Thinking outside the box

A revitalised former textile factory has been transformed into a modern office building, introducing a new mix of private amenities and public realm to Shenzhen in south eastern China. Jack Wooler speaks to Lorenzo Mattozzi of MVRDV on the brief for the Idea Factory, and the practice’s response

Instead of demolishing or rebuilding the disused industrial site in the Shenzhen district of Nantou, from the beginning of this project the intent from both client and architect was always to preserve the original structure of the former textile factory.

Part of an ambitious, larger refurbishment plan for what is a historic neighbourhood, the Idea Factory is a collaboration between the Bureau of Public Works of Shenzhen Municipality Nanshan District and the Urban Research Institute of China Vanke (part of Shenzhen Vanke Development), to create 12,600 m² of office space for both the institute, and also for private rent.

Despite this use class, the “distinguishing features of the project are public in nature,” says architect MVRDV, with a stairway cutting through the six-storey building, leading to a rooftop with a series of “rooms” enclosed by living bamboo walls, offering a variety of amenities and activities.

All this has been wrapped inside a new facade – set back from the edge of the structure, with open loggias that reach around the whole building. The structure has been retained from its former use, exposed in parts to show traces of the building’s history.


Nantou itself has deep roots as an ancient settlement, but is now described as an ‘urban village’ within the Shenzhen conurbation, dwarfed by the skyscrapers that surround it.

The Idea Factory is the largest project in a number of renovations proposed by developer Vanke, and as such it was key that the design not just maximise floor area and preserve aspects of the building’s history, but also that it represented this wider regeneration.

The twin axes of Nantou’s revitalisation are its two main roads that form a cross, splitting the city into four quadrants. Along these ‘arteries’ are concentrated the key historical and cultural artefacts and buildings of the area.

In the south-western quadrant, a “cultural and creative market” is planned, to “foster the themes of design and consumption.” In the north-eastern quadrant, a “creative factory” is planned, “where design and technology meet,” as the project’s designers put it. The Idea Factory is the main hub of this latter cluster, hoped to gather startups and young creative companies, and help them to flourish.

The wider context

MVRDV has had a “long-standing professional relationship” with Vanke, and when 16 of its buildings within the neighbourhood were to be refurbished across these quadrants – including the Idea Factory – MVRDV were commissioned as one of a “renowned” group of international architects brought in to realise the plans.

The Idea Factory is intended to be the “keystone” of the creative cluster within the Nantou masterplan, highlighting the three main goals of the local regeneration – the strengthening and giving value to the characteristics of the ancient city, the promotion of the neighbourhood as a key interconnected development within Shenzhen, and the promotion of cultural and creative activities.

Approaching the project from this wider context – MVRDV having been involved from the project’s inception, alongside local practice Bowan Architecture – the team had to not only achieve these characteristics, but do so with a “sensibility towards a sustainable and cost effective approach,” says MVRDV.

According to Lorenzo Mattozzi, an Italian architect with over 17 years of international professional experience, and now associate at the practice and project leader of the Idea Factory, the practice has been involved from “concept to construction.”

Despite this, he tells me that MVRDV only had a “minor” role in supervising construction and procuring materials, via its Shanghai branch. He explains that the practice was focused primarily on the overall concept, and the striking design of the rooftop terrace, as well as tying together the common areas of the building.

Throughout his experience working in China, he says that overall, he has seen few “notable” differences in procurement: “Sometimes the decision process might be less linear and forward than in other markets, however once construction begins, it compensates for lost time.”

Revealing the past

“Although the factory is somewhat alien to the history of Nantou, it belongs to its brief, and recent, industrialisation,” begins Mattozzi, discussing how the team began the design process for the Idea Factory. “It is therefore part of the historical changes that define Nantou today.”

According to the architect, the team’s initial sketches aimed to be both “respectful and playful,” with the practice interested in preserving the building’s history while “opening it to the public, via making it more porous,” and providing access at ground and rooftop levels.

He tells me the facade design was a response not just to the surroundings, and the “brutalist expression”of the original structure, but also to the climatic conditions. “On the one hand we wanted the original structure to honestly reveal itself, in all of its historical scars; on the other hand we wanted to reduce overheating, by pushing the glazing inward and using the concrete slabs as shading.”

“In other words,” he says, “we reveal the past, while hiding from the light.”

The result of this is a series of continuous, open loggias that wrap around the entire building, providing circulation that the practice hopes will enable chance encounters with colleagues, and foster a “dynamic creative environment.”

