Eighty-seven stories above Shanghai, the city on the other side of the glass obscured by fog, I am enjoying a moment of perfect peace. I am not in the Park Hyatt’s spa, with its fragrant treatment rooms and long, shimmery infinity pool. Nor am I participating in the hotel’s daily 6:30 a.m. tai chi class. I am not, at the moment, even seeking serenity. I am simply eating breakfast.
Down below, a city of more than 18 million is muscling its way into the 21st century in a frenzy of construction noise, exhaust fumes, and pure adrenaline. But up here, on the highest floors of what is either the world’s second- or third-tallest building, depending on how you do the math, all I can hear is music, a meandering piano riff. Sometimes it sounds like Erik Satie and other times I think it must be of Chinese origin—I later learn that it was custom-composed for this exact circumstance by a firm out of Hong Kong—and what I see directly in front of me is a still life by Cézanne: hydrangeas in a cloisonné vase, salt and pepper in silvery orbs, a row of precious jam jars, all arrayed on a textured linen tablecloth. There’s something about the extraordinary beauty and tranquillity of this ordinary moment that I want to hold on to.
What I’m rediscovering in this newly opened, relatively small hotel—it has only 174 rooms—situated on floors 79 to 93 of the Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) (only a multilevel public observation deck is above it) are the exquisite pleasures of the tall building. As the hotel’s general manager, Christophe Sadones, puts it: “You feel like you’re in a protected environment, like you’re floating.” The wonderful free-floating sensation afforded by very tall buildings was, of course, undermined by the tragic demise of the World Trade Center. Yet the desire to build tall has never been greater. During my stay at the Park Hyatt Shanghai, I hear news of two new “world’s tallest” projects: one in Dubai (home of the current record holder) and one in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, that will supposedly be more than a half-mile tall.
The thing that distinguishes this new generation of supertowers is that they’re mostly topped with luxurious condominiums and hotels rather than corporate offices. Record-shattering high-rises are no longer symbols of state or corporate power, but of the marriage of new engineering know-how with ever more audacious real estate schemes. Hoteliers have realized that the sheer height of these towers provides guests with exactly the kind of respite from the world that is the stock in trade of luxury hotels.
To be honest, the Park Hyatt’s setup goes against everything I believe about cities and how I like to experience them. As a rule, I prefer to stay in hotels where the life of the city is all around me and I can easily walk wherever I need to go. I seek total immersion. The SWFC, however, is located in the Lujiazui financial district of Shanghai’s Pudong, a cluster of high-rises built on what, prior to the 1990’s, were rice paddies situated on the erstwhile “wrong” side of the Huangpu River. Walkable is not the word I’d use to describe this newly minted neighborhood. The notion that pedestrians have the right of way has not yet arrived in China, and Pudong’s broad boulevards are a challenge to cross. Billboards promise the future construction of a pedestrian walkway; it looks strangely like a particle accelerator, a giant elevated ring that will connect the area’s major buildings. At the moment, however, walkers have to live by their wits.
In fact, the more I plunge into Shanghai, the more I understand the value of my 80-story buffer zone. For instance, I visit the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall in People’s Square, the heart of the city, to see an immense, ballroom-size model—supposedly the world’s largest—of what the city is supposed to look like when the dust settles sometime around 2020. The expanse of miniature buildings is impressive, but it’s nothing compared to the view from my room.
The hotel sits atop a smoke-colored glass tower developed by the Japanese real estate mogul Minoru Mori, best known for Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills complex. Like Tokyo’s Mori Tower—famously topped with an art museum—the SWFC was designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, of New York. And like the 88-story Jin Mao Tower, a supersize Modernist pagoda across the street, it was designed back in the 1990’s. A nosedive in the Japanese economy delayed the project for five years. During that period, the Grand Hyatt atop the Jin Mao, known for its vertiginous central atrium, held the title of the world’s tallest hotel—until the Park Hyatt Shanghai opened for business in September 2008.
A field trip to the Grand Hyatt demonstrates to me that altitude does not automatically guarantee serenity. The Park Hyatt’s unexpected calm is the unique product of an unusually harmonious collaboration between the hotel’s designers and its management. First there’s the architect William Pedersen, who understood early on that Pudong would be full of “competitive and cacophonous” towers. “We wanted our building to be as serene as possible,” he tells me. Then came the New York–based Chinese-American interior designer Tony Chi. He brought to the project an admiration for Pedersen’s cool geometry and an offbeat definition of luxury. “I wanted the place to give me silence,” he says. “That was the only word in my mind. Wow, what a luxury. If you ask me what defines luxury in New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai…it’s silence.”