Reimagining tradition: MAD Architects’ bold transformation of Shanghai’s Ark project

Nestled amidst Shanghai’s urban hustle and bustle lies the “Wanmicang” warehouse, a testament to the city’s vibrant past. With its weathered façade and rich history, this industrial edifice stands as a symbol of Shanghai’s heritage. However, as time moves on, so does the need for renewal and reinvention. Beijing -based MAD Architects, with their daring vision, seek to breathe new life into this ageing relic, shaping the future skyline of Shanghai. Their plan? A striking metal structure emerging from the warehouse’s remains, its sleek silhouette piercing the skyline like a beacon of hope. The Ark, a symbol of transformation and innovation, poised to rejuvenate the once dormant Shanghai Zhangjiang Cement Factory. As Shanghai’s evolution unfolds, MAD Architects envisage a bold new future where the past and present converge in a compelling display of architectural ingenuity.


Past meets present, the Ark project redefines Shanghai’s architectural narrative| The Ark| MAD Architects | STIRworld
Past meets present, the Ark project redefines Shanghai’s architectural narrative Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

The story of the Shanghai Zhangjiang Cement Factory is one of resilience and evolution. Built in 1971, it bore witness to the rapid urbanisation of Shanghai in China over the past five decades before ceasing production in 2013. The warehouse was once the first stop for ships to send raw materials to the cement factory for processing, and it was also the largest building in the factory. Now as the factory stands at the brink of a new chapter, the Chinese architects envisions a transformation that transcends mere renovation; it is a reimagining of space, time and purpose. Through the juxtaposition of old and new structures, the Ark project seeks to create a three-dimensional hierarchy that honours the past while embracing the future. The objective for the architects was to breathe new life into the old cement factory, transforming it into a bustling campus filled with diverse enterprises and lively  sustainable architectural spaces.


From silos to innovation hubs: Transforming historical structures for modern use| The Ark| MAD Architects | STIRworld
From silos to innovation hubs: Transforming historical structures for modern use Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

In recent years, innovative architects, both local and international, have been tasked with designing a cluster within the park that aims to preserve its historical industrial structures such as the “10,000-Metre Silo”, the “Cement Silo”, and the “Kiln Tail Tower”. This preservation effort involves repurposing these buildings while integrating facilities for research and development, cultural and sports activities and creative commercial endeavours.


The Ark: Where industrial heritage meets futuristic design| The Ark| MAD Architects | STIRworld
The Ark: Where industrial heritage meets futuristic design Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

At the heart of MAD’s vision is the Ark; a soaring testament to human ingenuity and imagination. Rising from the ashes of industrial decline, its sleek, metallic form merges modern design with industrial architecture. Like a vessel adrift on the sea of time, the Ark symbolises both continuity and change; a bridge between resilience, innovation and the spirit of exploration. Its floating volume, delicately placed atop the original warehouse adds an element of intrigue and wonder. As sunlight filters through its geometric patterns, it creates an ethereal play of light and shadow. The Ark in its futuristic silhouette serves as a reminder that even in face of any adversity, new beginnings await. 


Urban oasis: The Ark breathes new life into Shanghai’s industrial past| The Ark| MAD Architects | STIRworld
Urban oasis: The Ark breathes new life into Shanghai’s industrial past Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

As visitors traverse the corridors of the Ark, they are enveloped in a sensory tapestry that pays homage to the site’s rich industrial legacy. The meticulous preservation of original architectural elements such as weathered brick walls, towering silos, and rusted steel beams offer a heartfelt tribute to the generations of labourers, who once toiled within these hallowed halls. The old roof is replaced by an ark-like ‘floating’ volume. The mottle façade design of the original building has been repaired and reinforced to become a part of the memory and soul of the new space. State-of-the-art technology seamlessly integrates with historical artefacts, creating a dynamic interplay of tradition and innovation. The contrast between the roughness of the old warehouse and the smoothness of the new metal creates a striking juxtaposition that captivates the imagination. The addition of a suspended glass curtain wall and tiered gardens breathe new life into the dilapidated factory building, transforming it into a multi-functional urban living space fit for the 21st century. This is more than just a building; it is a work of art, a living, breathing example of the ingenuity of mankind.


Into the depths; the renovated space exudes a sense of vastness and possibility| The Ark| MAD Architects| STIRworld
Into the depths; the renovated space exudes a sense of vastness and possibility Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

Inside the renovated warehouse, natural light floods the expansive space through the transparent glass curtain wall, creating an airy and inviting atmosphere. The design maximises the warehouse’s elongated dimensions, resulting in an interior space imbued with a sense of depth. Upon stepping inside, visitors are greeted by the awe-inspiring presence of the Ark, unfurling before them like a majestic beacon of possibility. A metal ladder invites visitors to ascend the Ark where mysteries await at its height. Below, the aged factory walls silently observe time’s passage, contrasting with the lively energy of the garden nestled beneath the Ark’s sheltering canopy.


