10 Off-The-Beaten-Path Architecture in Shanghai You Should See

Have you been to Shanghai?

No? You should go, at least once. 

There are so many things to see and do in this sparkling city.

You might be familiar with the well-known architecture on The Bund, or easily recognize the Oriental Pearl Tower and Shanghai Tower on the city’s skyline. But there are many other gems hidden in the city that are not yet as publicized as the others. 

Off the touristy spots, you will find the splendors of old on off-the-beaten paths lending much to the city’s charm and character. 

Today, we’re going on a little adventure and show you some amazing architecture and designs the city has to offer which might not exactly be on the top of your must-see list. Yet

Shanghai streets

Photo source: Unsplash | Barry

1. Shikumen Open House Museum (屋里厢-石库门博物馆)

Shikumen architecture (also called ‘stone-gate’ houses) is a building design that is synonymous to Shanghai. Similar to the design of Western townhouses but incorporates Chinese elements and tradition, the shikumen style is evidence of Western influence in the city during the early 1900s. 

Shanghai architecture Shikumen Open House Museum
Shanghai architecture Shikumen Open House Museum

Photo source: Trip.com

Built in the 1920s, renovated and preserved throughout the century, the museum comprises five rooms with period furniture. It even includes a small triangular room, or ‘tingzijian’, that was commonly rented out to impoverished writers before. 

Nestled in bustling Xintiandi, Shikumen Open House Museum presents the Shanghai living space and lifestyle as it was during those days. Here, you will feel like being transported back in time when you enter this old-time single-household, step into its courtyard and drawing room. 

Shanghai architecture Shikumen Open House Museum

Photo source: Meet-in-Shanghai.net

Shanghai architecture Shikumen Open House Museum

Photo source: Viator

2. XinChang Ancient Town (新场古镇)

There are several ancient water towns on the edges of Shanghai. Xinchang Ancient Town is less visited compared to the famous Zhujiajiao. Still, this old town has over a hundred preserved, ancient houses and structures from the Ming and Qing dynasties that date back almost 800 years ago. 

Originally a salt field, the land gradually flourished and merchants decided to stay. This historical water town is like a postcard of ancient China coming to life – with its winding rivers, exquisite stone archways and folk homes that remain as residences or food stalls today. 

Shanghai watertown architecture XinChang Ancient Town
Shanghai watertown architecture XinChang Ancient Town

Photo source: Trip.com

Taking a short day trip to this charming water town will definitely give you a peaceful break from the modern city. All around the narrow, winding streets, you will come across drinking halls and tea houses where you can relax and small shops to shop for cute souvenirs and period decor.

Throughout this once thriving historical town, classical architecture of white walls, carved doors, wooden windows, Chinese roofs, saddle-shaped stone bridges give a beautiful, delicate, archaistic fragrance. 

Shanghai watertown architecture XinChang Ancient Town

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons 

Shanghai watertown architecture XinChang Ancient Town

Photo source: Expedia

3. 1933 Old Millfun

As its name says, this architectural feat was built in 1933 as one of the largest and most modernized slaughterhouses of that time. Constructed in pre-Communist Shanghai, when the western influences are still rampant in the city, this four-storey complex was made possible by the collaboration of British architects and Chinese developers. 

The 1933 Old Millfun’s imposing structure was made in the art deco architectural style, as was the prominent approach back then. But since its retirement as an abattoir in the 1960s, it has had face lifts to serve many occasions. Despite that, its original purpose of slaughtering cattle still comes through with its unique design. 

Shanghai art deco architecture 1933 Old Millfun Slaughterhouse
Shanghai art deco architecture 1933 Old Millfun Slaughterhouse

Photo source: The Culture Trip

From natural light, air circulation, ventilation, to anti-slip surfaces and 50cm hollowed concrete walls, this massive concrete edifice was designed with the sole purpose of controlling animal flow and slaughter odor. Even with the design circling around this utilitarian purpose, the art deco motif remains evident in many of the building’s elements – like its windows and ‘flowering’ columns. 

Today, this Gotham-deco architectural style is a lifestyle center with restaurants and retail. Upon entering this building, its former glory is still very much evident. But it also gives off an eerie feeling especially with its rough surfaces, intertwining staircases, narrow corridors, ramps and air bridges. 

Shanghai art deco architecture 1933 Old Millfun Slaughterhouse

Photo source: Hidden Architecture

4. Long Museum West Bund

Located on the bank of Huangpu river on what was the wharf for coal transportation, the 1950s industrial structure has been transformed to a radical new art gallery. 

In the process of thinking through the design, architects of the Long Museum – Atelier Deshaus – wanted an architecture that endures. To stay true and preserve a relic of Shanghai’s industrial culture, the focal point of the museum becomes the coal-hopper unloading bridge – a prominent remnant of the site. 

