The InterContinental Shanghai Wonderland Hotel in China’s Songjiang District, some 40 kilometres (25 mi) from Shanghai, appears modest when approached from ground level because only two storeys project above ground and green roofs help them blend into the surrounding greenery. But when guests step inside the hotel—adapted from an abandoned quarry—they see the dramatic construction, attached to the rock like a hanging garden.

Approach from the air, on the other hand, and the mouth of the quarry and its lake are revealed as well as a further 14 floors of the hotel, clinging to the quarry wall. An additional two floors are below ground, with underwater guest rooms and a restaurant.

More than a decade in the planning and construction, the 386-room hotel was designed by British architects Atkins in partnership with Jade+QA on behalf of Shimao Property Group, a Chinese developer founded by Hui Wing Mau, one of the first people to develop a privately owned hotel in China.

Hui told a press conference at the opening of the hotel in November that he came up with the idea of building a hotel in a quarry in 2006; work started on the US$300 million project in 2009.

Known as the cradle of Shanghai, Song-jiang has a history stretching back nearly 6,000 years and has been selected for tourism development. Along the district’s northern edge are the “Nine Mountains” thought to form the spine of a large green dragon. New developments in the area must demonstrate a strong commitment to environmental protection, regeneration, and preserving the landscape, hence the restrictions on above-ground construction.

The former stone quarry had been dug to nearly 100 metres (328 ft) and then abandoned to the elements; the slow accumulation of rainwater created a pool at the bottom of the pit. Eric Seymour, senior design director at Atkins, says, “The design was inspired by the Hanging Monastery of Hengshan Mountain, which was constructed during the Wei period more than 1,400 years ago. It is conceived as a modern resort that draws heavily upon its Taoist roots offering a place of sanctuary from hectic city life.”

In Songjiang, engineers faced a number of challenges presented by the unique nature of the project. For example, when concrete was sent down into the quarry via standard construction chutes, the materials separated and were unusable. The team ended up patenting more than 41 engineering methods.

The hotel has a number of unique design features, including a “glass waterfall” that cascades from ground level down the side of the quarry wall, encasing the lifts and giving access to guest rooms.

At night, the glass-encased elevators are illuminated to resemble water sparkling down to the pool’s surface. The glass “waterfall” mirrors the water falling down the opposite side of the quarry.

A floating bridge allows visitors to walk across the water’s surface looking skyward to appreciate the colossal scale of the natural cliff walls and the hotel’s design. The shape of the hotel, viewed from above, resembles the Chinese yin and yang symbol, which denotes harmony in contrast.

The positioning of the hotel within the quarry was chosen to provide the most sunlight for guest rooms and for solar panels. The hotel also uses the natural airshaft between its structure and the cliff wall for insulation and cooling.

The design won multiple awards, including “Best Chinese Futura Projects” award at the MIPIM Asia Awards 2011, “Best Hotel Architecture China,” “Best Hotel Architecture Asia Pacific,” and “Best International Hotel Architecture” at the International Hotel Awards 2013. It was nominated as one of the architectural wonders of the world by the National Geographic Channel’s MegaStructures series.

Seymour notes, “The hotel rejuvenates the quarry and brings man and environment together in a highly sustainable relationship. What was once a deep scar left on the landscape is now transformed.”