After just two trips to Shanghai, I’ve already developed a first-day routine that I’m sure I’ll stick to on future visits: As soon as I drop my bags at the hotel, I head directly for one of the rooftop bars and restaurants lining the Bund, the city’s famous riverfront boulevard and the best place from which to assess Shanghai’s sometimes daring, sometimes schizophrenic attempts to balance Chinese urbanism and outside influence.
One particularly good spot is the broad terrace of the New Heights restaurant, atop a former bank at the southern end of the Bund. Stretching north from there in a gentle crescent are the lavish neoclassical buildings that suggest Shanghai’s reign in the 1920s and ’30s as one of the most cosmopolitan and hedonistic cities in the world.
Across the broad Huangpu River and its floating traffic, meanwhile, loom the glittering, soaring skyscrapers of Pudong, site of Shanghai’s spectacular growth in the last decade. So many new towers have been built in Pudong that the land itself, covered as recently as 15 years ago mostly by farms, has begun to sink a couple of inches a year beneath the collective architectural weight.
There is no view in the world quite like it. The skylines of Hong Kong and Rio may be perched on the edge of more dramatic natural locations. European capitals may have deeper collections of architectural masterpieces. But only in Shanghai can you see unfettered 21st century ambition facing off as dramatically against the early 20th century version.
It’s like getting to watch Stanford White debate Rem Koolhaas. In China. With a drink in your hand.
If you’re thinking there is nothing essentially Chinese about that view, you’re right. But as I was reminded last month when I returned for a weeklong architectural pilgrimage, Shanghai’s great appeal has always been its energetic mixing of cultures, with plenty of Occident to go with the Orient. Centuries after Beijing and the other cultural capitals in China had been fully developed, Shanghai was still a sleepy fishing village on the country’s southern coast. It had a natural port and an advantageous location near the South China Sea, but it wasn’t until the arrival of large numbers of British soldiers and traders in the 1830s and 1840s — followed by the French and later the Japanese — that the city began to expand beyond its modest, walled center and take its current shape.
Those foreign powers divided part of the city into districts, or “concessions,” that retain distinct personalities. The French concession, for example, west of the old walled city, features tranquil avenues lined with leafy plane trees and antiques shops and terminating in carefully laid-out parks.
The foreign occupation was painful and exploitative for the locals, to be sure. But architecturally, the influx of foreign residents — and capital — led to some of the earliest and most successful examples of international design anywhere in the world.
A good example is the dense fabric of apartment blocks, known as lilong, that blanketed the city in the first decades of the 20th century. These buildings used as a template the low-slung apartment blocks connected by narrow alleyways that were common throughout China. But they also showed signs of European influence.
The result was a housing type unique to Shanghai: low-rise apartment buildings that looked Western on the outside but inside faced shared courtyards and allowed several generations to live together (or at least adjacent to one another). Walking through one of those apartment blocks hidden behind the shops and office buildings on Huai Hai Road, I saw not just clothes but a side of beef hanging to dry from buildings with Tudor-style ornament.
Indeed, although the most important buildings in Shanghai, new and old, have a Western look — and generally were designed by Western architects — their personalities are inevitably transformed by having been built, and occupied, here. The Bund, for example, tells a distinctly Shanghainese story, even if the pageant is played out in Western costume: how its grand buildings were commissioned by colonists and built by locals, who were then banned from their interiors; how they fell into disrepair after the Communists came to power in 1949; and how they’ve been rehabilitated since China was reopened to foreign investment in the 1980s.
As the skyscrapers crowding Pudong attest, Shanghai is in the middle of one of the biggest building booms in history. Even the statistics on that growth are staggering. In the last two decades, more than 5,000 buildings 15 stories or taller have gone up in the city. For much of the 1990s, by one estimate, three-quarters of all the construction cranes in the world were operating in China, and more than a quarter of the global total was in Shanghai alone.
