Shanghai has always been the entrance into China and China’s window to the world. In the recent decades, this sprawling metropolis has turned into a mega city and one of the most expensive cities in the world, if it is not already.
Stationed as a significant entry point, international settlements and their influences on the city’s meteoric development is evident in its diverse architectural styles. Despite intense economic rise and continuous construction in modern Shanghai, the charming splendors of old juxtaposed against ultra modern skyscrapers tell a rich story of the city’s tumultuous changes and growth over the centuries.
There is no shortage of amazing architecture and design ingenuity around the city. It can be said that Shanghai’s architectural showstoppers reflect its towering, overarching ambition.
“Shanghai set out to take over and I think it’s done that. It’s got the most amazing futuristic skyline which rivals and even betters Tokyo.” – Paul Oakenfold
For this article, the list focuses on architecture and building structures that could instinctively be linked to Shanghai.
But before we begin, one area that houses a myriad of architectural styles is The Bund. This waterfront landmark is a protected historical district synonymous to Shanghai. As a rich and powerful epicenter of foreign establishments during the mid 1800s to the 1930s, it displays magnificent monolith structures mirroring the international influences that shaped the city.
Photo source: Flickr | Jens Schott Knudsen | At night, The Bund illuminates the promenade; by day, it stands tall and imposing.
Along this stretch, there are 52 buildings showing mostly Eclecticism in architecture but with some exhibiting predominantly Neoclassical, Renaissance, Baroque, Art Deco and Modernism. The most iconic structures here are the large concession-era buildings near the center of the embankment that can be seen on most photos of The Bund; these are:
- HSBC Building (汇丰银行大楼): completed in 1923 in Western style neoclassical architecture, currently housing the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank
- Custom House (上海海关大楼): built in 1927, sister building of HSBC in the neoclassical style
- Swatch Art Peace Hotel (斯沃琪和平饭店艺术中心): the former Palace Hotel, completed in 1906 in the renaissance style with its eye-catching red and white facade
- Fairmont Peace Hotel (和平饭店): formerly called the Sassoon House, completed in 1929 following a consistent art deco theme
Now onto the list of architectural highlights that are iconically Shanghai:
1. Oriental Pearl TV Tower
Completed in 1994 and located in the new Pudong district, the Oriental Pearl Tower is probably the most iconic and recognizable of Shanghai’s skyline. The exclusive architectural shape sets it apart from the other mega skyscrapers of the city.
Standing 468 meters in height and built with 11 glittering spheres of varying sizes and three gigantic columns, its distinctive structural design follows the futuristic style while fusing historical ideologies and meaning.
Photo source: Lonely Planet | The top sphere of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
Three slanted stanchions, each with a sphere, stand at the bottom before moving up to the first main sphere, also called the ‘bottom ball’ (下体球). This 50-diameter sphere is the biggest pearl of the structure. Next, the middle sphere, called the ‘upper ball’ (上体球), is just slightly smaller than the bottom ball. And the topmost sphere is the ‘space capsule’ (太空舱), standing 350 meters above the ground, before the antenna spire begins.
In between, there are five smaller spheres that make up the body of the building. From the ground up, all elements are connected to a transparent lift – the first of its kind in the world – to give the visitors a panoramic view of the city.
It is said this architectural marvel mimics that of a poem verse from the Tang Dynasty – speaking of a pipa instrument making twinkling sounds like large and small pearls falling onto a jade plate.
2. Jin Mao Tower
Photo source: Flickr | Joan Campderrós-i-Canas | The Jin Mao Tower with the biggest viewing platform in China on its 88th floor.
Part of the first generation of sky high buildings in Asia, Jin Mao Tower stands at 420 meters and represents neo-futurism and Chinese architectural styles and beliefs. At the time of its completion in 1998, the tower was the tallest building in China.
One of the main inspirations for its architectural shape is an ancient Chinese pagoda, where each level is similar to the next and gradually narrows as it rises. Another important element is the number ‘8’ which, in Chinese culture, is considered prosperous and lucky.
To begin, the tower is located on 88 Century Boulevard. It opened on August 28, 1998, a date specifically chosen because it has a few number 8s on it. The entire structure is built around a central octagonal concrete, goes up to 88 floors, which are divided into 16 segments (8*2) and each segment is ⅛ shorter than the segment below it to achieve that pagoda-like climb.
