Shanghai Culture Square: the space turtle has landed

Culture, Travel | by Aimee Groom
Posted: October 13th, 2011 | Updated: October 13th, 2011 | Comments
[showtime] Shanghai Culture Square (Shànghǎi Wénhuà Guǎngchǎng, 上海文化广场), also known as Shanghai Cultural Plaza, is the city's latest offering to the cultural and performing arts sphere. Living just near by, I've watched the French Concession block it now occupies—the one bounded by Shaanxi Lu (Shǎnxī Nán Lù, 陕西南路), Fuxing Lu (Fùxīng Lù复兴路), Maoming Lu (Màomíng Lù, 茂名路) and Yongjia Lu Yǒngjiā Lù, 永嘉路)—take shape over the last six years from a derelict square lined by a handful of shops on one side and the ghost of the Maoming bar street on the other, to the architectural splendor it now boasts. [pullquote]Apparently the ex-party cadres who live in the area preferred to keep things green, clean and low to the ground in their 'hood, which was just fine by me.[/pullquote]Though the crazy days of Maoming Lu's decadent past had long since been put to rest, the last vestiges of the infamous party street still remained when I arrived to the neighborhood, and I remember (a little fuzzily, granted) many a night spilling out of the blue frog, beer in hand, across to Judy's or Manhattans. Then gradually, they all closed up shop and rumors of development were rife, though what it would be nobody really knew. My first inkling of what was to come was a chance meeting with an American architect, here to work on the project. He quickly dispelled my fears of shopping malls and high-rises: It would be, he explained, a new theater surrounded by a park. Apparently the ex-party cadres who live in the area prefered to keep things green, clean and low to the ground in their 'hood, which was just fine by me. Shanghai greyhound track Shanghai Culture Square is a site that has been intertwined with the city's cultural and political life for the last 80 years. First as the Shanghai Canidrome, a greyhound racetrack built in 1928 with a 50,000-person capacity that hosted numerous sporting events and music concerts. However, from 1949-1976 it served a far grimmer purpose: a mass execution facility where the gathered crowds cheered not for dogs, but for the blood of the enemies of the newly-formed Communist government. Over the next four decades it would be covered and used first as a venue for political meetings, then as an events facility hosting concerts and Peking Opera, and finally in 1997 when it began serving as the venue for the Shanghai Flower Market, its art deco facade still overlooking South Shaanxi Lu, shabby but proud. In 2003, a series of design competitions resulted in the plan to create a park and theater in the space. Now, after eight years of dust and debris and rumbling trucks, the skeleton of the old stadium has been laid to rest and in its place has risen a gorgeous building that is all undulating roof and sweeping curves. Its design was labelled the "White Wave" by creators,  US firm Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB). Personally I prefer erstwhile China Travel editor David Perry's appellation: "The Space Turtle," a name inspired by the smooth, oblong roof that is much like the shell of a giant white turtle come to rest, sitting serenely among the neighboring low-rise buildings and surrounding trees. Shanghai culture square theater outside The Shanghai Culture Square is a thoroughly 21st century building, and is beautiful at night when lit from the outside and from the space-age lobby within, where a breath-taking floor-to-ceiling blue-stained-glass mural of leaves emits a gentle blue glow--the perfect complement to the organic sweep of the curves of the metal girders and the glass walled structure that lets the outside in, and the inside out. From the exterior, it doesn't really look high enough to house the most advanced automated stage in the world but with zoning restrictions preventing the architects from building higher than six stories, what started out as a design challenge soon became a key feature of this unique building and instead of building up, they went down. 26-meters down to be precise: Shanghai Culture Square is the deepest underground theater in the world. In the theater itself, 2,011 (a nod to the year of its opening) plush maroon-velvet seats and blonde wood maintain a natural feel looking onto the 2,100 sq m (8,890 sq ft) stage, and with state-of-the-art sound, lighting and effects, there's not a bad seat in the house. It's been pegged as a pioneer for popular theater and the first performance staged in late September was a three-week run of  "Ultimate Broadway." A fabulously glittering revue of Broadway classics designed to introduce the masses to musical theater, prices started at a very reasonable RMB 80 which would seem to be a step in the right direction. With the September 2011 launch, Shanghai Culture Square has finally come full circle, becoming an accessible, downtown entertainment venue once more, and I, for one, am glad to have it in my neighborhood.

For address and box office details check out the China Travel guide Shanghai Culture Square listing.

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