Shanghai presents a diverse array of architectural styles mirroring how the city was both the entrance into China and China’s window to the world.
The city’s skyline may be lined with glittering panoramas of ultra-modern sky-high structures but part of Shanghai’s genetic code also includes the remaining splendors of old. The remnants of Old Shanghai showing why it was formerly coined the ‘Paris of the East’.
For this article, we concentrate on five styles of architecture that can be easily seen and admired around the city.
For sheer wow factor and world-breaking records, Shanghai’s iconic soaring towers get all the media attention. Across from the Bund, Pudong district – specifically Lujiazui – is the hub of China’s financial sector, showing a future made in and by China.
Pudong’s transformation may only have taken root around the 1990s but the building boom paved the way to a triumvirate of dominating structures in its skyline, the tallest of which is the Shanghai Tower.
Photo source: Unsplash | Zhou Xian
The Shanghai Tower was designed by American Architectural firm, Gensler, partnering with Shanghainese architect, Jun Xia who led the design team. It stands at 632 meter (128 storeys) and holds the title for world’s second tallest building by height to architectural top.
On top of being China’s tallest skyscraper, the tower also presents some sustainable highlights as part of the move towards greener structures:
- Its inner glass, part of the facade, uses 14% less glass
- This glass facade minimizes energy consumption
- Using ‘vertical compound functions’ and two glass skin layers thermal buffers are created and indoor air quality improved
- Its iconic and distinctive asymmetrical, swirling shape reduces wind load on the building
Photo source: Pixabay | ZhuShenJe
Adjacent to it is the equally stunning Shanghai World Financial Center, another of the world’s tallest buildings since its completion in 2008. Inspired by a square prism, the SWFC’s outermost shell is a laminated glass curtain, giving it that shining appearance.
Playfully called the ‘bottle-opener’ by the locals with a trapezoid-shaped opening near the top, one must not make light of this metallic and glass megatower that also serves as a solid testament to money and ambition. It is the first of many buildings that shows this glittering city’s move to become an international financial hub.
Photo source: Flickr | Joan Campderrós-i-Canas
Completing the world’s first side-by-side grouping of three supertall skyscrapers is the Jin Mao Tower. Bursting with Chinese symbolism and probably the most interesting and notable structure of the three, the pagoda-inspired Jin Mao Tower has building proportions that revolve around the number 8 (lucky Chinese number) and stands at 420.5 meters tall.
Likewise, it was the tallest building in China and the highest hotel in the world at its completion in 1999 (before it was surpassed by the ‘bottle-opener’ beside it).
Not forgetting, rounding up Shanghai’s modern skyline is the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. Located opposite the Bund, the distinctive spheres that glitter in Shanghai’s night sky makes it the city’s iconic landmark. This unique structure houses observation or sightseeing decks at different levels, revolving restaurants and a hotel.
Photo source: Unsplash | Kin Li
In the late 1920s, art deco rose to prominence in Shanghai. This born-of-the-West architectural style was embraced by the city, leaving it with one of the richest collections of art deco buildings in the world.
Art Deco buildings began in Europe before WWI and have many influences but can be mainly characterized by a simple, clean, streamlined appearance with heavy geometric influences. This design spills to the interior with zigzags, exaggerated curves, stepped forms and varying patterns.
Of Shanghai’s notable art deco buildings, the Fairmont Peace Hotel and Bank of China buildings located on the Bund are masterpieces.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Sir Victor Sassoon, an influential businessman of the era, contributed many of the city’s iconic art deco structures, the most well-known of which is the Fairmont Peace Hotel. During its golden age, it hosted celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and countless diplomats. Up to this day, lavish weddings and events are held at the hotel to capture and enjoy the magic of the era, not to mention, it has one of the best views of the Bund.
Completed in 1937, the Bank of China building on the Bund is a rare example of Chinese art deco, the only heritage building that incorporates abundant Chinese elements. Some of these Chinese characters are lattice windows, and an overhanging Chinese-styled roof with glazed tiles and ‘dou gong’ (interlocking wooden brackets usually near the roof).
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Other remarkable art deco structures around the city are the Paramount Ballroom, Cathay Theatre and the 1933 Slaughterhouse. The Paramount (百乐门), designed by architect Yang Xiliu, is a historical nightclub in Jing’an district. When it opened in 1933, it was said to be the most luxurious structure ever on this side of the Far East and became the city’s forefront for entertainment especially for society’s wealthy elite.
Photo source: Unsplash | Yiran Ding
The Cathay Theatre, on the other hand, is one of the city’s great art deco cinemas and is still open today. Designed by Hungarian architect, C. H. Gonda, the theater opened in 1932, however, it was renovated decades later to hold more screens so no internal decor from the olden days remains visible.
Photo source: Unsplash | Cici Hung
1933 Slaughterhouse (上海1933老场坊), or Old Millfun as it was also called, was the former Shanghai slaughterhouse. Today, the interiors are fully converted to house restaurants and shops. It is located in the Hongkou district, 1km north of the Bund.