Photo source: Tristan Lavender Photography | Just below the observatory, visitors can look inside to the gasp-worthy barrel-vaulted hotel atrium that has 28 annular corridors and is the second tallest in the world – next only to Dubai’s Burj Al Arab.
With 88 storeys, the Grand Hyatt Hotel occupies the top 38 floors, and the rest below are retail, convention spaces, and offices. For its facade, Jin Mao Tower has a metal and glass curtain wall that reflects the city’s lights and changing skies and every night, the tower’s crown is illuminated.
3. Shanghai World Financial Center
Photo source: Trip.com | The Shanghai World Financial Center seemingly reflecting the city on its shiny surface.
A third architectural skyscraper visible on Shanghai’s skyline is the Shanghai World Financial Center. Located in Liujiazui Finance and Trade Zone, this high profile, futuristic tower spearheads Shanghai’s aspirations to become an international financial hub. It houses leading international financial institutions, law firms and consulting companies.
Completed in 2008, the tower stretches to a height of 492 meters with 101 storeys, topping Jin Mao for the title of tallest building in China at that time. The structure’s form is derived from a square prism – an ancient Chinese symbol of the earth. The curved line towards the top means that footprint considerably decreases on the upper levels which houses the Park Hyatt Hotel.
The signature architectural design of a cutout top was done to reduce wind effect on the building. And it is also this element that gave it its playful, informal name – the Bottle Opener. With this design, the SWFC Sky Arena was born which gave visitors aerial views of the sprawling city as well as a chance to walk almost 500 meters above the city via the Skywalk.
Photo source: Klook | The observation deck for a bird’s eye view of the city on glass floor platforms.
To enhance that sense of lightness and dynamism, the entire structure is enveloped with a laminated glass curtain wall giving it a silvery, shiny appearance from the outside.
“I think, at least for me, I’m so impressed by Shanghai and how all of China continues to evolve. On a style level, you’re seeing this increased sophistication and brand awareness.” – Kevin Kwan
4. Shanghai Tower
Photo source: Unsplash | Siyuan Hu | The Shanghai Tower, a beautiful, imposing superstructure that dominates the skyline.
Completed in 2015, the high-tech, futuristic Shanghai Tower is China’s tallest skyscraper reaching 632 meters with 128 storeys. Adjacent to the World Financial Center and Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai Tower rounds up the four megatowers that dominate the Shanghai skyline.
Apart from being the second tallest tower in the world, it is also a recipient of the LEED® Platinum Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and given a China Green Building Three Star rating. This megastructure is a concrete symbol of the move towards sustainable development without shying away or compromising technological creativity and techniques.
“Not to be outdone, the Chinese government has described this building as ‘a symbol of a nation whose future is filled with limitless opportunities.” – The Architectural Review
Photo source: Unsplash | Mikhail Preobrazhenskiy | A closer view of the iconic twisting form of the Shanghai Tower.
This prominent icon features stunning architectural creativity with its twisted and curved form making a 120-degree rotation from the base to the top – an asymmetrical surface design that reduces wind load on the building. Another idea behind the design is vertical parks, achieved with the ‘sky lobbies’ that are naturally-lit and filled with greenery.
The facade comprises two glass curtain walls creating thermal buffers and improving indoor air quality. Maximum daylight is reached with a transparent second layer that also serves as an insulating blanket to conserve energy – controlling cool external air and dissipating heat.
Xia Jun, design leader of Shanghai Tower stated: ‘traditional design-influenced Jin Mao Tower represents our past, the Shanghai World Financial Centre our present, but the Shanghai Tower represents China’s boundless future’.
5. Yuyuan Garden
Photo source: Britannica | One of the exquisite pavilions around the garden.
Moving away from the modern futuristic skyline, the next iconically Shanghai architecture is the Yuyuan Gardens (豫园). Built more than 400 years ago and an exquisite example of late Ming Dynasty garden architecture, the Yu Gardens is the oldest in the list.
Covering over 20,000 square meters and located in the center of Shanghai’s Old City, this beautiful scenery has become a garden oasis. These private gardens were constructed over the course of 18 years and through the centuries, most parts were severely damaged and only through massive restoration in 1956 that its original beauty was restored. Gates opened to the public in 1961.