It is a boom marked by superlatives: the tallest building in the world (the World Financial Center, now under construction in Pudong, which ,its architect, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, claims will pass Petronas Towers in Kuala Limpur for the honor). The fastest train (a maglev connection to the new Pudong International Airport, about a 40-minute drive from downtown, that hits 267 mph and is a kind of test run for a future high-speed Beijing-Shanghai rail link). The highest hotel (the Grand Hyatt, floors 53 through 87 of Pudong’s Jin Mao Tower).
That growth, which has pushed Shanghai’s population to about 16 million and sent its perimeter sprawling ever outward, has created a city that pulses with energy, optimism and ambition — and has made it a destination for design aficionados around the world.
There is no better place to gawk at that ambition than the wide avenues of Pudong, where — like Houston in the 1980s — there seems to be a gigantic, gleaming new building rising every week. For a while, these were strictly office towers and hotels, but Shanghai leaders have lately been thinking of Pudong as a cultural magnet too. The new Oriental Arts Center, an orchid-shaped collection of concert halls by the French architect Paul Andreu — who also designed Pudong airport and an opera house under construction in Beijing — is the loudest announcement yet of that evolving sense of Pudong’s potential. Oversized and under-detailed, it sits next to a science museum along a gargantuan traffic circle mostly empty of traffic.
Back across the river, in the traditional city center, Shanghai’s renaissance has come at the expense of its older architectural fabric. Every block, I seemed to pass at least one demolition site, where construction workers climbed over huge piles of crushed concrete and twisted rebar.
The most prominent victims have been the lilong apartments, many of which have been knocked down to make way for elevated highways, office towers and hotels, their residents exiled to high-rise apartments on the outskirts. A critic would have to be in a charitable mood to find anything good to say about many of the buildings that have gone up in their place, with their pink stucco and mirrored glass. In many cases, the result is hollow, expedient kitsch, suggesting the kind of respect for architectural history more typical of Las Vegas than old Europe.
But amid the neon and the construction dust are exceptional architectural jewels from several eras, including our own. Only a city as open to freewheeling architecture as Shanghai, for example, could have produced the 88-story Jin Mao Tower, designed by the American firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1999. Elsewhere in the world, the firm’s architects have been following current Modernist-revival fashion and stripping their skyscrapers entirely of historical ornament, producing spare — and sometimes dull — boxes in glass and steel.
But in Shanghai, they knew their clients would prefer, even insist on, some Chinese elements, so they covered Jin Mao’s tapering tower with narrow horizontal bands of metallic ornament that suggest the upturned roofs of pagoda architecture. Perhaps because it wasn’t constrained by the current architectural convention ruling America and Europe, the building, sleek and richly detailed at the same time, is one of the best skyscrapers built anywhere in the last decade. It is good enough, in fact, to make me reexamine my own preference for the purity of Modernist towers. At this scale, there is something to be said for the visual rhythm that restrained, well-executed ornament can provide.
Much of Shanghai’s older architecture is first-rate. In what used to be the walled city center, the 400-year-old Yu Yuan Gardens offer a respite from the bustle of the city (if not from its tour guides), with meandering paths and open-air pavilions with intricate wooden and stone detailing. So does the Huxinting Teahouse, a charming building with a steep pagoda-style roof that sits in the middle of a pond just outside the garden gates. In both places, you can get a sense of what Shanghai must have looked like before the Japanese, English and French arrived, although a nearby Starbucks now gives the teahouse some competition.
In the old French concession just a short walk west of Yu Yuan, dozens of villas are tucked away behind high gates. Many were carved up over the years into multifamily dwellings, but a few remain in good shape, including the ornate Moller Villa, completed in 1936 and now a sleepy hotel that opens onto a broad lawn. (When the weather is good, the cafe is worth a visit.) The villa’s history is typical of Shanghai’s older landmarks: After 1949, it was commandeered to be the headquarters of the Shanghai Municipal Committee of the Chinese Communist Youth League, then converted into a hotel in 2001. Another highlight is a gorgeous three-story residence designed by the German firm of Becker and Baedeker that is now part of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, whose grounds are usually open during the day.
