Shanghai’s Lost Chinese Art Deco City |
Back in the ‘90s, in a Shanghai flea market, I came across a set of faded postcards depicting a cache of 1930s Chinese Art Deco buildings that I’d never seen
before. I assumed that they were long gone. Not at all, said the seller: They stood in an area shaped like a cross in northern Shanghai, and the surrounding
road names all began with one of the characters Zhong, Hua, Min, Guo, Shang, Hai, Shi, Zheng or Fu: Republic of ChinaRepublic of China Shanghai Municipal Government.
This was Republic of China President Chiang Kai-ShekChiang Kai-Shek’s Greater Shanghai Plan – his Shanghai dream. Of course, I went to see them, and of course, they
Feb 3, 2015 | Posted by Tina KanagaratnamTina Kanagaratnam BuildingsBuildings, Chinese Art DecoChinese Art Deco, PeoplePeople | 8 comments8 comments
were magnificent. But what was the story?
The Greater Shanghai PlanThe Greater Shanghai Plan
By the time the Republic of China, or the Nationalists, had united most of the country under their rule in 1928, Shanghai was already an internationally
renowned city – but its renown came from its foreign concessions, in stark contrast to the poor, underdeveloped ‘Chinese Shanghai’ outside of the
international areas. It was a national shame, and the Nationalists proposed to address it with a planned civic centre: a new, prosperous Chinese Shanghai.
Land was acquired in an undeveloped northeastern quarter of Shanghai, in what is today’s Jiangwan, and the city’s first urban plan was conceived. It was,
ostensibly, a Chinese planned city for Chinese people, with a directive to design in “traditional Chinese style.” Yet Shanghai was already a cosmopolitan
melting pot, and the urban planners and architects included Americans, Germans, and Chinese trained in both places. Indeed, the very inspiration of the
plan was foreign: it came from Ebenezer HowardEbenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow, a description of a planned urban utopia, in which man lived in harmony with
nature – an idea which also influenced prominent town planners such as Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York.
Dong Dayou & The Spirit of a New AgeDong Dayou & The Spirit of a New Age
Greater Shanghai Plan buildings designed in the cosmopolitan, East-meets-West Chinese Art Deco Chinese Art Deco style by an architect steeped in both traditions fit
perfectly. Dong Dayou (he anglicized his name to Dayu Doon) had attended Tsinghua, the University of Minnesota and Columbia, before returning to
Shanghai in 1928, where he established an architectural practice with the American architect and urban planner Asa Emory Philips. Significantly, Dong also
worked with Henry K. Murphy, the American architect who was a firm advocate of adapting traditional Chinese styles for modern usage, and who Chiang had
hired to design a modern capital for him in Nanjing.
Dong’s designs for the new City Hall fused the latest international modernist and Art Deco styles with classical Chinese architecture, a metaphor, he said, for
the spirit of this new age. Describing the Greater Shanghai Plan buildings, he said, “Instead of aiming at a reproduction of old styles, an attempt is made to
apply and modify features suitable to modern needs.” It was a style alternately called Chinese Renaissance or Ming Revival, and much beloved by the
Nationalist government, who applied it to their government buildings in Nanjing, as well.
This fusion was new, the work of a generation of young Chinese architects trained abroad. Traditional Chinese architecture required only masons and
carpenters, while the engineering required of larger structures invariably resulted in western designs. “They [the architects] initiated a movement to bring a
dead architecture to life: in other words, to do away with poor imitations of western architecture and to make Chinese architecture truly national,” says Dong.
And so the new city’s administrative and cultural center was carefully laid out across four square kilometers in the shape of a cross. (Why a cross? Well,
Chiang-kai shek had become a Christian in 1930…) Here was the Greater Shanghai Municipality’s City Hall, Museum, Library, Stadium, Gymnasium and
Natatorium, Hospital, Courthouse, Government Headquarters — nine buildings in all, gathered around a 20-acre plaza and reflected in a pool of water a third
of a mile long – inspired, perhaps, by the famous Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C., which had been completed less than a decade earlier.
Skirmishes with the Japanese had been mounting, interrupting the construction of City Hall, and by 1937 much of the construction on the Greater Shanghai
Plan subsided, never to resume. The courthouse was never built, nor the city government building, nor the reflecting pool. The Japanese occupied the
buildings during the war and after the war, in 1945, the Chinese municipality moved its offices to the former Shanghai Municipal Council building on Jiangxi
Lu. The new Communist government, too, turned its back on this purpose-built city and chose to set up their offices in what had been the power center of
foreign Shanghai: the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building on the Bund. The Greater Shanghai Plan faded into history.
The Greater Shanghai Plan, conceived in 1929.
The former Greater Shanghai Municipal Museum, 1935, fused
East and West.
Discovering the Lost Chinese Art Deco City TodayDiscovering the Lost Chinese Art Deco City Today
Today, Jiangwan lies in Baoshan district, far enough away from the city center that wandering the wide boulevards, punctuated with the surprise of grand,
Chinese Art Deco buildings, feels like an adventure. The buildings are in various states of repair, yet the bold vision of the Greater Shanghai Plan is intact.
Athletic youngsters in tracksuits stride through the grounds of City Hall, now the Shanghai Sports Institute. It’s a modernist version of the Forbidden City: In
1935, Fortune magazine said, “Here [Jiangwan] indeed, it seems that East and West have at last met, and the startling architecture of the new City Hall,
seems to indicate that they have met in wedlock.”
Dong tweaked the proportions, raising the central portion of the roof and streamlining. Traditional decorations, too, are streamlined and stylised,
highlighting the geometric shapes that define Art Deco. In the spacious lobby, a map of Shanghai remains in the ochre terrazo, with a small depiction of the
Greater Shanghai Plan cross. In 1935, it was the spectacular backdrop for the first ‘collective wedding’, with 57 couples and over 700 residents.