Photo source: Pinterest | John Glines | A round-shaped gate in Yu Gardens that frames the scenery beyond it – these uniquely-shaped archways are common architectural designs for gardens in ancient China.
As soon as you enter the gates, you’ll be transported back in time as rock, water and features of classical Chinese architecture surround you. There is a perfect blend of exquisite sculptures and carvings, impressive rock formations, glittering pools, zigzag bridges, pagodas and decorative ancient halls and pavilions.
Get a glimpse into ancient China with the distinctive Chinese-style sweeping roofs with flying eaves, usually a style reserved for temples, palaces or houses of the wealthy. Look closer at the details on the roofs and you’ll find carvings of animals like dragons, phoenixes, lions, horses, and many more, each with their own significance.
As you walk through the maze-like corridors and archways, you’ll come across bridges, uniquely-shaped gates, hidden doors, and dragon walls. Through all these spectacular historical structures and designs, the garden’s beauty and true meaning lie in the details – like the structures on roofs or the inscriptions and couplets.
6. The Paramount
Photo source: Shine.cn | The restored old Paramount Ballroom lights up the night streets of Shanghai.
Completed in 1933, during the height of international trade that made Shanghai a glistening metropolis for foreign visitors, The Paramount Ballroom was the forefront of high entertainment. Made in the art deco architectural style, the building was pronounced the most lavish and luxurious structure of its kind ever made in China or the Far East.
“Modern in every respect, with a fine color scheme, excellent orchestra, service and entertainment, the ballroom lived up to its boast of being the most beautiful nightclub this side of the Pacific,” The China Press once said.
Photo source: Time Out Shanghai | A view of the lavish ballroom’s interiors featuring the large dancing floor.
Photo source: SmartShanghai | A peek into the extremely opulent private dining rooms of the building.
The opulent interiors were fit for all the city’s wealthy, which included Hollywood superstars, like Charlie Chaplin. As it attracts all these high profile individuals, this grandiose place challenged traditional Chinese values. However, the experience created by this architectural marvel was not only pleasurable and fashionable but played an important role in Shanghai’s modernity.
Inside, the high class private dining rooms, soft, cushioned chairs, dimmed lights, beautiful walls and excellent dancing floor all equated to luxury and comfort. On top of being a symbol towards modernity, it was also the start of impressive architectural changes that the city underwent as it lived up to the name of ‘Paris of the East’.
Photo source: Flickr | Ted McGrath | A glimpse of a typical shikumen architecture in the Xintiandi area.
Shikumen architecture (石库门), translated as ‘stone gate’, is a distinct local architecture and authentic feature synonymous to Shanghai. First seen in the 1860s, this traditional style was an architectural phenomenon created when the East and West came together. At the height of its popularity, there were around 9,000 shikumen structures in the city, mostly residences.
Shikumen is a type of longtang (弄堂) or lilong (里弄) residences, meaning ‘lane houses’ in English. On the outside, there are two or three-storey structures resembling Western terrace houses with high brick walls. Going in, the Chinese influence becomes evident – inspired by traditional folk houses and local feng shui beliefs – each shikumen would have a courtyard.
Courtyards promote better air circulation and water drainage but more importantly, it is believed to be the center of chi and fortune. Upon entering the stone gate (usually with stylistic stone arches), you are welcomed onto a central courtyard, surrounded by rooms on three sides, which serves as an ‘outdoor’ refuge from street commotions and activity and allows the formation of a personal vegetable garden.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons | Shikumen architecture given a modern spin.
Standing on narrow pedestrian-friendly streets, shikumen development peaked in the 1920s to 30s, but stopped in the 1950s. In the growth of this modern megacity, shikumens were barely able to retain their standing (less than a fourth are left) to make room for high-rises.
In recent years, preservation efforts are underway to keep intact the little that remains of this historical architecture and way of life – redevelopment projects in areas like Tianzifang and Xintiandi work to rebrand these old buildings and breathe new life into them as tourist attractions.
“And Shanghai is amazing. I’m a fan of science fiction so when you’re there in the night with all the lights and all this modernity, it’s like a set in a movie.” – Berenice Marlohe