shanghai architecture (click here for the Shanghai Bund)
01 Highlights of the Bund 02 Pudong 03 Shanghai World Financial Center
04 Oriental Pearl Tower 05 Jin Mao Tower 06 Shimao International Plaza
07 Plaza 66 08 Tomorrow Square 09 Hong Kong New World Tower
10 Bocom Financial Towers 11 Grand Gateway Shanghai 12 Bank of Shanghai Headquarters
13 Yuyuan Garden 14 Shanghai Museum 15 Shanghai Grand Theatre
16 City God Temple 17 Shikumen 18 People's Square-
19 Shanghai City Hall 20 Shanghai Grand Theatre 21 Shanghai Museum
22 Shanghai Art Museum 23 Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall 24 People's Park
Shanghai Architecture:
From Its European Past into Its Chinese Future

A paper for Contemporary China: Transformations and Challenges
January, 2004  (with special thanks to Paul Schramm, )

Modern buildings in Shanghai

     When the Western world thinks of Chinese architecture, it thinks of upturned-roof corners, feng shui, and the Forbidden City.  “Modern” Chinese architecture is something of an enigma; it seems the West wants to limit its perception to the dynastic style of building.  But the West is being forced to recognize that modern Chinese architecture has come into its own.  The city of Shanghai typifies this exciting new development in modern Chinese architecture.  In Pudong, on one side of the Huangpu River, is a showcase of towering new buildings.  However, on the other side of the river, along the Bund, buildings stand that are reminders of a time when foreign styles were the only architectural option in Shanghai.  A large portion of architecture in Shanghai can be placed into these two main styles – the colonial European style architecture from the late 1800’s through the 1930s, exemplified by the Bund, and the modern architecture that emerged in the early 1990s.  While both the Bund architecture and the modern architecture in Shanghai seem to be entirely Western in style, the Bund architecture represents colonialist domination while the new architecture is an example of the emerging sense of proud Chinese nationalism and Shanghai regionalism.

Old and new

    In the late 1800s Shanghai was still a fairly unimportant fishing village.  After the Opium war, the city suddenly experienced a building boom. Its development became an “international venture” and “a property developer’s dream” (Baker, 18, 181).  Suddenly, as the city was opened up to the west, construction skyrocketed.  There were distinctly native Chinese and distinctly foreign sections of the city, and in the foreign concessions, “urban construction continued unabated” (Stapleton, 259).  The riverfront Bund rapidly developed and a new skyline emerged.  By 1900, the city was described as having the “most famous skyline east of the Suez” (Dong 195).  The architectural styles of the new buildings ran the gamut of European architecture:

        The edifices on the International Settlement’s Bund outdo those of many a European and American capital for sheer ornateness.  Built in a hodgepodge of styles – everything from Moorish to Italian Neo-Renaissance – they incorporate enough Doric and Ionic columns, friezes, bas-relief sculptures, balustrades, turrets, domes, cupolas, and clock towers to satisfy the most enthusiastic student of Western architecture. (Dong, 195)

    In addition to being extremely ornate, the Bund buildings were also the tallest in Asia at the time (Dong, 10).  Shanghai was being transformed into an important city, and its skyline mirrored this fact.  As the city became increasingly important, taller buildings were built, and more ornate styles were used.  This building boom initially had a positive effect on the local Chinese population.  The Bund was “certainly of great interest to the Chinese population, which tended to group it with other examples of wonders or marvels of all sorts” (Hearn, 64).  Having modern spectacles in their city was a source of excitement.  The new skyscrapers were exotic, and must have been enticing to the native Chinese population.  The look and feel of the city was beginning to change.
    By 1910, “a few areas of Shanghai could easily have been mistaken for parts of a European or American city” (Hearn, 63).  The first building boom on the Bund in the 1920’s led to “the beginnings of what would be known as Shanghai’s million-dollar skyline”, as “Ornate Italianate and neoclassical buildings that looked as if they had been plucked straight off the boulevards of Europe” were constructed along the river (Dong, 24). Gone was the former lazy waterfront town; it was quickly being transformed into a mock-European city.  Peggy Hookham, whose father was the Chief Engineer of the British Cigarette Company in Shanghai, visited Shanghai when she was nine years old. She commented, “As I looked at the waterfront of sedate banks and turn-of-the-century commercial buildings, I suddenly felt a comfortable familiarity. ‘China looks much more like England than America did’, I said” (Baker, 100).  Foreigners in China felt right at home, while the Chinese themselves sometimes felt out of place. The city had a mixed population consisting of many native Chinese and many international residents, but “architecturally, Shanghai recalled a city in northern Europe or America” (Sergeant, 2).  The Bund had the appearance of any European city, and Shanghai’s Chinese identity was beginning to be lost behind the façade of the towering skyscrapers.

