What's the big ideal? Shanghai's mile-high bars and skyscrapers "with Chinese characteristics"

Culture | by Michaela Kron
Posted: December 2nd, 2010 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
In the second of a series on contemporary Shanghai architecture, Michaela Kron takes a closer look at Shanghai's super-tall (and getting taller) skyline. Long famous for foreign concession-era Art Deco and Neoclassical buildings that speak of a past replete with "unequal treaties" and Western economic dominance, 21st century Shanghai has a few new things to say about the relationships between architecture, power and influence... and the world is definitely listening. But what, exactly, is the message? >>> In my last post, I wrote about my fascination with Pudong's tallest skyscrapers, the Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center. At that point, I had only seen them from a distance, staring in awe at their respective heights and designs. But last Friday, I finally ventured inside both towers. I didn't visit their shops. Or restaurants. Or even their observation decks. Instead, I headed straight up to their mile high bars. The timing was perfect:  New World Mayfair Hotel, and some friends and I decided there was no better place to continue our classy evening than at the Park Hyatt bar on the 92nd floor of SWFC. After a couple hours there, we visited Grand Hyatt bar on the 87th floor of Jin Mao. Both bars, with their refined atmospheres and unparalleled views of Shanghai, are impressive—definitely worth the painful ear popping on the elevator rides up and down, and even the fairly high-priced drinks. While this series isn't exactly about the buildings' high bars, visiting the bars inside SWFC and Jin Mao allowed me to closely observe both the exterior and interior design of both buildings—specifically how the foreign-designed modern architecture incorporated more traditionally Chinese characteristics.... This relationship between foreign and local was most apparent with Jin Mao. Although Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, a Chicago-based architecture firm, designed the building, it boasts a distinctly Chinese aesthetic. Its pagoda-like exterior design matched its more traditional interior décor, especially inside the building's Grand Hyatt hotel. Above the entrance, there is a circular window, likely inspired by a moongate, and the elevator doors are gold with an elaborate, scalloped texture. Both inside and outside, Jin Mao felt very much like a "Chinese" skyscraper to me. Earlier last week, I interviewed Chris Chan, senior associate and design director at the Shanghai office of San Francisco-based architecture firm Gensler, to gather his insight into the design of Pudong's skyscrapers and what they mean for Shanghai, as well as the rest of China. When discussing Jin Mao, he said, "While you can say it's very traditional, it was, I think, the beginning of a renaissance, where the people at the time [it was built] needed to have a symbol of where they came from first. It was a very…postmodern expression of the old pagoda archetype, but applied on a supertall tower." I found Chan's "renaissance" characterization to be particularly interesting and accurate, especially since Jin Mao was the first of a new group of supertall skyscrapers that have come to be representative of Shanghai. With the SWFC, however, the Chinese characteristics are a bit subtler. The tower was completed in 2008, exactly a decade after Jin Mao was built, with very modern aesthetic both outside and inside. "The clean lines, the Zen-like square that translates into a single line and how that shape transforms in a clean, elegant language you can argue is a representation of modern Chinese thinking," Chan said. "It's about streamlining." So while SWFC doesn't boast as traditional of an aesthetic as Jin Mao does, it is still very much a Chinese skyscraper. In a more metaphorical, abstract sense, it epitomizes China as an emerging market and Shanghai as a major financial hub. Interestingly, the building's developer, Mori Building Co., is Japanese, and in the restrooms at the bar, the toilets are modern Japanese ones, complete with various controls and settings (for an in-depth analysis of the national characteristics of various Asian toilet types, see this post by my fellow NYU student Becca Mondshein). Having visited Japan just a month ago (and finding myself impressed with the country's high-tech toilets), it was certainly a surprise. In addition to having been designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, an American-based architectural firm, SWFC has clear Japanese influences as well. But just because the building as a whole doesn't feel distinctly "Chinese" doesn't mean that it's devoid of traditional touches. In fact, just outside the entrance to the Park Hyatt bar stand three mannequins, each donning an elaborate qipao, a tight-fitting Chinese dress usually made of silk. I found it to be a particularly nice element in what otherwise felt like more of a Western (and also Japanese) setting. After visiting both Jin Mao and SWFC, I now have a much better sense of how these towers fit into Shanghai and the rest of China, aesthetically and beyond. They're symbols of China's growing success and rapid development. But each tower is also a cultural symbol, incorporating distinctly Chinese elements into what could easily be "just another skyscraper"—a skyscraper that could be built anywhere in the world and not just in Shanghai. At this point, I'd have a difficult time picturing them anywhere else. For now, Jin Mao and SWFC essentially dominate Pudong's skyline. But come 2014, with the completion of the Shanghai Tower, they'll have some supertall competition. Check out part 3 of this series, which examines the Shanghai Tower project and features excerpts from an interview with  Marshall Strabala, the project's chief architect.
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