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April 20, 2009

Prewar Shanghai Architecture

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've never been to Shanghai and I can't get there. Neither can you.

I'm thinking of the Shanghai that ended with the Japanese occupations of 1937 (the Chinese city) and 1941 (the International Settlement and the French Concession). It was a heady mix of transplanted Europe and America plus native China, legal and illegal commerce, an island of modernism in a traditionalist sea.

Having spent the better part of year in Asia -- here, actually -- I've seen my share of ox carts, rice paddies, thatch-roofed villages and old, gaudily-painted temples. That Asia is fast-disappearing: except for the temples, perhaps. So do see it if it interests you and you haven't yet done so.

Moreover, I'm not strongly interested in seeing the new Asia either. Okay, if someone dropped a seriously cheap tour in my lap, I'd consider going. It's not high on my travel priorities, that's all.

But the Shanghai of 1925-35, that would be different. I'm not obsessed with it -- just curious enough to read about it once every few years and wish I had a time machine available so that I might drop by for a few days now and then.

A few years ago I read a history of Shanghai for the period 1842-1949 (the year it fell to the Communists) by Stella Dong. An entertaining book, though some Amazon commenters thought it too breezy and sensationalized. My reservation was that Dong (who grew up here in Seattle) relied exclusively on sources available in English. (I lied, actually -- one source is in French, but you get the idea.)

A day or two ago I stumbled across a book titled Shanghai Style by Lynn Pan, a Shanghai native who has spent considerable time in Europe and other parts of Asia. Its subtitle is "Art and Design Between the Wars," specifically, 1920-39. Thus far I've looked at the illustrations and read the chapter on architecture and interior decoration. Other chapters deal with painting, books and magazines, comics and cartoons, and advertising. Her thesis is that Shanghai was unique in having a large number of non-colonialist foreigners mixed with a local population largely comprised of immigrants from elsewhere in China who, by that condition, tended to be more receptive to foreign and Modernist ways than most other Chinese. I had fun looking at Shanghai versions of the kinds of European and American cultural artifacts covered in the chapters noted above.

Architecture was a bit different because the architects who designed most of the large commercial buildings were European. Chinese architects trained in Europe and in American universities such as Dear Old Penn were also active. Below are examples of Shanghai architecture of that era. And remember that in those days high-rise building were fairly rare outside the United States.


This is The Bund, the commercial heart of Shanghai along the Whangpu River as seen in 1935 or 1936. Most of it was part of the eight-by-two mile International Settlement, though the French Concession also touched the river at the south end of The Bund.

The Wu Tonwen villa designed by Hungarian architect Ladislaus Hudec (1893-1958).

Hamilton House, by the Palmer & Turner firm.

Broadway Mansions, a 1934 apartment-hotel.

Eddington House, an apartment building in the Moderne idiom.

The Park Hotel.

The 1937 Bank of China building, also by Palmer & Turner and assisted in the Chinese detailing at its top by Lu Qianshou.



posted by Donald at April 20, 2009


The biggest problem with the Chinese government is not that their oppressive or undemocratic. The biggest problem is that they are importing awful 1950's Western style urban planning. All of this new investment and construction, and they are using the worst possible template. It kills me, it's such a lost opportunity.

Posted by: Devin Finbarr on April 20, 2009 10:19 PM

I've never been to Shanghai and I can't get there. Neither can you. I'm thinking of the Shanghai that ended with the Japanese occupations...

But you can still get to the Asmara that didn't quite end with the Italian occupation.

This article even compares interbellum Shanghai and Asmara.

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on April 21, 2009 2:34 AM

Are all those wonderful buildings gone? And Isn't this style known as Art Deco?

The Bank of China building reminds me of the hotel in the 1994 version of The Shadow. I could live in a world that looked like this and be happier for it.

Posted by: lynx on April 21, 2009 2:38 PM

lynx -- From what I read on Wikipedia, it seems that The Bund has been preserved, though it is being surrounded by huge skyscrapers, especially across the river in Pudong.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 21, 2009 2:43 PM

What I'd like to know is: what was the commercial base that funded all this construction? China at that time was violent, chaotic, and very poor.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on April 24, 2009 2:15 AM

Rich -- Shanghai was one of five or so trading port cities designated by a treaty with the British about the time of the Opium War. As it turned out, Shanghai proved to be the most successful and other nations such as France, Japan and the USA were able to get into the act there. (This explanation is highly simplified, by the way; check out Wikipedia or some other source for better detail.)

An even shorter answer is: lots of trade going on there plus related financial infrastructure.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 24, 2009 8:57 AM

The Bund has been preserved although its been converted into offices for various government agencies and high end retail and restaurant space. Some buildings are fairly intact- the HSBC building(the domed building in the background of the photograph) has a fantastic lobby that has been restored and is open to the public during business hours.

I'm glad to see that photo of the Eddington House. I was admiring the other week and couldn't find anyone who knew anything about it. Sadly it has a more recently built vaguely odd looking imitation next door to it.

While there are still lots of wonderful bits of old Shanghai Devin is absolutely right about the awful urban planning. Aside from the Bund, French Concession and a few other older parts of the city Shanghai is full of 8 lane roadways dominated by generic glass and steel boxes and generic concrete apartments. While they've kept some of the best of the old Western influences contemporary Shanghai seems determined to import the worst of modern Western cities.

Posted by: mhallex on April 24, 2009 11:35 PM

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