Architectural Heritage

Touring Shanghai’s most threatened historic districts

By: Gary Bowerman

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Historic buildings along the Bund
A bit like a movie set” is a frequently uttered comment by new arrivals in Shanghai. The density, height and even-Hollywood-couldn’t-create-this modernism of the cloud-puncturing skyline is the city’s defining characteristic.

But experienced travelers soon tire of sci-fi architecture. Even fine examples like the Jin Mao Tower (home to the Grand Hyatt hotel), formerly mainland China’s tallest building, and its replacement, the almost-completed Shanghai World Financial Center set to temporarily be the world’s tallest building quickly lose their luster. For visitors, historical intrigue usually trumps futuristic bravado.

A relatively young city, Shanghai was largely developed after becoming a Treaty Port following the British-Chinese Opium War in 1842. This youthful status means that it grew up during the waves of late 19th- and 20th-century architectural experimentalism that spread east, primarily from Europe and the U.S.

Shanghai’s complex formative history is now driving a discernible tourism trend: specialist architecture tours. And the time to experience them is now, because as Shanghai undergoes a massive urban facelift ahead of hosting the 2010 World Expo, it is tearing down several traditional districts and some fine heritage buildings.

“Demand for architectural tours has been fairly steady in recent years,” said Patrick Cranley, an American-born, Shanghai-based historian and tour guide, and co-founder of the Shanghai Historic House Association. “Most visitors want a general introduction to the city’s social and historic development and are not so familiar with architectural styles. The interests of those familiar with architecture fall into three categories: historic, contemporary and art deco. These are all important and related aspects of Shanghai’s built heritage.”

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The art-deco Paramount dance hall
Today, specialist tours are available for everything from Mao-era communist history buildings to 1920’s art deco; Shanghai’s industrial heritage to its wartime Jewish ghetto; shopping tours combining modern malls and traditional department stores; walking trails of the charming European villas in the former French Concession and remaining longtang Chinese lane neighborhoods; and history tours of People’s Square, which resembles a tapestry of old and new building styles, and Shanghai’s undoubted architectural jewel: the Bund.

Time-poor business travelers often require a combination of the above, plus added extras. I recently conducted a bus tour for urban planning experts starting in the downtown district of Puxi and passing across the Huangpu River to the new business hub in Pudong, commenting on the diversity of past, present and future architectural styles en route.

Even for heritage connoisseurs, Shanghai is never short of surprises. Many visitors are unaware that it boasts one of the world’s greatest collections of art-deco architecture. During its 1920’s and ’30’s Paris of the Orient heyday, Shanghai became the world’s fifth-largest city, and an influx of foreign capital and cultures drove a building boom that nurtured its complex East-meets-West personality.

Today, Shanghai stands proudly alongside art-deco cities like Miami, Los Angeles, Melbourne and Mumbai. Unlike these cities, its art-deco buildings designed by foreign and Chinese architects are not concentrated in a particular district. Though mostly located in the former French Concession and International Settlement, Shanghai’s art-deco treasures can also be found in public spaces, like People’s Square and the Bund, and clustered along its second river, Suzhou Creek. Art deco touched all aspects of pre-war life, from family homes of the rich and powerful to schools, hospitals, warehouses, hotels, department stores, ballrooms and movie theaters. Fine examples are still standing across Shanghai today.

The riverside Bund offers perhaps Shanghai’s most popular and accessible architectural history tour.

“Back in the 1920s, the Bund was a great social center, and hopefully the new wave of restorations of these fine old buildings will bring the area back to life,” said Peter Hibbard, a Shanghai-based historian, tour guide and author of “The Bund: China Faces West,” who is currently preparing a two-volume book on walking tours of historic Shanghai.

Known locally as Waitan (outsider’s beach), the Bund is a mile-long strip of late 19th- and early 20th-century international banking headquarters threaded along the western bank of the Huangpu River. It is often called a Museum of World Architecture, and connoisseurs will note myriad influences, including neo-classical, Italian, Greek, French, Chinese, Japanese and art deco.

As interest in Shanghai and China diversifies, repeat visitors are seeking more eclectic architectural experiences. Yangpu district in eastern Shanghai remains a largely undiscovered treasure chest, where a diversely built environment showcases Shanghai’s industrial and shipping heritage. Yangshupu Lu features intriguing architectural styles, including the Shanghai Waterworks, which resembles a British castle; the former GE factory, once Asia’s largest manufacturing site and now converted into a creative center and garden by Taiwanese architect Teng Kun-yen; the huge Zhonghua Shipyard and modernist seven-story Shanghai Tobacco Museum, whose prime exhibits include tobacco chewed by both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Nearby, and leading the way in respectful renovation, is the former Shanghai Abattoir. This marvelous art-deco masterpiece is currently being renovated as the Shanghai Millfun 1933 Arts and Culture Centre, and will reopen in November in time to host the annual Shanghai Creative Industry Week festival.