Western-style buildings on the Bund

    Suddenly faced with a multitude of new European buildings, the people of Shanghai “were at once captivated by the power and possibilities that modern cities like Shanghai promised and humiliated by the knowledge that treaty ports owed so much to foreign enterprise” (Clifford, 37).  While the Chinese marveled at the wonder of the new buildings, there was no sense of pride associated with them.  The Bund buildings were entirely foreign, and stood as reminders that Europeans were essentially in control of Shanghai.  Specific buildings from the early 1900s demonstrate the effect of this European control.  The Customs Building, which opened in 1927, was “a monument to the foreign oversight of the China trade” (Clifford, 39).  The fact that this governmental building was entirely European in style shows how at that point the people and government of Shanghai had no control over the architecture of their city.  Another building, the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank, was one of the most magnificent buildings on the Bund, and was described as “a bastion of the British empire in China” (Van Kemenade, 300).  At its entrance stood a pair of bronze lions, seemingly an homage to Chinese tradition.  However, both of the lions were male and Western in style, and actually seemed to be mocking the Chinese tradition of placing protective lions in front of buildings.  The lions stood as “icons of capitalism”, and further showed the architectural power the British had in Shanghai (Dong, 199).
    As time progressed, the local Chinese population continued to see the European architecture as “the creation of outsiders” (Dong, 200). To them, Shanghai was “a foreign metropolis on Chinese soil” (Sergeant, 206).  Shanghai appeared nothing like Beijing or any other Chinese city. Its buildings stood as “an architectural hymn to white omnipotence” (Sergeant, 96).  The Bund buildings came to symbolize the European’s sense of superiority.  By planting their own buildings on Chinese soil, foreigners had robbed Shanghai of its Chinese identity.  The architecture of the Bund “represented China’s subjugation by outsiders” (Dong, 200).  One specific building, the Shanghai Club, may have been the pinnacle of this idea.  It had “Italianate cupolas capping a colonnaded façade”, and was the center of British social and financial privilege (Clifford, 39).  It is interesting to note that the building was called the Shanghai Club, rather than “the British Club” or “The London Club”.  The fact that it was the center of wealthy British life in Shanghai, and shared its name with the city, shows just how much control the British had over the city.  Shanghai was on Chinese soil, but the Chinese had no say in its operation. Under these circumstances, it seemed almost as if Shanghai was an actual British colony.  Harriet Sergeant, an English writer living in Japan, noted that “It is easy to forget that the British never colonized Shanghai as they did Hong Kong” (Sergeant, 96).  Although it was not formally a European colony, the British, and to a lesser extent the French, essentially controlled the city. Their Bund architecture served as a daily reminder of this fact; stone monuments of colonialist power.  Indeed, Shanghai bears all of the marks of a former colony.  English still remains on street signs, and the Bund itself still stands almost like a ghost of former occupation.
    By the late 1930s, things were beginning to change. Chinese businessmen began to become wealthy and open department stores with “extravagant spires” that “still surprise the city’s skyline”.  These stores “seemed to symbolize the new China, a China discovering the spirit of Western entrepreneurship, albeit protected by the codes of the foreign settlements” (Clifford, 62).  This was the first tentative step toward beginning to move toward new identity. The attitudes of people changed once again, and Shanghai, “with both pride and trepidation, began to think of itself as a city of skyscrapers” (Clifford, 63). The modern spirit of Shanghai was emerging.  And then came World War II and the following Maoist Era, shattering the path that Shanghai was on.
     Communism had extremely adverse affects on Shanghai.  What was once a thriving cosmopolitan city (albeit practically under European control) faded off the world map.  Architecturally, “communism had fallen on the city like a sandstorm, burying and preserving” (Sergeant, 5).  The Bund buildings continued to stand, but no significant new skyscrapers would be built for nearly half a century. While the rest of the world moved ahead architecturally, Shanghai was stuck in the 1920s.  By the 1970s, the Urban Construction Bureau of Shanghai listed one of it’s official goals as transforming Shanghai from a consumer city into a producer city, stating that “it is only through the transforming of consuming cities into producing cities that the people’s livelihood can be assured and also that urban construction can look forward to a bright future. This also represents the difference between socialist urban construction and imperialist urban construction” (Buck, 203).  This had drastic effects on Shanghai. During the communist era, “almost nothing was built in Shanghai except factories and concrete apartment blocks” (Van Kemenade, 295).  The skyline of Shanghai was marred with smokestacks, and the buildings on the Bund remained largely empty as no foreign banks occupied them.
