Adaptive Reuse: Suzhou Yanlord Cangjie

Yanlord Cangjie Suzhou radically extracts the essence of a city. Working across masterplan, architectural and interior scales, Woods Bagot created a design framework that harnessed the site’s unique character – resulting in an experiential retail and lifestyle centre elegantly embedded into the city of Suzhou’s ongoing history and culture.

In-depth digital analysis of the site has resulted in a planning approach that places visitors at the centre of the design, each moment optimised to maximise visibility, culture, and experience. Here is a place where design allows history to thread confidently into the future – finding novel ways to continue irreplaceable traditions.

Existing site photographs.


“Innovation over replication.”

ADAPT is not only about the now but the next.”  

Cangjie construction

During construction.

What was the approach?

When Woods Bagot was appointed to spearhead the renewal of Yanlord’s 140,000 square meter site, the main priority was to ensure the project’s integration into the city’s fabric.

Rather than conceptualise Suzhou Yanlord Cangjie as a standalone destination, the team understood its potential as a nexus point to benefit the entire neighbourhood – shaping a dynamic urban community that fuses vibrant public spaces and rich cultural landscapes.

Ambitious in scale and scope, the project balances traditional elements with modern progressions. Connections between ancient and modern elements appear in numerous ways:

  1. Retail: Reflections of Suzhou’s old town’s paving stones and their patterns as they catch the light have been used as a motif throughout the projects retail offering – present in across the upper and lower grounds.
  2. Street: To the west of the site is Pingjian Road, an ancient retail street complete with pitch roofs and willow trees. As well as creating easier connections to this historic site and others, the masterplan is a reimagining of this kind of neighbourhood. The design includes plazas and public spaces connected via lanes and canals, but features open, comfortable pedestrian boulevards flanked by double-height fashion and boutique store facades. 
  3. Scape: Suzhou’s classical Chinese gardens are considered masterpieces of the genre. Choosing innovation over replication, the project sees the traditional Chinese garden reimagined as a three-dimensional feature garden that arches through the site and connects various retail zones. 
  4. Lifestyle: Historically, Suzhou’s locals have been known to embrace a ‘slow living’ lifestyle, adopting behaviours that allow them to prioritise an intentionally low stress way of living. Among these behaviours is the ‘city walk’, a trend made popular again by China’s Gen Z that involves exploring urban areas in a relaxed, thoughtful way, akin to the French flânerie concept – a kind of aimless strolling – of the 19th century. By creating ample breakout spaces that reward a slower pace with the chance of discovery (a hurrying pedestrian would walk right past), Suzhou Yanlord Cangjie rewards this mindful lifestyle.

After completion.

Creating conversation between the old and new. 

Why was it better than defaulting to demolition?

Sitting to the west of Shanghai, Suzhou is known for its historic canals, arched bridges, and elegant gardens. Known to some as the ‘Venice of the East’ – a resemblance said to have been confirmed by Marco Polo himself in the 13th century – the city was a centre for scholarship and art supported by the local silk industry.

Today, Suzhou’s rich history remains. The city is home to multiple cultural heritage sites such as Couple’s Retreat Garden, Humble Administrator’s Garden, Suzhou Museum, and Pingjiang Historic and Cultural District. Although deeply connected to its past, Suzhou is also rich in modern offerings – high end hotels, luxury malls and contemporary galleries ensure the city’s status as an epicentre for fashionable culture.

This unique balance of ancient and modern elements creates a prime opportunity for adaptive reuse. Situated between the city’s ancient centre and Guanqian commercial district, the project provided an opportunity to add and restore historical, cultural, artistic, and technological elements that elevate the community – something that would not have been achievable with a new build.

Elements like the Xiangmen Gate monument, a feature that was restored during the project’s process despite it sitting outside of the site’s boundary, bind history to present relevance. Since it’s restoration, the gate has found entirely new uses – a site for projection art, fashion shows, events and more.

Lessons learnt/problems solved?

There were two main takeaways from Suzhou Yanlord Cangjie:

  1. Adaptive Reuse requires a ‘bigger than the plot’ kind of vision.
    Reactivation at this scale is about community. As a result, designers had to think beyond the bounds of the site area to consider how local behaviour patterns and practices can be reinforced via the power of the built form.The cultural aim was to establish the projects as a key fashion destination for the younger generation by incorporating the ‘CityWalk’ route in and around the Pingjian retail district, while – as an interface – redefining itself as a central city node connecting Suzhou University (South), Couple’s Retreat Garden (North), Pingjiang Historic Street (West), Xiangmen Gate (East) and the old and new town. The landscape has been approached as a reimagination of Suzhou’s traditional gardens into a three-dimensional format, adding a contemporary chapter to Suzhou’s rich history.
  2. Innovation over replication.
    Designing with historic elements requires innovation, not simply replication. Historic elements had to be thought of in terms of their incoming role as well as their past – giving a 360degree understanding of context.
    For example, Suzhou’s 4700-year-long history of silk making has been reinterpreted in the retail facades, which translate the local silk-weaving technique architecturally using metal accents and stone louvers.

The idea of the landmark or focal point is outdated here. Instead, this project is testament to the impact of design when done in time with the rhythm of the city’s own development – to the beat of an enduring culture.”   

Retail streets can regenerate our cities

“Adaptive Reuse has the power to act as a trigger – inciting radical change for an entire city.” 

By very definition, the irreplaceable cannot be replaced.” 

There is paradise above, and Suzhou below.’

– Song Dinasty proverb.