Shanghai architecture Long Museum West Bund

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

On its own, this old, rusty structure that measures 110 meters long, 10 meters wide and 8 meters high may not be much of a sight. But as the centerpiece of contemporary structures flanking it on both sides, the unloading bridge comes alive as it frames the museum’s entrance and serves homage to the site’s history. 

For the buildings, one architectural element that repeats itself from its exteriors to the interiors is ‘vault umbrellas’. Framing the structure inside and out, these columns curve out towards the top, forming what seems to be the halves of an arch. 

Outside, these arches frame the unloading bridge. Inside, they house different sections of the museum and vary in height. Creating the image of freedom and uncertainty in the exploration of contemporary art with seemingly multiple routes for different exhibitions.

“Nowadays, for most people, visiting a museum no longer means a sequential contemplation of one room after another,” architect Liu Yichun shares with dezeen, “Especially for contemporary art, its exhibition, even its process of being viewed and created; all of them anticipate uncertainty.” 

Shanghai architecture Long Museum West Bund

Photo source: ArchDaily

Shanghai architecture Long Museum West Bund

Photo source: dezeen

5. Power Station of Art

Another contemporary art museum on the list is the Power Station of Art (PSA). Opened in 2012, this state-run museum is housed in a converted power station, originally built in 1955. In the process of reconstruction, the design stays true to the existing spaces and industrial characteristics of the power plant. 

Shanghai architecture Power Station of Art

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Before it became the PSA, the power plant was first transformed into the “Pavilion of the Future” during the Shanghai World Expo of 2010. Soon after, as an expansion project to the pavilion, its designers – Original Design Studio – turned it into the Power Station of Art, right on time to house the 9th Shanghai Biennale

Being a former power station, one iconic component of this architecture is the 165-foot chimney that contains its own independent exhibition space. Interestingly, it also serves as a huge thermometer – LEDs are used to display temperatures outside. This visual landmark connotes the growth and importance of Shanghai’s art scene. 

Throughout its changing functions, the building’s industrial heritage remains. The PSA continues its journey to serve as a platform where you can visit, learn and appreciate contemporary art. 

Shanghai architecture Power Station of Art

Photo source: Tripadvisor

Shanghai architecture Power Station of Art

Photo source: My Art Guide

6. Holy Trinity Cathedral

Consecrated in 1869, the cathedral’s neo-gothic design was led by British architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott. Like many of Shanghai’s old architecture, the historical Christian church is a design frozen in time. It is the oldest cathedral of its type in China. 

Shanghai architecture Holy Trinity Cathedral

At that time, the Holy Trinity Cathedral was the tallest building in the city and a symbol of the British settlement that was starting to emerge. This recognizable architectural icon shows how the British community wished to make its mark in the city and create a permanent structure to serve the growing Christian community in Shanghai. 

Later in 1893, the church spire was added as more befitting the ecclesiastical British architectural style. Additionally, in order to accommodate a larger congregation, William Kidner, an English designer assisting in the project, made some adjustments to the original design. 

The structure had impressive ribbed vault ceilings, mosaic-tiled floors, red brick constructions, stained-glass windows and most notably, the church organ manufactured by Walkers of London. Over time, the church fell to despair but has recently been restored to its former beauty that you see today. 

Shanghai architecture Holy Trinity Cathedral
Shanghai architecture Holy Trinity Cathedral

Photo source: GilbertScott.org

7. Shanghai Postal Museum

Rarely included in the list of must-see architectures in the city, the Shanghai Postal Museum (or the General Post Office Building 上海邮政总局大楼), is a historical landmark and a monumental structure to behold. 

Shanghai was China’s central postal network in the early years of the Republic. Built in 1924, this four-storey building follows the classical style of architecture with a Baroque style clocktower on top of its main entrance. Beautifully added to the clocktower ‘s design are the sculptures of Hermes, the herald and messenger of Mount Olympus, Eros and Aphrodite, the god and goddess of love. 

Built using steel and concrete and following an eclectic mix of European architectural styles, this imposing structure on the banks of the Suzhou Creek signifies the large international settlements in Shanghai back then. 

Shanghai architecture Shanghai Postal Museum

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Shanghai architecture Shanghai Postal Museum

Photo source: Trip.com

Considered quite a massive structure then, the building covers around 7,000 square meters, with a 1,200-square-meter trading hall on the second floor. Its design and size earned it the name of “First Hall of the Far East”. A visit inside will show you interesting stamps, quaint old posting and letter boxes; you can even try using its delivery service. 

Not only that but down below, the structure’s foundations are made of an ingenious system of tanks that fills and drains with water from the nearby Suzhou Creek. As the water levels rose and fell, this smart design ensured the building remained stable. 