    The development of modern Chinese architecture was “crippled by the cultural revolution” and then “overwhelmed by new economic reforms” (Liu, 4).  However, there was still a need for skyscrapers.  By the end of the 1970’s, the average population density was 42,000 per square kilometer, even though there was no high-rise housing available (Kirkby, 164).  The impetus to start building big was first based on this huge population density, and lack of space along the river.  The approaching regime change was about to change the look of Shanghai forever.
    From the 1800s through the 1970s, the people of Shanghai had no reason to feel great pride for their city.  One of the major downfalls of British administration in Shanghai was that they had “Failed to infuse Shanghai with civic pride” (Sergeant, 176).  Wealthy Britains had no reason to contribute to public works in Shanghai that would boost civic pride, “The building of fountains and the planting of trees was reserved for home”.  Rather they used their money in a power struggle, to see “who could build the tallest building on the Bund” (Sergeant, 177). Similarly, the communist regime from the 1950’s through the 1980’s could not introduce a love of Shanghai into the populace. No money was spent improving infrastructure; it was spent on huge smoke-spewing factories instead. Architecture was never a source of pride or identity for the citizens of Shanghai.
    With the recent emergence of a quasi-market economy, and vast amounts of money being spent on architecture that is nothing less than public spectacle, a sense of Shanghai regionalism and Chinese nationalism had quickly and efficiently developed.  By the late 1980s the gears had already been set in motion and the people of Shanghai would soon develop a city identity.  The new Shanghai, emerging within the last fifteen years, looks nothing like its faux-colonial or socialist pasts.  The city is emerging as a key world player and as “a newly important megalopolis” (Baker, 254).  The Bund itself has changed vastly since its beginnings ninety years ago.  While it retains its European architectural style, the blatant symbols of colonial domination have been removed.  The statues of Sir Harry Parkes and Augustus Raymond Margary no longer stand to “remind the passer-by of Britain’s role in opening China” (Clifford, 38).  Shanghai is removing symbols of its foreign past, while embracing its international future.  Not only is its British past being left behind, but the communist and socialist ideals of the middle of the 20th century are being abandoned as well.  The red star on the dome of the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank building, which was added in the 1960s, was recently removed (Van Kemenade, 300).  Shanghai is removing symbols of its past in order to move forward with its new identity.
    By the end of 2001, Shanghai had 3865 buildings eight or more stories high with 1548 buildings twenty stories or higher.  At last report there were over 300 high rise buildings under construction (  Modern Shanghai is an architect’s paradise.  Buildings of all different styles are being built at a frantic pace. In the early 1990s, Shanghai almost could not handle the sudden building boom.  Architects tried to blend ancient Chinese architectural style with modern Western skyscrapers, often with disastrous results. There were buildings where “cut outs and curves and pagoda roofs that clash with modern glass. Frenetic and indiscriminate constructions on a massive scale often ended up in the architectural hall of shame” (Liu, 2).  At this point, architecture remained Westernized but with superficial Chinese influences.  This was expressed through “replicas of Chinese architectural elements” (Gutierrez, 44).  Essentially, the new buildings were still European style, they just added a pagoda roof on top and called it Chinese architecture. E.C. Liu, a Chinese-American architect from a Shanghai family, said “I'm so jaded on Chinese architecture. I mean, if you see one pagoda-topped building, you've seen them all" (Gluckman, “Flash”).  Liu also pointed out that, "Modern architecture with indigenous identity does not necessary mean revivalism or superimposing traditional accoutrements onto modern structures. A deep understanding and appreciation of the theoretical implications of architectural heritage are essential, especially in relation to society and institutional practice" (Liu, 5).  Thus, a modern form of architecture with indigenous Shanghai identity is possible.  The new form can incorporate Chinese ideas without reverting to simply trying to copy the Forbidden City in skyscraper form.  Thus, the classic forms of Chinese architecture have not been abandoned in this search for a new style. However, they now serve as merely an influence to modern architecture, rather than simply superficially adding “Chinese style” to a building.