From the steps of City Hall, across the treetops that have grown since these buildings were opened, the imperial yellow roof tiles of the Greater Shanghai
Municipal Museum glint to the southeast, and those of its twin, the Greater Shanghai Municipal Library, to the southwest. Dong’s designs for these buildings
took into account the needs for modern amenities within such as overhead lighting, and thus in this broad building, “only the central portion is emphasized
by a “gate-tower” covered with a yellow tile roof,” he says, adding, “The omission of the heavy roof on the rest of the building is due to a measure of
economy.” The former Museum is today part of Shanghai Second Military University and Changhai Hospital, imperial echoes executed in Chinese Art Deco,
from the angular staircases to the brightly painted ceiling medallions and stylized characters on the terrazo.
The Greater Shanghai Municipal Library served as the library for Tongji Middle School until 2008; on my first visit there, floppy-haired teenagers played
basketball in the courtyard. Today it lies empty and neglected, weeds growing from the tiled roof, but grand plans are afoot. The library, which was never
completed, but still opened and held 10,000 volumes, will be restored to its original purpose for the residents of Yangpu district, and include an exhibition on
“The startling architecture of the new City Hall indicate that East
and West have met in wedlock.” – Fortune magazine, 1935.
The first collective wedding, in front of City Hall, April 3, 1935.
The former Greater Shanghai Municipal Museum.
Greater Shanghai Municipal Museum, interior. The terrazo
design is a Chinese compass rose, featuring the four
its history. Set to open by 2017, the new library will feature two new wings, to be built according to Dong’s blueprints for the original library. Perhaps it
signals a Ming Revival revival ~ or at least an appreciation of its legacy.
The Greater Shanghai Municipal Stadium, completed in 1935, was designed to be the place to host national events – but it is large enough, and grand enough
to host something much bigger. After all, the Nationalists dreamed big, and had just sent off the very first Chinese delegation ever to the Los Angeles
Olympics in 1932. Who’s to say an Olympics in Shanghai was not part of their plan? And what better place to showcase this new China than in Dong’s Chinese
Art Deco stadium? Today, Olympic dreams behind it, the stadium is still used for sports, including the X Games, and a golf putting range is set up on the grass.
The Stadium, the gymnasium and Natatorium, and Changhai Hospital are another style of Chinese Art Deco – Art Deco forms with Chinese motifs. Said Dong,
“These show the possibilities of adapting Chinese decorative features to modern structures.” Indeed, their classic Art Deco profile from afar looks western,
but up close, decorative elements in the gateway and the terrazo all feature Chinese motifs.
Dong’s cleverest Art Deco building, though, is the one he created for the China Civil Aviation Association. Shaped like an airplane, one of the classic symbols
of the Art Deco era, its shape was only visible from above – that is, from an airplane.
The Greater Shanghai Municipal Library
Greater Shanghai Municipal Plan in the stained glass of the former
clubhouse, in the Stadium. Photos: Robert Bryan.
Changhai Hospital, southern facade
Stylized “shou” or long-life motifs on Changhai Hospital.
Civil Aviation building. Photo: John Meckley.
The Greater Shanghai Plan is a forgotten chapter in this city’s rich and layered history – and an architectural legacy well worth rediscovering.
Cody, Jeffrey W., Building in China: Henry K. Murphy’s “Adaptive Architecture”, 1914-1935, The Chinese University Press, 2001.
Denison, Edward and Guang Yu Ren, Building Shanghai: The Story of China’s Gateway, Wiley-Academy, 2006.
Denison, Edward and Guang Yu Ren, Modernism in China: Architectural Visions and Revolutions, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2008.
Doon Dayun, Architecture Chronicle, Doon Dayun, Architecture Chronicle, China Heritage Quarterly, No. 22, June 2010., No. 22, June 2010.
Fortune, January 1935, in January 1935, in Tales of Old Shanghai.
Zhang Yun, Zhang Yun, Remnants of a City’s Dreams, Global Times, July 10, 2013.Global Times, July 10, 2013.
Michelle Qiao, Michelle Qiao, Shanghai’s First City Hall, Cultural-China.com., Cultural-China.com.
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Georgia Tromara · ReplyReply
I am a student from Milan doing a research and presentation about this subject! Would it be too much to ask for high resolution pics
June 18, 2015 at 7:40 PMJune 18, 2015 at 7:40 PM
intrepidinterns · ReplyReply
Dear Georgia, that’s no problem, on two conditions: you will credit http://www.shanghaiartdeco.nethttp://www.shanghaiartdeco.net and you’ll share your
final presentation with us! Shall we email the photos to the email in your post?
June 23, 2015 at 12:19 AMJune 23, 2015 at 12:19 AM
J E Cameron-Perry · ReplyReply
Thank you — what a tour, and what a journey.
Februar y 16, 2015 at 5:30 AMFebruar y 16, 2015 at 5:30 AM
intrepidinterns · ReplyReply
Thank you, Jack – so glad you enjoyed it! Such a remarkable part of Shanghai’s history.
Februar y 20, 2015 at 9:38 AMFebruar y 20, 2015 at 9:38 AM
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robin growrobin grow · ReplyReply
Great article. Could we have permission to print it in the Spirit of Progress as we are keen to publicise the World Congress in
Februar y 3, 2015 at 8:07 PMFebruar y 3, 2015 at 8:07 PM
intrepidinterns · ReplyReply
Absolutely, Robin. We can send high resolution photographs as well, if you need.
Februar y 3, 2015 at 8:39 PMFebruar y 3, 2015 at 8:39 PM