VIDEO: Experience a room on the 72nd floor of the Grand Hyatt Shanghai.

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This is primarily a story about what it's like both to live and work in a supertall building, a lifestyle I've wondered about since the 100-story John Hancock Center (my favorite building) opened in Chicago in 1970. With offices on the lower floors and apartments, a grocery store and even a swimming pool on the upper floors, the futurists' view was residents who worked in such a building would have little need to leave it.

(See more about the Hancock in my CTBUH Technical Tour article.)

I would finally experience this lifestyle for 5 days and 4 nights at Jin Mao and I was thrilled at the chance to meet this building on such familiar terms. There was, however, another layer to this relationship going in. For reasons I do not yet understand, I've had strange dreams about a duplicate of Jin Mao appearing on the skyline in Chicago. Sometimes I actually see the building, but most times it is simply an anticipation of its presence.
Why does Jin Mao have such a hold on my imagination? Maybe it's the pagoda motif that is rendered so spectacularly across 1,380 feet of height. Or perhaps it's the way the building's spiked top is lit at night while the rest is in relative darkness; it has all the grandeur of a rising moon. Adrian Smith, the lead architect, had a good chuckle when I told him of this vision. Adrian says he would rather have seen Jin Mao brightly lit across the entire structure like many other Asian buildings. Do architects get tired of hearing people's whimsical, whacked out interpretations of their work? Probably.

So, in addition to experiencing Jin Mao, I would also be looking for the special places within, some kind of cosmic connection, worthy of all those goofy mysterious dreams.


My taxi deposited me at the hotel entrance and from here, a valet took my bag and guided me to the elevator for the hotel lobby on 54. I was pleased to discover my room was on the 72nd floor, better than halfway up the famous barrel-shaped atrium at the center of Jin Mao's upper floors. From the elevator lobby on 72, I strolled the circular walkway into the atrium and to my room. Only a handrail at the edge of the walkway stood between me and the great void. I looked down to see The Patio, the bar on the 56th floor, and then up to the domed ceiling and the observatory windows on 88.

Barely a dozen steps from the rail was the door to my room. The preferred views in Jin Mao are to the west towards the Huangpu River and The Bund (old Shanghai). I was very happy to have a room facing east towards the Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC), directly across the street. I could look to the west whenever I wanted to from the restaurant or the hotel lobby on 54.

The windows in the Grand Hyatt are all floor-to-ceiling, and what a view I had. The mid-section of SWFC loomed large as I approached the window and I watched as its lower floors dipped perilously to the street. Above me was the trademark "aperture" -- a space I had imagined since seeing the first renderings of the building more than ten years before -- and SWFC's observatory on its underside. I was a bit surprised to see thick fog in the mornings, and while Shanghai's climate is sub-tropical and it is a coastal city on the Yellow Sea, the air can be stagnant and nothing short of a typhoon may clear it. Days were periodically gray, and sunsets were equally obscure with the horizons looking like something straight out of the Asia travel brochures.

Though much has been reported about the smog problem in Chinese cities, I'll say one good thing: the allergies that typically dog me year 'round in Missouri quickly disappeared in Shanghai. I don't know what soup I was breathing, but the wontons fixed my sinuses. Besides, I don't trust air I can't see.

Carrot, Watermelon and Cucumber

The vertical life requires we eat in the same building in which we sleep. My travel rule number 1 is to never eat in the restaurant in my hotel, but this does not apply at the Grand Hyatt Jin Mao. The breakfast buffet at The Grand Cafe' on 54 was terrific each morning. Time did not permit me to explore and photograph in detail, but I can report a few things.

I like a hotel and a country that knows how to serve a proper cup of tea, a luxury I learned to appreciate in the UK. And, of course, China is a country with a few thousand years' experience making tea. Very nice to have English Breakfast tea properly served with half-and-half. I really can't understand why we don't typically do this in the USA.