Hypermodern buildings near Xintiandi

    In the mid 1990s, Johannes Dell, a German architect who has done some work in Shanghai, says that “Shanghai is searching for an architectural expression" (Gluckman, “Flash”).  After evolving for a decade, Shanghai has found a truly Chinese form of modern architecture.  After the early period of trial and error, where architectural styles were only superficially “Chinese” and experimental to say the least, Shanghai has settled into its architectural place.  However, the new Chinese architecture in Shanghai is little-recognized by the West.  As it moves farther away from the stereotypical dragon motifs and rockery gardens, the architecture of Shanghai is no longer recognized as “Chinese” by the West.  This is an error in thought, however.  The new buildings in Shanghai are certainly not “traditional Chinese” architecture, but that does not mean they can not be “Chinese”.  Much in the same way that modern skyscrapers in New York and Chicago are quintessentially American buildings even though they do not in the least resemble classical American architecture such as Independence Hall or Monticello, Shanghai’s buildings define Shanghai without having to resort to emanating ancient Chinese architectural styles.
    While it does borrow from both Western and Chinese tradition, architecture in Shanghai has evolved into something that is found only there.  The president of the Shanghai Historic House Association noted that "Shanghai has its own architecture” that is “unique from the world perspective" (Gluckman, “Flash”).  By the mid 1990s, Shanghai was on its current course – fully Chinese and fully modern.  The European identity that abounded in the first part of the 1900s had all but vanished, only the thin façade of the Bund remains as a reminder of that past.  Likewise, the sprawling factories and concrete housing of the post-war communist era have also disappeared.  Shanghai has given up its past, found its new identity, and is moving forward at a frantic pace (Baker, 291). The final goal was to find "a modern architectural style that resonates with the people", and Shanghai has finally done that (Liu, 6).
    I.M. Pei, a Chinese-American architect, has been a major player in the search for a national identity through architecture.  His Bank of China building in Hong Kong has been called “an attempt to introduce Chinese national meanings into Hong Kong public space” and was “intended as a major architectural statement, and although a commercial building it carried political associations as well”(Clarke, 135).  Pei has shown that architecture can serve political purposes, and can be a key element in the development of a regional identity for a city.  While many of his major works have been outside of China, and he has never designed a significant building for Shanghai, Pei has said that he “would like to provide a similar signature structure for his hometown, Shanghai” (Gluckman, “Flash”).  In the mid 1990s Pei was searching for “an architectural style appropriate to modern China” and had been “wondering about the process of searching for a regional or national expression in architecture”.  He saw one of his main goals as “to find an architectural style that will be truly Chinese without any resort to Chinese architectural details and motives as we know them” (Wiseman, 44).  This style of architecture is successfully at work in Shanghai.
    The long standing rivalry between Hong Kong and Shanghai has also helped to fuel the construction boom in Shanghai, and the quest for a Shanghai identity. In an interview, F.C.B. Black, a former senior banking official at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, confirmed that there was “traditionally a rivalry between Shanghai and Hong Kong”, and “the Shanghai people always thought that they were cleverer than the Hong Kong people, and quite honestly, I think they were”.  He also recalled how the Shanghai people viewed Hong Kong as “too terribly British!” (Baker, 176).  While Hong Kong remained a British colony until 1997, Shanghai broke free from its European ties more than sixty years ago.  There is still a healthy sense of competition between the cities, and this is evident in their architectural styles.  Hong Kong sticks to conservative, European and American inspired architecture, while Shanghai has a fanciful modern Chinese style of architecture.  While the impressive hillside and harbor-front location of Hong Kong is sure to take a visitor’s breath away, the Shanghai skyline is equally as impressive. When Lady Kadoorie, a Hong Kong socialite who grew up in Shanghai re-visited the city for the grand opening of the new museum, she remarked that “the city had changed beyond recognition, everything was now so Chinese, and there were skyscrapers and overpasses where old houses and small roads used to be” (Baker, 291).
     Besides just the main “downtown” area of Shanghai, the free-trade area of Pudong has been a literal architectural testing ground in the last decade.  Described as “China’s new Manhattan”, Pudong occupies an area of 520 square kilometers, nearly as large as Singapore (Van kemenade, 301).  The study of some of the major buildings in Pudong helps to show how modern Chinese architecture is being defined.  At a height of 420.5m, The Jin Mao Tower is currently the tallest skyscraper in Shanghai, and one of the five tallest buildings on earth.  Described by its architects as recalling “historic Chinese pagoda forms, with setbacks that create a rhythmic pattern”, this building successfully incorporates old-style Chinese influence while also being extremely technologically advanced (  It even won an award for its innovative metal exterior cladding, which is “an extraordinary use of today’s technology and building materials to create a fabric, texture and detailing that relate to the historic and cultural values of the context" (  Its operators also describe it as a “representative building for China's policy of opening to the outside world” (  By being at the same time modern and Chinese, the Jin Mao tower is a perfect example of the new style of architecture that is sweeping Shanghai.

