Shanghai's art-deco masterpiece

SUN JOURNAL

Architecture: In China's grossly overbuilt financial capital, the 88-story Jin Mao towers over a cityscape reminiscent of "Blade Runner."

February 02, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHANGHAI, China -- After littering the skylines of its cities with anonymous high-rises, China has built its first world-class skyscraper by mining the architectural heritage of both East and West.

Combining art-deco lines reminiscent of New York's Chrysler Building with the tapered form of a Chinese pagoda, the Jin Mao Tower creates a striking presence over this urban landscape of more than 14 million.

The 88-story building, which opened last year, has emerged as a landmark in Shanghai's new Pudong district, which until recently was mostly fields and factories. From across the Huangpu River in the city's older main section, tourists frame their photos with the skyscraper and Shanghai's other modern colossus, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower.

Praise rolls in from high critics and sidewalk spectators. "Successfully fuses past and present, melding the two with subtlety and restraint," judges the magazine Architectural Record. "Spectacular!" exclaims tourist Tang Xiaoliang, peering through pay-per-view binoculars along Shanghai's picturesque promenade, The Bund.

At 1,379 feet, the Jin Mao -- "luxuriant gold" in Chinese -- is the tallest building in China and third-tallest in the world. China's only comparable structure is Hong Kong's 1,209-foot Bank of China, a razor blade of a building designed by the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei and built when the British still controlled the former colony.

Internationally, only the Petronas Towers (1,483 feet) in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur and the Sears Tower in Chicago (1,454 feet) are taller.

The Jin Mao is also home to the world's highest hotel, the 555-room Grand Hyatt Shanghai. It begins with a lobby on the 54th floor and stretches 33 stories up a vertiginous atrium that looks like an elongated version of the Guggenheim museum in Manhattan.

Little more than a fishing community in the 18th century, Shanghai is one of China's youngest and most Westernized cities. After the 1842 Opium War, foreigners made it a Treaty Port and ran it until the communist takeover in 1949. British, French and Americans built enclaves, creating a city of extraordinary architectural diversity near the mouth of the Yangtze River. A colorful cast of gangsters, prostitutes, refugees and gamblers earned Shanghai its reputation as "The Paris of the East" and "The Whore of Asia."

Elements from China's architectural tradition and Shanghai's colonial past come together in the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill design for the Jin Mao. Recalling a pagoda, the building of stainless steel, aluminum and glass rises in ever-decreasing steps, culminating in a shimmering spire. At its base, a translucent footbridge zigzags across the adjacent retail annex -- just like the wooden one that leads to a tea house on the edge of Yuyuan, the city's classic garden. Some hotel rooms feature lacquered headboards inscribed with Tang Dynasty (618-907) poetry.

In the late 1920s, architects in Shanghai embraced art deco, using elaborate grillwork and stained glass in such landmarks as the Peace Hotel that stands along The Bund.

Across the water and 54 stories up, the Chinese accents in the Grand Hyatt's lobby recall the heyday of the Peace. Thinly cut alabaster gives the lobby's fluted lights the muted glow of old oil lamps. Grillwork behind the reception desk resembles a traditional pattern from a Chinese window.

"A lot of the art-deco designs were originally inspired by Asian motifs," says Jean-Philippe Heitz, who designed the hotel with the Florida firm of Bilkey Llinas Design. "So to reuse them in the creation of a new Asian style is perfectly logical. In the end, the whole design looks Chinese to Chinese people and art deco to foreigners."

Among China's many mysteries is how a culture that once produced such exquisite architecture as the Forbidden City could build such unimaginative modern skylines.

In Beijing blame falls to the municipal government. Former Mayor Chen Xitong, who is serving 16 years on an unrelated corruption conviction, demanded that new buildings have neo-traditional, Chinese roofs. Architects responded by slapping what often looked like conical hats on top of high-rises -- to hilarious effect.

Shanghai's skyline beats Beijing's, but not by a lot.

Glass and steel towers of the Houston variety jut up in an architectural hodgepodge. At night, when building lights wink through the smog, Shanghai resembles the futuristic cityscape in the 1980s science-fiction cult film, "Blade Runner."

The Jin Mao is a $540 million government project overseen by the China Shanghai Foreign Trade Center Co. Instead of dictating the design, the government held an international contest overseen by a panel that included architects from the United States, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Officials required only that the building have 88 floors -- eight is an auspicious number in Chinese culture -- and a hotel on top.

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