Fresh fruits were in abundance, some very exotic and tasty things to try, like artfully done yogurt servings with various fruits mixed in. The orange and grapefruit juice were tart, as I had tasted in the UK. I have still found no equal to Florida orange juice anywhere else on the planet. If orange juice or grapefruit juice are not to your taste, there were also pitchers of carrot, watermelon and cucumber juice. I didn't get adventurous.

Also very good was Canton, a restaurant on 55, where I had a dinner dish that included a side of more than a dozen bok choi sprouts, each about 3 inches long. I didn't think I would be able to finish them, but my chopsticks flew and they disappeared very quickly.

Off to Work

After breakfast, it was a quick ride back up to 72 to get cleaned up and ready for work. Getting to my video studio on the 2nd floor of Jin Mao's convention space took about 10 minutes, requiring an elevator ride from 72 to 54 and a walk through the hotel lobby to another elevator that took me to 2. It was then a 5-minute walk past the ballroom and exhibit space. It takes me roughly that long to drive the 1.4 miles from home to my regular job, but in Jin Mao there are no snowstorms, no icy or rain soaked mornings, no vehicular traffic, no excess heat or cold. There are also no trees, no neighborhoods, no rural interstate to drive, no cows or cornfields.

Which brings me to one aspect of the Vertical Life that I think is especially critical: mental separation between home and work, particularly when both are under one roof, no matter how big. My travels through Jin Mao were extensive and included a technical tour of the building that brought me into a full variety of environments: office space on lower floors including the 8th floor offices of the China Jin Mao Group, the building owners and managers; a specially equipped and reinforced "refuge room" for use by office tenants in emergencies; the 800-space underground parking garage; the public observatory on 88. And let's not forget a nightcap at Cloud 9 Bar on 87.

In this first experience at least, there was plenty of mental distance between my 72nd floor home and these other disparate places. The 16 floors between me and the Skywalk observatory might as well have been 16 blocks. As obsessive as I can be about work and projects, I still don't know that I would like to be ten minutes from my workplace without leaving the building.

That Special Place

The Mandarin words "Jin Mao" translate as "Golden Luxury". The Grand Hyatt, the convention center and other spaces in the building are certainly that. With attention given to every detail from the grand ballroom down to ornamentation in hallways and ceramic pieces in elevator lobbies, the whole Jin Mao experience felt like being in one huge, comfortable and very richly furnished living room.

And from this I found that special place within the building, a unique spot that captured my imagination and left a sort of spiritual impression. I might even allow it as an instance of feng shui, a formerly trendy term I have taken great pains to avoid.

Going to Cloud 9 Bar on 87 requires three elevator trips, from floors 1 to 54, 54 to 85 and 85 to 87. The last elevator change got my attention. Exiting the elevator lobby at 85, you get to the last elevator bank by walking through a small sitting room at the end of the hall (room 8508) and into a foyer and the last elevator.

It was the incongruity of this small room that suddenly struck me as I was leaving. Or maybe it was the two gin-and-tonics and the strawberry margarita I had consumed. In Chicago, a place like Cloud 9 would be bustling, there would be a line to get in and people clamoring for seats by the windows. I thought of the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Center in Chicago, a perfect example. In general, I'm used to the tops of supertall buildings being very public and very noisy.

Instead, I had approached Cloud 9 entirely alone, through quiet halls and a space that could have been someone's living room, rode what felt like a private elevator, and emerged in a darkened room with the spectacle of city lights shining through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The experience was very un-skyscraper-like. I felt as though I had the whole place to myself.

Here was the moment, the connection I had hoped to find. This little, elegant corner had made the glorious supertall realm I had just experienced entirely mine and put the whole building into the palm of my hand. This was, indeed, golden luxury.

So how has my psyche reacted? I don't have Jin Mao dreams very often, didn't have any during the nights I slept under that spike-top lit like a rising moon.

I did however, have a Jin Mao dream after arriving back home, in which the building appeared in downtown Pittsburgh.