The spectacular Jin Mao Tower in the early morning haze and fully lit at night

    At first glance, the Oriental Pearl Tower looks like something out of the future.  It consists of bright pink glassy spheres that rise on tri-pod legs, with the appearance of a hypodermic needle turned on its end.  The tower does not immediately recall any ancient Chinese or international style.  However, its spherical design reflects ancient Chinese principles of harmony and wholeness.  Again, this is a structure that takes hints of old-style architecture and uses them in futuristic ways.  It was designed and built entirely by Chinese architects, the Shanghai Modern Architectural Design Co. Ltd. (  It is a one of a kind structure, and it helps to define Shanghai architecture as unique and inventive.

The futuristic Oriental Pearl Tower

    The World Financial Center, which is currently under construction in Pudong, is poised to become the world’s tallest building, topping out at more than 1,600 feet. The building's square base and round hole near the top adhere to the traditional Chinese conception of Earth as a square and the sky as a circle (Gluckman, “How High”).  This is a perfect example of how modern Shanghai architecture takes subtle elements of traditional architecture and uses them in thoroughly modern ways.  Interestingly enough, the size of the circular hole at the top will perfectly match the size of the spheres on the nearby Oriental Pearl Tower (Gluckman, “How High”).  This contextualism helps the buildings in Shanghai to relate to one another.  It shows that there is a consistent architectural style in Shanghai rather than haphazard buildings that are not congruent.  Hopefully, future buildings will continue to play off one another as Shanghai’s new style develops further.
The quest to build the world’s tallest building shows that Shanghai takes pride in its architecture, and uses it to make a statement.  Tall buildings have a grand impact on a city, and "Height, as a manifestation of technology, is tied up with cultural aspirations," (Gluckman, “How High”).  Shanghai’s aspirations to be a great modern world city, and also an inherently Chinese city, are represented by its new modern Chinese architecture.  Also, not all of the buildings in Shanghai are funded by private Chinese and international companies.  As was the case with the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Chinese government often spends money on huge buildings which act as status symbols.  In fact, since 1990, the government has invested 25 billion yuan ($3 billion) in buildings and infrastructure in Pudong, and “the majority of investments in Pudong still come from the state” (Van Kemenade, 303).  On the other side of the river, plans for the new central business district were designed by Italian, French, British, and Japanese architects, but the government had the final say for the plans.  They chose the best elements from each design, added their own touches, and ended up with a finalized design that is entirely Chinese.  International investment is not controlling the new Shanghai - the Chinese government is in control. The development of Shanghai – and therefore the development of a regional identity – is being led by the Chinese government.  The city is developing a Chinese character that was completely absent during the days of British rule in the early 1900s.
