Adaptive Reuse: Tianjin Jinmao Plaza

“Demolition without due consideration is the erasure of cultural memory.”

Situated on the banks of the Hai River, Tianjin Jinmao Plaza is a vibrant mixed-use hub that celebrates Tianjin’s industrial history. Rather than being a static tribute to the past, the project allows history to impact architecture and space in a tactile, practical way that ensures usability and enjoyment.

The concept of “Transformation,” honours the site’s industrial legacy as a former power plant while transitioning it into a modern centre for retail, lifestyle, and culture – recasting the historic riverfront factory as a modern lifestyle destination.

Photographs of the original site.

What was the approach?

Built in 1937, the Tianjin No.1 Power Plant was the first of its kind to be constructed in the industrial port city of Tianjin in northern China. Situated on the banks of Hai River, the plant was the first in the city to generate electricity – remaining operational until 2011.

Aware of the building’s role in local history as a marker of progress and cultural character, the Woods Bagot team completed several field surveys, interviewed residents and research local archives.

Taking community comment into account, the team conceived a plan that prioritised the preservation and replacement of key structural elements within the plant. Of particular importance was the conservation of irreplaceable brickwork on the building’s facade, the industrial silos, and retaining the spatial grandeur of the existing atriums.

To ensure the project’s relevance, the historical elements identified for revival had to become functional offerings for the site’s new use as a modern commercial complex. Integrating retail, lifestyle, ecology, culture, and educational offerings with the existing plant required the team to build five new floors within the factory shell – each of which aim to create equilibrium between old and new elements.

“The pursuit of the unique is worth more than the race for the new.”

Why was this approach better than defaulting to demolition?

In the case of Tianjin Jinmao Plaza, the decision to demolish in full would have been a harmful decision done in favour of the erasure of cultural memory in northern China.

Prior to the power plant’s 1937 establishment, the site was home to the Tianjin Military School (1885) and a Qing Dynasty palace (1765). Hungry for a lasting architectural legacy, the local community wanted to see key elements of the power plant retained as the first step towards a future where elements of the past are protected and restored for the next generation.

Recognising that the project provided an opportunity for the community to learn about the area’s past, Tianjin Jinmao Plaza repurposes key industrial elements. Similarly, the plant’s silos have been converted into lifts and lobby spaces – preserving the site’s industrial atmosphere.

Capped with the power plant’s original insignia, the project’s north section is now home to a flagship Starbucks Cafe. The original supporting structure for the powerplant’s engine was retained, integrated with new seating, and informing the interior design approach. Here, visitors can enjoy a tactile, layered experience that feels naturally rooted in history – all while enjoying the view towards the Hai River.

Lessons learnt/problems solved?

There were three main takeaways from the urban regeneration of Tianjin Jinmao Plaza:

Once lost, history cannot be faked. But it can be honoured.

By the time Woods Bagot were tasked with the project, a lot of the factory been removed or was beyond repair. With most of the plant’s main machinery destroyed, Woods Bagot had to create a sense of history without its key physical elements. Instead of ‘faking it’ – a process that would have involved using replicas and ultimately made the space feel more like a museum than a dynamic retail community – the team sought to retain and amplify the site’s industrial feel through spatial volume and consistent use of materials like brick, fritted glass, concrete (GRC) and metal.

The preservation of cultural identity can deal with sensitive histories.

The process of adaptive reuse will inevitably yield an encounter with a sensitive history. The larger of the plant’s atriums was built by the Japanese during World War Two using their traditional techniques and innovations. Mindful of this difficult history, the team elected to preserve structure and elements from that period, regarding them as special marks on China’s modernization process.

Connecting old elements with new should always come back to usability.

Building new elements alongside older ones requires a commitment to making the space feel cohesive. While the history of the Tianjin No.1 Power Plant was of great importance, so too was its usefulness – this is a project that needs to serve its community well into the future. Linking the old plant and the new retail required a bold articulation. The connection massing between the two buildings plays an important as a transition zone, meeting point and the northern entrance. In order to bond the old and new spaces physically, transparent glass has been combined with fritted glass with a gradation effect inspired by the older building’s brick patterning.

“Old elements, new spaces, ongoing story.”

“Adaptive Reuse allows history to become a living thing that grows and changes according to the needs of the modern world.”