The only slightly incongruous, and “playful” element, as Mattozzi puts it, is a tube-like structure housing the main public staircase, which is clad in timber.

“Here,” he says, “the public staircase connects the plaza to the roof terrace and literally breaks the barrier between private and public space.”

Carving an entrance

Users enter from the small public square facing the building on the ground floor, through the ‘wooden tube’ that marks the public entrance, and which then carves its way through the building. Internally, the staircase is clad in mirrors and bright neon signs, creating an aesthetic reminder of the early days of Shenzhen’s urbanisation.

On the fourth floor, the end of the staircase protrudes out of the opposite facade in a semi-circular, timber form. This provides users with a chance to take in the view of the surrounding streetscape – before continuing up to the roof.

Upon exiting the staircase, users are greeted with a “green bamboo landscape,” which is described by the architect as “packed” with amenities and activities.

This space is arranged to form a maze, that divides the rooftop into different rooms, each hosting a different activity: including a glass box for performances and events, a variety of seating areas, a gym, a trampoline, swings, a tea house, a dining room, a dance floor, and even an oversized chess set.

According to the designers, the roof also makes the project more sustainable – both ecologically and socially – the bamboo providing cooling to roof spaces, and supporting biodiversity within a dense urban environment, while the activity spaces provide social and leisure benefits in a neighbourhood that has reportedly been disadvantaged in the past.

Materiality & design

For the building’s interior, Mattozzi tells me the practice was commissioned to design only the common areas and circulation spaces.

Focusing on the materiality of these elements, Mattozzi explains that while the project is characterised by its use of concrete and glass on its exterior, on the interior wood was an important material – highlighting key elements of the building such as the public staircase and other public zones.

Alongside this, he details that the combination of colourful ceramic tiling, mirror surfaces and neon lights were specified to turn what would normally be simple linear spaces into “eventful paths.”

“The main concept,” he says, “was to bring inside the vernacular housing and street language of Shenzhen, by adopting elements that do not usually belong to office or interior spaces.”

Similarly to the public staircase on the facade, for instance, “even in the interior” the practice wanted to bring “wondrous and disruptive design elements that might inspire the creativity of users.”

Additionally, the practice’s contribution to the interior design also included wayfinding and graphical elements: “It was important to us how the building communicated internally to its users and externally, towards the neighbourhood. We eventually also designed the logo for the building.”

Performance & optimisation

According to Mattozzi, the team kept the construction process “relatively simple,” and as such, there were few challenges during these stages.

“The design of the public staircase and the activation of the rooftop however,” says the architect, “required significant optimisation and reinforcing of the original structure to support the insertion of the staircase and the additional weight brought in by the bamboo” – not a simple process.

In terms of design for sustainability, Mattozzi explains that at MVRDV, “sustainability practice does not only consider energy and consumption requirements, but also social, ecological and environmental aspects.

Bearing this in mind, the refurbished building of course has lower embodied carbon emissions than a new building, but it also reduces energy consumption by reducing overheating along the facades and providing internal cross ventilation, in what the practice claims is an innovative design.

Additionally, the green rooftop is already increasing the area’s biodiversity; the bountiful bamboo providing habitats not just for insects, but also for small animals, plants and fungi. In addition, the inherent absorption of carbon dioxide is a further plus in an urban area.

Mattozzi adds: “The publicly-accessible roof terrace, with its amenities and activities, also promotes an active life and social engagement: a safe haven for urban ecology and urban life.”

A display of possibilities

Now completed, the Idea Factory displays the wealth of possibilities offered by disused, dilapidated buildings that some consider beyond their usual lifespan.

Not only was the team able to make use of the existing structure, but its utility was increased – adding an extra floor and weaving it into the public realm of Nantou, benefiting all who live around it.

“The building has quickly become the creativity hub that was meant to be: a manifesto for the whole refurbishment of Nantou,” says Mattozzi, looking back on the project’s success since completion.

“New and young companies, together with the Urban Research Institute of China Vanke, have made the Idea Factory their home – the public and accessible ground floor and roof terrace are already points of reference for the entire neighbourhood and the building is used day and night, throughout the whole week.”

He concludes his thoughts on the project by considering what the finished project means to him, as well as its impact on the practice moving forward: “The result is inspiring to us,” says Mattozzi. “It shows that good, small, even simple, design can bring great positive social change to a community – and we hope to replicate this in our future projects.”