Shanghai Rising

The storied Chinese city has seen unprecedented growth over the past decade, as evidenced by its diverse architecture and massive new skyscrapers.


After just two trips to Shanghai, I've already developed a first-day routine that I'm sure I'll stick to on future visits: As soon as I drop my bags at the hotel, I head directly for one of the rooftop bars and restaurants lining the Bund, the city's famous riverfront boulevard and the best place from which to assess Shanghai's sometimes daring, sometimes schizophrenic attempts to balance Chinese urbanism and outside influence.

One particularly good spot is the broad terrace of the New Heights restaurant, atop a former bank at the southern end of the Bund. Stretching north from there in a gentle crescent are the lavish neoclassical buildings that suggest Shanghai's reign in the 1920s and 1930s as one of the most cosmopolitan and hedonistic cities in the world.

Across the broad Huangpu River and its floating traffic, meanwhile, loom the glittering, soaring skyscrapers of Pudong, site of Shanghai's spectacular growth in the last decade. So many new towers have been built in Pudong that the land itself, covered as recently as 15 years ago mostly by farms, has begun to sink a couple of inches a year beneath the collective architectural weight.

There is no view in the world quite like it. The skylines of Hong Kong and Rio may be perched on the edge of more scenic natural locations.

Jin Liwang for Getty Images for Los Angeles Times

The economic ambitions of past and present have combined to give Shanghai its distinct mixture of architecture.

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European capitals may have deeper collections of architectural masterpieces. But only in Shanghai can you see unfettered 21st-century ambition facing off as spectacularly against the early 20th-century version.

If you're thinking there is nothing essentially Chinese about that view, you're right. But as I was reminded recently when I returned for a weeklong architectural pilgrimage, Shanghai's great appeal has always been its energetic mixing of cultures, with plenty of Occident to go with the Orient.

Centuries after Beijing and the other cultural capitals in China had been fully developed, Shanghai was still a sleepy fishing village on the country's eastern coast. It had a natural port and an advantageous location near the East China Sea, but it wasn't until the arrival of large numbers of British soldiers and traders in the 1830s and 1840s -- followed by the French and later the Japanese -- that the city began to expand beyond its modest, walled center and take its current shape.

Those foreign powers divided part of the city into districts, or "concessions," that retain distinct personalities. The French concession, for example, west of the old walled city, features tranquil avenues lined with leafy plane trees and antiques shops and terminating in carefully laid-out parks.

The foreign occupation was painful and exploitative for the locals, to be sure. But architecturally, the influx of foreign residents -- and capital -- led to some of the earliest and most successful examples of international design anywhere in the world.

A good example is the dense fabric of apartment blocks, known as lilong, that blanketed the city in the first decades of the 20th century. These buildings used as a template the low-slung apartment blocks connected by narrow alleyways that were common throughout China. But they also showed signs of European influence.

The result was a housing type unique to Shanghai: low-rise apartment buildings that looked Western on the outside but inside faced shared courtyards and allowed several generations to live together (or at least adjacent to one another). Walking through one of those apartment blocks hidden behind the shops and office buildings on Huai Hai Road, I saw not just clothes but a side of beef hanging to dry from buildings with Tudor-style ornament.

Indeed, although the most important buildings in Shanghai, new and old, have a Western look -- and generally were designed by Western architects -- their personalities are inevitably transformed by having been built, and occupied, here.

The Bund, for example, tells a distinctly Shanghainese story, even if the pageant is played out in Western costume: how its grand buildings were commissioned by colonists and built by locals, who were then banned from their interiors; how they fell into disrepair after the Communists came to power in 1949; and how they've been rehabilitated since China was reopened to foreign investment in the 1980s.

As the skyscrapers crowding Pudong attest, Shanghai is in the middle of one of the biggest building booms in history. Even the statistics on that growth are staggering. In the last two decades, more than 5,000 buildings 15 stories or taller have gone up in the city. For much of the 1990s, by one estimate, three-quarters of all the construction cranes in the world were operating in China, and more than a quarter of the global total was in Shanghai alone.

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