Anne Warr on Shanghai Architecture Past & Present

Travel | by Rebekah Pothaar
Posted: October 24th, 2008 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Australian architect Anne Warr talks about her favorite Shanghai buildings—old and new—from the Jin Mao Tower to the Peace Hotel. Since moving to Shanghai in 2003, Anne Warr has worked on a number of projects, from teaching architecture at Tongji University, to authoring the Shanghai Architecture Guide, to becoming a founding member of the Explore Shanghai Heritage Foundation, to leading walking tours and giving talks on Shanghai's most colorful historical characters. I met Anne some time ago after one of her talks at Hamilton House, "Expatriate Women of the 1930s." Since then, I've had the opportunity to learn more about this inspiring woman who knows more about Shanghai architecture and history than anyone I've met. What are your favorite buildings in Shanghai and why? My favorite Shanghai skyscraper is still the Jin Mao Tower, although the the Bund is a close favorite. Described as the world's finest skyscraper since the Chrysler Building, Jin Mao incorporates both a pagoda tradition and an art deco tradition with complex elegance to create beautiful contemporary structure. The Bank of China building, next to the Peace Hotel, is also one of my favorites, for the way it delicately combines Western and Eastern elements and towers over all the other buildings on the Bund. And finally, the Sino-Soviet Friendship Hall (Shanghai Exhibition Center) , for the way it expresses a unique phase in Shanghai's history. There are very few buildings like this surviving anywhere in the world. How is Shanghai's architecture different from the rest of China? Shanghai' s unique mixture of East and West makes it different from the rest of China. Shanghai is a trading city that has exchanged commodities, cultures and dreams down the centuries. This exchange of ideas is reflected in the buildings, making them unique. Shanghai is a city of multiple viewpoints and multiple stories. It is a city full of paradox. Fortunately, Shanghai planners made sure that the building boom which started after 1992 did not destroy the significant older parts of the city. The decision to make Lujiazui (Pudong) the financial center of Shanghai ensured that the older parts of the city would not be destroyed by new development. Now the contrast between Lujiazui on one side of the Huangpu and the Bund on the other side is one of the exciting aspects of Shanghai that must be viewed by all visitors. How does the architecture of the 1920s and '30s reflect that flamboyant and decadent period of Shanghai's history? Shanghai in the 1930s was a very up-to-date city. It had dozens of cinemas which showed the latest Hollywood movies, it had art-deco and modern buildings, luxurious apartment blocks with all the latest facilities such as elevators and en-suite bathrooms, and the most fashionable hotel in Asia, the Cathay (now the Peace Hotel). It also had a seedy side of gangsters, prostitutes and people "on the make." Shanghai's style reflected and attracted eccentric and flamboyant people who came to experience all facets of Shanghai. You use the term "paradoxical buildings." What makes these buildings paradoxical? It is the way Shanghai's buildings reflect multiple viewpoints juxtaposed in close proximity to each other that creates the paradox. Where else in the world would a city gangster, French Concession's largest police station? Where else would a race-course, the heart of British social life, be transformed into People's Square and the heart of government? Where else would a luxurious mansion, like that of the silk-exporting Madier brothers, become an Arts and Crafts Institute? Where else would a Sino-Soviet Friendship Hall be turned into an exhibition hall hosting Millionaire's fairs? What are people most surprised by during one your Shanghai architectural walking tours? I'm always pleased if I can give people a story that will surprise them and make them think differently about their own knowledge of history. Many Westerners don't know the story of the various waves of refugees which came to Shanghai, particularly the European Jews who arrived in Shanghai in the 1930s. Many people are surprised about the story of the Japanese not complying with the Nazi's request to "evoke the final solution" on the Jewish refugees of Shanghai. European Jews were not placed in Prisoner of War camps, and were only moved to the Stateless Persons area of North Shanghai in 1943. I like to show people the complicated layers to Shanghai stories, that may make them review their own view of history. One of your research hobbies is to get the story within the story—to research the lives of the architects. Can you provide details of any of these characters? Laszlo Hudec is one of Shanghai's great characters. His life as well as his buildings was full of drama. Born in Slovakia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1893, he graduated as an architect from the Royal University in Budapest in time to join the Austro-Hungarian army. In 1916 he was captured by the Russians and sent to prison camp in Siberia from which he escaped and made his way through China to Shanghai. He arrived in Shanghai just as the city was about to enter its most dynamic decade. After initially working for the American architectural firm, he opened his own practice and went on to become one of the most celebrated and prolific architects in Shanghai in the 1930s. What buildings were commissioned and built by the Japanese during their occupation of Shanghai? There wasn't much time for building during the War, but the Japanese had been busy in the decade before the war, making in-roads into Shanghai. By the 1930s they had built three buildings on the Bund: the Yokohama Specie Bank, the awkwardly proportioned Bank of Taiwan, and the Nisshin Kisen Kaisha Shipping Company. I've often heard the Bund architecture referred to as the "face" of Shanghai. What do you think of this as a statement? The Bund was "the face" of British Shanghai, where their buildings were designed to extravagantly display the power of their empire. The HSBC building is the most obvious example of this, where the architects were told to "spare no expense, but dominate the Bund." Other nationalities vied to obtain a spot on the Bund. When the Chinese government finally acquired land on the Bund, after confiscating German property during the first World War, they built the Bank of China so it would be the tallest building on the Bund, which it still is today. Many nationalities used the Bund as the place where they showed their "face" to the world. What do you think the future is for Shanghai architecture in the next ten years? Provided the government continues with its conservation policies which protect historic buildings and create conservation zones, then the unique character of Shanghai has a good chance of surviving. However, Shanghai will still be predominantly a Western style city, as very little of the old, pre-foreigners Shanghai remains. The protective wall surrounding the old city of Shanghai, first built in 1554, was removed in 1911, and in recent years much of the old housing in the old city has also been removed and replaced with high rise residential blocks. Provided the historic buildings and areas of Shanghai are protected, and new development is confined to distinctive zones, then the unique character of Shanghai can survive well into the 21st century. Contact Anne Warr for information on customized tours and talks on Shanghai architecture and history. Click to see the back or front cover of the Shanghai Architecture Guide. For more information on the Shanghai Heritage Group or to volunteer your services, go here. Photos © 2008 by David Perry
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