, he used his characteristic peaks and slopes – which exceeded the height limits imposed by planning regulations – to ensure that the buildings got out of one another’s way and residents had views to the sea. The same context-sensitive pragmatism motivated his design of Officetel in Seoul’s Gangnam district, where a zigzagging wall of terraces creates new sightlines and ensures privacy from neighbours, giving the project a striking sawtooth look in the bargain.

These human-shaped twists and kinks can be fun. And indeed, De Smedt’s work often has a sense of play to it – a quality that might explain why JDS has been so successful. The firm has been invited to compete for everything from housing projects in Helsinki to master plans in Albania.

The archway is checkered with box-shaped windows.

With Hangzhou Gateway, JDS created a building whose curved and elongated pathway allows pedestrians to walk not just beneath the structure, but through it, directly linking two commercial zones. This meandering pathway is echoed by a perpendicular cut through the top floors of the building, where improved sightlines for occupants are complemented by a terraced outdoor garden that retains rainwater to cool the building. Referencing a traditional Chinese gateway, the ground-level excavation invites pedestrians to enjoy the cityscape without feeling bossed around by its contours.

When so many designs are concerned with a building’s internal functions, we should be grateful for otherwise quiet projects like Hangzhou Gateway, where the human shortcuts are built right in.

A rooftop of terraced gardens adds variety to the building’s sightlines.

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