The real discovery for me on my most recent trip was the work of Ladislaus Hudec, a multitalented architect who studied in Budapest, Hungary, before coming to Shanghai in 1918. Perhaps 10 of his buildings remain, most notably the Park Hotel, a brooding design that mixes Gothic and Art Deco elements and overlooks the open spaces of People’s Square, once a racetrack but now home to the Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Grand Theater. The 22-story Park was the tallest building in Asia when it opened in 1934 and remained Shanghai’s highest into the ’80s.
Another Hudec design worth seeking out is a streamlined Corbusian-style villa on Tongren Road that was built for a wealthy entrepreneur. It could use a renovation, but the fact that a nightclub (Mint) and a restaurant (Mandarin Sky) have recently opened inside means tourists can see the interior for the first time in its history. I had what struck me as a quintessentially Shanghai experience (at least for an architecture critic) one evening at Mint, leaning over the DJ booth to check out a bit of applied ornament, which looked to be original, on one of the pink-painted walls.
In other parts of the city, thankfully, a fledgling preservation movement has begun to take root. Mostly, the renovation of attractive old buildings has been undertaken by foreign investors and architects; that was the case with two of the glitziest addresses on the riverfront. At Three on the Bund, Michael Graves’ restoration cost $50 million and has provided space for an Armani store, the city’s most upscale contemporary art gallery and a restaurant run by French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Up the street at No. 18, a building designed in the early 1920s by the British firm of Palmer and Turner for the Chartered Bank of India was renovated recently, partly by Italian craftsmen flown here to clean the details on its ornate facade, behind which are pricey restaurants and a Cartier store. To house a popular nouvelle-Japanese restaurant called Shintori, an old warehouse, hidden away under an elevated highway, was turned into a stunning two-story atrium. The China Daily described the interior as “Zen modernist,” but on the night I visited it was too packed with young locals to feel very calm.
In a few recent cases, government officials have begun to show an encouraging interest in preservation, if only because they realize that a main part of Shanghai’s appeal for foreigners — investors and tourists alike — is its diverse historical architecture. The best-known example of this trend is, undoubtedly, the commercial development known as Xintiandi, between the heart of the French concession and the old walled city. The attractive gray-brick buildings on the site were slated for demolition but were saved because, as it happens, they were adjacent to the site of a 1921 meeting — which included a young Mao Tse-tung — of what became the Chinese Communist Party.
When the government decided it wanted to turn the spot of that meeting into a museum, it made sense to preserve some of the neighboring buildings as well, to provide some architectural context. The American firm of Wood & Zapata, working with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, was hired to convert about two square blocks of buildings into upscale shops and restaurants.
The project involved more reconstruction than you might guess, which makes it less a pure case of preservation than some of its champions (mostly editors and writers at American and European design magazines) have suggested. But it is frequently packed with wealthy locals and foreigners, and that success has opened the eyes of developers and public officials to the financial possibilities of restoring older buildings. “Clients ask me all the time, talking about retail projects, ‘Can you Xintiandi it?’ ” said Christopher Choa, an American-born architect who works in Shanghai for the multinational firm HLW. “It’s become a verb,” he said with a laugh.
A fitting ending
On my last night in town, after a dinner at Shintori, two friends took me to see what surely qualifies as the most inventive restoration project in the city. This is a private club called the Yong Foo Elite, tucked away on a pretty street in the French concession.
The club fills an entire compound, really, centered on a 1930s villa that once held the British Consulate. The interior has been impeccably restored, its cracked, dark-stained wood now gleaming and the central garden beautifully landscaped. But what makes it pitch perfect is the effortless way it mixes elements of Western and Eastern design: Chinese lanterns, for example, hanging from a magnolia tree and illuminating the neoclassical details of the villa’s facade.
If it makes sense to begin a visit to Shanghai at a rooftop bar along the Bund, it seemed nearly perfect to end one at the Yong Foo Elite. Where luxurious colonial privilege was once enforced, that luxury has now been put — with aplomb but also unabashed, almost startling confidence — in the service of making money. Lots of it.