Placemaking in the historic heart of Chengdu

All stories

Located in the historic heart of the city, Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li Chengdu (Taikoo Li) is a large-scale urban rejuvenation project built around the ancient Daci Temple. It’s an ambitious project, responding to the vision of the municipal government’s plan to revive the old centre of the city and use its historic assets to establish a new commercial and cultural landmark in Chengdu, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Taikoo Li is much more than a shopping centre; what makes the project unique is the low-rise, lane-driven project design that acknowledges the history and character of the city, while simultaneously creating attractive new places for visitors to eat, shop and play.

The Project Vision

The Daci Temple has a lineage going back more than 1400 years. During the Tang dynasty, Buddhist monks from Japan, Korea and India came here for lectures and theological debates. Like many places of worship, the significance of place was more than just a religious one. The temple was also a social and cultural landmark; a vast complex with open squares, market places, artisan workshops and meeting halls. However, as Chengdu developed, the urban landscape around the Daci temple changed beyond recognition. What was once the commercial and cultural heart of the city had become a solitary structure surrounded by non-descript open spaces and parking lots. When the government decided to redevelop the vacant sites in the area, it provided a unique opportunity to unveil the temple’s historical layers and bring modern vitality to the neighbourhood. 

Key Project Challenge

How to balance innovative architectural design and commercial planning in a culturally and historically sensitive place? 

This project is one of very few in China which has attempted to regenerate a historic urban fabric that had been erased over time. The first challenge was to recreate its scale and atmosphere while making it suitable to today’s aspirations. The second was to pay homage to the craftsmanship of the thousand-year-old Daci Temple while incorporating modern urban planning. Last but not least, the project needed to honour the local spirit, subtly reflecting the details and language of the traditional Sichuan style, but without simply replicating the old. 

Responding to these challenges, the planners put the conservation and adaptive reuse of six courtyard buildings at the heart of the project. They carefully considered the historic, architectural, and social significance of the site before exploring its future development. Working closely with a team of temple guardians and eminent scholars they studied old maps, paintings and manuscripts to reconstruct the ancient pattern of narrow, pedestrian laneways and generous open spaces around the temple. The historical fabric also dictated the scale and dimensions of all the new buildings. Respect for Sichuan architecture can be seen in the choice of building materials, the subdued colour palette, understated wayfinding elements, subtle greening and shapes of roofs. As a result, the new structures blend in harmoniously with the heritage structures, adding a new layer to the urban fabric. 

Five years after completion, the success of the project shows in footfall, sales revenue, customer satisfaction, retail growth, length of time spent, and perhaps most importantly, in the pride of the locals.

Project Components

Generous Public Space: One of the key features of the plan was an ‘open-city concept’ featuring naturally lit and ventilated streets, gardens and squares. These are open spaces with great atmospheres, always connected to an architectural point of interest, like a pagoda or a piece of art. The Daci Temple provides a sense of identity for the community while the streets and squares create a strong urban enclosure.

Heritage Architecture: The temple and six courtyard buildings were retained and restored with historical details — grey bricks, carvings, columns and delicate tiled roofs — intact. They now house the hotel’s spa, teahouse and lobby.

Historical Footprint: The thousand-year-old Chinese tradition of building laneways and intimate courtyards provided the basis for the masterplan and design principles, creating a village-like atmosphere by adopting urban typologies of streets, alleys and squares. The site density was deliberately kept low with ample open space. As a tribute to the historic context, the 30 new buildings were mainly two- and three-storeys high, with one exception to meet the required site efficiency: the 47-floor Pinnacle One office tower. 

Chinese zoning is vertical rather than horizontal – we have the zone of the roof, of heaven above and we have the ground, a space that can be employed for all uses.

Do's & Don'ts

Do’s

  • Capitalise on the unique qualities of historic fabric. Making use of the historic pattern of laneways and squares, the masterplan created an attractive human-scale open-air shopping environment, including ‘fast lane’ and ‘slow lane’ retail streets for different visitor experiences. 
  • Involve the patrons of place. The project wraps around a temple that is still an important pilgrimage site and active place of worship, so the temple custodians were closely involved in the planning process. The developer also provided technical assistance to the temple in restoring some of its historic buildings and no efforts were spared to help restore an ancient pagoda to its former glory. 
  • Consult your future clients. A mandatory requirement for development projects in China, the public consultation process allowed for residents to voice their opinion on the future development of the site. A time-consuming but very useful process as it gave the planners more insight into the end-users’ requirements and sensitivities which has made Taikoo Li the popular leisure destination it is today.
  • Create a pedestrian-friendly environment and street-level access. The parking facility was moved underground, and the entire complex is easily accessible on foot, by bicycle or through public transport via the nearby mass transit station. 
  • Invest in community art & programming. The project’s generous public spaces boast specially commissioned artworks that take their inspiration from the historical surroundings. The event programming is diverse and carefully curated to create continuous footfall while respecting the spirit of place.
  • Build tenant’s awareness of historic sensitivity. A ‘Tenancy Design Guide’ provided tenants with information and principles for a heritage-sensitive design and use of space, especially for those operating in historic buildings. At the same time, the tenants were encouraged to be creative, and to capitalise on the uniqueness of place as part of their branding strategy.
  • Embrace the values of intangible heritage. In the old days there were specialised markets in the streets around the temple. There was a farmer’s market, but also stalls selling silk, fabric and even artisanal lantern making. These traditions have been recaptured and enhanced in new commercial offerings.

Don’ts

  • Don’t expect a quick gain. Heritage projects require a deep understanding of the site, its users and their sensitivities. This process takes time, but in the long run produces a more satisfying result for all stakeholders involved. As a client, the local government expects developers to create not just a commercially successful project but also deliver social, economic and other public benefits. The unique system of urban governance in China brings about the opportunity to effectively realise an urban regeneration project of this scale and ambition.
  • Don’t be afraid to add new layers to a historic site. Authenticity is key to create a timeless neighbourhood. Taikoo Li has empathy with the genius loci, tailoring the scale and integration of streetscapes with the site’s cultural heritage. At the same time, it embeds bold new elements to meet the needs of the developer and the end-users.

RELATED
STORIES

All stories