March 16th, 2020

#146 Shanghai Architecture Series: Futuristic visions in old Shanghai

This was written for the bi-weekly architecture series in Magazeta: https://magazeta.com/arc-future/



Shanghai city planners and architects liked to say it was impossible to build anything taller than six floors because of the unstable soil, but the arrival of new technologies reversed that opinion. Over the year 1928, the 13-story Sassoon House rose on the waterfront. In 1931, the plan to build the 22-floor J.S.S. Building (Park Hotel) was publicized, illustrated by this image composite, showing Shanghai's first skyscraper dwarfing its heavy-weight neighbors – the Foreign YMCA and the C.U.A. Building:

Collage with the Park Hotel pasted into the picture, published in 1931. Image: University of Victoria

[See the rest of the article and the images...]
A look at the world's leading cities suggested that residential high-rises, multi-story parking garages and high-speed motorways would be in demand. Local architects and artists hurried to share their visions of the future city, such as this drawing by Leopold de Postels, published in 1931 with a caption: "An imaginative conception of Shanghai in the near future as seen from the air. If the present building activity continues, it is quite possible that a few years will see these towering buildings rising majestically above the wide thoroughfares of the Paris of the East."


Having embraced steel pilings and aerocrete, Shanghai builders gleefully began to increase the height of the buildings. The Czech architect Hans Hajek proposed a tower resembling a Chinese pagoda for the northern end of the Bund, a stepped apartment block for Route Pere Robert and a gigantic wrap-around apartment house for the Racecourse:

The Russian architect Wladimir Livin-Goldenstaedt proposed two large apartment houses for the French Concession – the Leopold and the Magnate:

The French Paul Veysseyre and Alexandre Leonard won the commission to design the expansive municipal administration complex on Avenue Joffre, which is now the site of Xiangyang Park 襄阳公园:


Envisioning the future of the International Bund, the planners sometimes came up with wild ideas. One was to move the Settlement's Town Hall to the foot of the Garden Bridge; another was to build an elevated light rail along the riverfront:

The 1920s "office baroque" architecture on the Bund already looked dated, so one architect working for the Commercial Bank of China suggested to replace the old headquarters with a "plattenbau" that would dwarf the HSBC and Custom House located next to it:


For the new headquarters of the Bank of China, in the central part of the Bund, the Palmer & Turner proposed a structure in the international style (shown below), but the bank invited Luke Him Sau (陸謙受) to "sinify" the building and put a traditional hat on it.


To modernize the French Bund, the Swiss architect Rene Minutti was ready to replace the old Banque Franco-Chinoise, opposite the French Consulate, with an art deco tower. The plan did not come to fruition, but Minutti got his chance to put a timeless sckyscraper on the waterfront – the Messageries Maritimes.


This collage was published in Le journal de Shanghai in 1935:



The direction of the future urban growth was discussed as well. Some thought that "further expansion northwards is impossible owing to the Yangtze River, and possibly improbable eastwards and westwards owing to the Huangpu River," but "there is no limit southwards." These were the words of Pere Robert, who believed there was "no geographical reason" why the city should not "spread and spread" until it engulfed Hangzhou and Suzhou. No one predicted that Shanghai would jump east, across the Huangpu River, and absorb Pudong and Chuansha, rather than Hangzhou and Suzhou.

In 1929, the Republican government put their hands on the steering wheel of urban development and announced the future garden city in Jiangwan 江湾, northeast of Shanghai. The center, containing administrative and public buildings, resembled the Chinese character 中, with straight and wide streets radiating from it in all directions; the plan also envisioned the construction of a new deep water port and a network of railways:


The first building to be constructed was the Town Hall, designed by Doon Dayu (董大酉), followed by the stadium, sports center, public library and museum. The innovative architectural style blended Chinese tradition with modernist aesthetic and demonstratively waved goodbye to Western influences. But the triumph of nationalist city building was short-lived. In early 1932, the Japanese army destroyed the northern districts and damaged the unfinished "garden city." Although the construction continued until 1937, many of Doon Dayu's designs were left unrealized, such as this railway administration building, shown here together with the plan of its vicinity:



In the end, the predicted vertical growth of Shanghai did happen, although half a century later. It turned out, the futuristic visions of the 1930s were not too far-fetched. This drawing from 1931 shows Jessfield Park (now Zhongshan Park 中山公园) surrounded by skyscrapers, looking remarkably like today:


Top image: A 1929 vision of Shanghai future: "A bridge from Shanghai to Pootung, skyscrapers, an aero-rickshaw, a submarine sampan, a really useful telephone, and the thrills of dove-racing." See the full image here.

All the images are from archival periodicals, unless stated otherwise.