Shanghai architecture Shanghai Postal Museum
Shanghai architecture Shanghai Postal Museum

Photo source: SmartShanghai

8. Normandie Apartments (or Wukang Mansion 武康大楼)

Different from the others on the list, this particular one offers its visitors a little bit of thrill. For almost a century – between 1849 to 1943 – the French government owned a little slice of Shanghai where they built several business and residential buildings in the European style. Dotted with European architecture, the former French concession is a popular tourist spot, especially when also littered with quaint cafes and shops. 

The Normandie Apartments sits at a rare six-way intersection. Attracting attention with its red brick walls and unique wedge-shaped structure, reminiscent of the Flatiron Building in New York. This masterpiece residential building was spearheaded by Hungarian-Slovak architect, László Hudec.

Completed in 1924, the eight-storey building follows the French Renaissance style and is the oldest veranda-style apartment building in Shanghai. In 1953, it was renamed the Wukang Mansion (武康大楼) and is now one of the city’s historic buildings.

Shanghai architecture Normandie Apartments Wukang Mansion

Photo source: Unsplash | Harry Jing

Through the years, many prominent individuals in business and film occupied its rooms. There were formerly 63 units and 30 servants’ quarters; other interior design elements show semi-circular vaults, stone-like cement walls, spiral staircases and yellow-brown tiled walls. 

But then, the most interesting bit is the drama circulating around the building. It is said to be haunted. Targeted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), dozens of intellectuals and enemies of state were driven to commit suicide. Popular actress Shangguan Yunzhu lived there in the 1960s after her career was said to be on the decline. Rumor has it, she was badly beaten leading her to jump off her seventh-floor window in November 1968. All these jumps made locals refer to it as “the diving board”.

Today, the peripheral structures have been renovated giving way for clear photos of the Normandie Apartments. Are you ready to give it a visit?

Shanghai architecture Normandie Apartments Wukang Mansion

Photo source: Meet-in-Shanghai.net

Shanghai architecture Normandie Apartments Wukang Mansion
Shanghai architecture Normandie Apartments Wukang Mansion

Photo source: Radii China

9. Intercontinental Shanghai Wonderland (Tianma Pit Hotel) 

Opened in 2018, the Intercontinental Shanghai Wonderland is a unique ‘groundscraper’ hotel located in Songjiang district in Shanghai offering its visitors a different hospitality experience. In the recent decade or so, China has been building one stunning skyscraper after the next, winning accolades for groundbreaking designs. This time, it went the opposite direction and gave its onlookers a hotel ‘underground’.

Shanghai architecture Intercontinental Shanghai Wonderland (Tianma Pit hotel)
Shanghai architecture Intercontinental Shanghai Wonderland (Tianma Pit hotel)

Photo source: ArchDaily

This five-star Intercontinental hotel was constructed in an abandoned quarry. Given its unique site and architectural and design challenges, there were several delays in the building of this one-of-a-kind structure. If you’re looking for a different staycation experience, this might be it. How would you feel sleeping underground, or better yet, underwater?

This pit at the foot of Tianmashan has been a quarry since the 1950s. The bottom part has around 20 meters of stagnant rainwater which the hotel retained – to provide its guests with a new experience. 

Following the natural concave shape of the quarry, the hotel rests on its rock face as if emerging slowly from the crater. Comprising 18 storeys, the hotel has two levels above ground and 16 below, along with an underwater restaurant and aquarium. The hotel’s pièce de résistance is its vertical glass curtain in the center built to mimic a waterfall along with a glass walkway coming out of the quarry cliff, 87 meters above ground. 

Shanghai architecture Intercontinental Shanghai Wonderland (Tianma Pit hotel)

Photo source: Architizer

10. Old Jewish Ghetto

As Jews flee from the Holocaust during the second World War, many ended up in the city of Shanghai, being the only place which was still willing to accept them without papers or visas. While most of the Jewish quarters in the city have disappeared, the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, sitting at the heart of the Jewish ghetto, was the primary religious destination for Jews who flocked to the city. 

It has been restored and stands today as the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. A testament to how the city saved tens of thousands of Jewish lives simply by opening their doors when it was needed most. 

Shanghai architecture Old Jewish Ghetto
Shanghai architecture Old Jewish Ghetto

Photo source: Tripadvisor

Located in Hongkou district in the northern part of the city, the synagogue was built by Russian Jews in 1927. It was later confiscated by the government in 1949 after the communist takeover – also the time when the Jews in Shanghai dwindled to nearly zero. 

Marked as one of Shanghai’s architectural heritage treasures, Ohel Moshe Synagogue was restored to its original architectural design in 2007 when it was transformed into a museum to commemorate the Jewish refugees. A few historical, ghetto period residential buildings still stand around the synagogue where they are preserved as part of the Tilanqiao Historic Area.

Shanghai architecture Old Jewish Ghetto

Photo source: Viator

Shanghai architecture Old Jewish Ghetto

Photo source: China Daily

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