    There is still “considerable expectation that Pudong will turn Shanghai into an ultra-modern, technologically and economically sophisticated world city”, and the government is banking on this fact (Baker, 255). As this development continues, the modern high-tech city of Shanghai may just become synonymous with modern China, as the world discovers the new Chinese architecture.
     Shanghai’s architectural history has been a wildly convoluted one.  While never technically a British colony, the architecture of the Bund shows the extreme influence that Europeans had in the early days of the city.  The Bund architecture was entirely Western, and robbed native Shanghai citizens of a city to call their own.  Modern Shanghai architecture stands in stark contrast to this – it is a representation of pride in the city, and serves a purpose in defining both a national Chinese identity and a regional Shanghai identity to Shanghai’s citizens.  As the city continues to develop and spectacular buildings continue to rise, the very identity of its people will be reflected in the mirrored glass.  After more than a century of architectural subjugation, Shanghai has finally found its identity.

*All photos on this page by Paul Schramm


AIA Chicago Foundation

Baker, Barbara.  Shanghai: Electric and Lurid City.  Hong Kong: Oxford University
Press, 1998.

Buck, David D.  Urban Change in China: Politics and Development in Tsinan, Shantung,
1890-1949. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

China Jin Mao Group Co., Ltd.

Clarke, David.  Hong Kong Art.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

Clifford, Nicholas R.  Spoilt Children of Empire: Westerners in Shanghai and the
Chinese Revolution of the 1920s.  Hanover: Middlebury College Press, 1991.

Dong, Stella.  Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City.  New York:
HarperCollins, 2000.

Gluckman, Ron. Flash City.
Originally published in GEO, summer 2003.

Gluckman, Ron. “How High Will They Build?” Popular Science, February 2003

Gutierrez, Laurent, and Valerie Portefaix, eds.  Yung Ho Chang: A Chinese Practice.
Hong Kong: Map Book Publishers, 2003.

Hearn, Maxwell K. and Judith G. Smith, eds.  Chinese Art: Modern Expressions.  New
York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.

Kirkby, R.J.R.  Urbanization in China: Town and Country in a Developing Economy,
1949-2000AD.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Liu, Erica.  The Architectural Fairyland of China (1984 onward):
Problems and Recommendations. Vol. 3 No.2. pp 40 - 48.  Treforest: University of Glamorgan, UK

Sergeant, Harriet.  Shanghai: Collision Point of Cultures 1918-1939.  New York: Crown
Publishers Inc., 1990.

Shanghai Office of the Mayor, “Tourist Scenes”.

“Shanghai Skyscrapers”

Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill Architecture Firm.  “Jin Mao Tower”.

Stapleton, Kristin.  Civilizing Chengdu: Chinese Urban Reform, 1895-1937.  Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2000.

Tam, Vivienne, and Martha Huang.  China Chic.  New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Van Kemenade, Willem.  China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Inc.  Translated by Diane Webb.
New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Wiseman, Carter.  I.M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture.  New York: Harry N.
Abrams Publishers, 1990.    the architecture you must see