The building’s commitment to design and efficiency in ensuring the highest quality of meat was provided to Shanghai’s expat community, revolutionized abattoir design. It serves as a fitting example of how the city absorbed foreign influences with its art deco exterior and modern (at that time) interiors. Even as a converted commercial center, key architectural features are maintained, making it one of the most unique art deco masterpieces in the world.
Neoclassical architecture is a prominent architectural style, characterized by grandeur of scale that began in the mid-18th century in Europe. By the 1800s, nearly all of British architecture reflected Neoclassical elegance and this Western flair followed as the West entered China during the era of international concessions in Shanghai.
Photo source: Unsplash | Siyuan Hu
As a legacy of the city’s colonial past, Shanghai’s most prominent neoclassical-style buildings are situated on the Bund when the area was an International Settlement.
Constructed in the 1920s by British architects, Palmer & Turner, the most recognized neoclassical gems are the HSBC Building, Custom House (江海关大楼) and ICBC (previously housed the Yokohama Specie Bank). These magnificent colonial buildings are a focal point of the Bund and serve a striking contrast to the ultra modern structures across the river.
Away from the Bund, the Shanghai Exhibition Center (上海展览中心) is a clear example of neoclassical Soviet architecture. Built in 1955 as a gift from the Soviet Union, the center was once the tallest building in the city with its spire topped with a star.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Also, at the heart of high society (what is now People’s Square), there is the Shanghai Race Club (上海跑马总会) (now the Shanghai Art Museum – 上海美术馆). The huge racecourse was made in 1862 but the club’s building was created in 1934, it has an imposing 10-storey tall tower and followed neoclassical exteriors with eclectic details. Inside, the place was as sumptuous as they came – with marble staircases, teak paneled rooms and oak parquet floors – that attracted many foreign elites.
Renaissance architecture is also widely seen in Shanghai. This architectural style has a few prevalent characteristics – huge domes, semicircular arches and classical Roman columns or rounded barrel vaults. It emphasizes symmetry, proportion, geometry and regularity of parts.
The Bund has many impressive architectural styles and one of these is the renaissance. Some of the more notable renaissance structures are the Palace Hotel (No. 19 on the Bund, now the Swatch Art Peace Hotel), the old Banque de L’IndoChine (No. 29 on the Bund, now China Everbright Bank), and the old Great Northern Telegraph Building (No. 7 on the Bund).
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Built next to the Peace Hotel and more widely known as the ‘Peace Hotel South Building’, the Palace Hotel (斯沃琪和平饭店艺术中心) was one of Asia’s top hotels at the start of the 20th century. It is a Renaissance masterpiece and gives off bright colors on the Bund. On this city’s most famous road, the red-and-white brick Palace Hotel reigned earlier than the Peace Hotel.
Designed by British architect, Walter Scott, and opened in 1908, the hotel looked like a palace straight out of fairytales. Its windows, showing different shapes for different floors with semi-circular and pointed arches, are one of its main decorative elements. It also boasts exquisite and spacious interiors, plus, the first elevator of the city. Consequently, it became the country’s popular hang out spot for the creme de la creme.
Opened in 1914, the old Banque de L’IndoChine, now China Everbright Bank (光大银行), was designed and built by architectural firm Atkinson and Dallas. It followed the Italian Renaissance style with the classic tripartite design principle for its exterior layout, infused its interiors with French designs – given that its a French colonial bank – and incorporated the Baroque style with the arched gates and columns. It’s main arched gate is one of the most beautiful on the Bund.
Shikumen or Lilong
The shikumen architecture (or stone gate – 石库门) is Shanghai’s own unique housing style. Once again, this distinctive design that blends Chinese and Western structural styles epitomizes the varying international influences that took shape in the city.
Shikumen is a type of lilong (里弄) residence (or longtang (弄堂) as colloquially put by the locals) – translated as ‘lane houses’ in English. This uniquely Shanghainese style first appeared in the mid-1800s, coinciding with the entry of Western presence in the city.
Photo source: Flickr | Ted McGrath
Shikumen houses are two to three-storey townhouses, akin to Western terrace houses, with a courtyard at the front, and protected by a high brick wall. Each residence abuts each other and are arranged in straight alleys (thus, longtang or lane houses). The entrance to each alley is surmounted by a stylistic Romanesque stone arch with wooden doors, brass knockers, and lintel decorated usually with flowers and swirls.
Photo source: Flickr | Mr ThinkTank
By the 1930s. shikumen architecture was already on the way out and construction ceased completely after the war to give way for other city construction. The forced demolition of crowded shikumen residences sparked controversies as residents were forced out of their homes and this legacy slowly disappeared.
However, in the recent decade, it’s been recognized as a cultural heritage and many are undergoing restoration. Modernized shikumen architecture can also be seen in Tianzifang (田子坊) and Xintiandi (新天地) where the lane houses are converted into restaurants, cafes and small shops.
Shanghai’s classic and modern architecture shows a combination of the East and West and a testament to the city’s colorful history. The impressive heritage structures coupled with the jaw dropping futuristic buildings make the city a fantastic destination to explore for enthusiasts of architecture and design. This only lists an introductory taste of what can be seen and the myriad of sights that await you.