A newly designed bridge connects riverside vistas with urban life| The Ark| MAD Architects | STIRworld
A newly designed bridge connects riverside vistas with urban life Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

To invite people inside and allow them to enjoy the riverside view, the plan opens up the first floor of the old factory building along the river and integrates it with a waterfront plaza. Additionally, a corridor will be set in the middle of the building to connect the plaza in the park with the riverbank. A newly designed bridge will connect the two sides of the river, making it more convenient for people in the area to enjoy this new public space.


The rooftop terrace offers panoramic views of the Chunyang river| The Ark| MAD Architects | STIRworld
The rooftop terrace offers panoramic views of the Chunyang river Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

The rooftop has been planned as an extra public area. Once completed, visitors will be able to freely access this space and take in the scenic view of the Chunyang river in the distance. To enhance the experience, the eaves of the Ark gently tilt downwards, reducing any sense of height and maximising the view from the rooftop terrace, making it a more enjoyable place to relax and take in the surroundings.


Building for the future: MAD Architects’ reinforcement plan in action| The Ark| MAD Architects | STIRworld
Building for the future: MAD Architects’ reinforcement plan in action Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

In the upcoming stages of the project, the floating effect of the Ark will be achieved by installing new columns, floor trusses, spanning trusses and large spanning beams. Additionally, the old walls will be strengthened and restored using studs, steel, wire, mesh and steel frames. These efforts aim to preserve the historical character of the building while enhancing its structural integrity for years to come.


The Ark project embodies eco-friendly design principles| The Ark| MAD Architects | STIRworld
The Ark project embodies eco-friendly design principles Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

At its core, the Ark project is guided by a commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship. From the use of recycled products to the integration of renewable energy sources, every aspect of the renovation is designed to minimise carbon footprint and promote ecological balance. Rainwater harvesting systems, solar panels and green roofs are just a few of the innovative features that contribute to the Ark’s status as a model of sustainable design in urban regeneration projects.


The Ark becomes a vibrant epicentre of creativity | The Ark| AD Architects | STIRworld
The Ark becomes a vibrant epicentre of creativity Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

Integral to the Ark’s transformative vision is its role as a nexus of creativity and collaboration; a space where artists, entrepreneurs, and innovators converge to shape the future of Shanghai’s urban landscape. From bustling co-working spaces to cutting-edge research facilities, the Ark offers myriad of opportunities for interdisciplinary exploration and discovery. As visitors traverse the corridors of this architectural masterpiece they are invited to partake in a shared cultural experience of cultural enrichment and communal celebration; a testament to the power of design to unite and inspire.


The project embraces diversity and promotes social cohesion| The Ark| MAD Architects | STIRworld
The project embraces diversity and promotes social cohesion Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

In designing the Ark, accessibility and inclusivity are paramount considerations. Barrier-free design features such as ramps, elevators and tactile signage, ensure that the space is welcoming and accessible to visitors of all abilities. Moreover, the Ark’s diverse programming and inclusive community events cater to a wide range of interests and demographics, fostering a sense of belonging and social cohesion. By prioritising accessibility and inclusivity, the Ark becomes a place where everyone is welcome, regardless of background and circumstance.


The Ark symbolises the power of architecture to inspire change | The Ark| MAD Architects |STIRworld
The Ark symbolises the power of architecture to inspire change Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

As the Ark project nears its completion in 2026, its impact on Shanghai’s urban fabric is palpable. What once stood as a relic of industrial decline now emerges as a vibrant symbol of regeneration and redevelopment. Through a delicate balance of preservation and innovation, tradition and progress, the Ark embodies the transformative power of renovation architecture to shape the course of history. In the words of Ma Yansong, founding partner of MAD Architects, “Industrial heritage is preserved and utilised not only because of the historical memories it carries but more importantly because it gives the future a sense of history. So we don’t need to celebrate and consolidate industrial aesthetics here, but rather focus on the spirit of the contemporary and the future”.


Shaping spaces: MAD Architects’ strategic programme layout| The Ark| MAD Architects |STIRworld
Shaping spaces: MAD Architects’ strategic programme layout Image: Courtesy of MAD Architects

Project Details

Project Name: The Ark | Shanghai Cement Factory Warehouse Renovation
Location: Shanghai, China
Date of completion: 2021 – 2026
Type: Renovation
Site area: 6,742 square metres
Building area: 15,312 square metres
Building height: 24 metres
Principal Partner in Charge: Ma Yansong, Dang Qun, Yosuke Hayano
Associate Partner in Charge: Fu Changrui
Design Team: Zheng Chengwen, Zhang Tong, Zhou Rui, Shiko Foo
Client: Shanghai Quan Cheng Development & Construction Co., Ltd.
Executive Architects: Tongji Architectural Design (Group) Co., Ltd.
Structural Consultant: Archi-Neering-Design/AND Office
Façade Consultant: Shanghai CIMA Engineering Consulting Co. Ltd.
Interior Consultant: MAD Architects
Lighting Consultant: TS Shanghai Tunsten Lighting Design Co., Ltd.
Landscape Consultant: Design Land Collaborative Ltd.

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