Skip to content

Misfits’ Guide to SHANGHAI

Post date:

Shanghai is what it is not just because of its built environment but also because of some unique chemistry of culture, geography, history, politics and the people themselves and, as a recent visitor, I can’t pretend to understand any of it.

If you want to learn more about the historic development of Shanghai, then I can recommend Edward Denison & Guangchang Yu Ren’s book Building Shanghai. There’s also Modernism in China by the same authors and also published by Wiley. Classical Huangpu by Shanghai Culture Publishing House is a photographic record of “The Heritage Architectures of Huangpu District, Shanghai”. Published in 2006, it’s not a new book but nor is what it records.

Unlike previous Misfits’ Guides, this one won’t attempt to be a comprehensive selection of anything. For one, I haven’t even been to Hongkou or ventured into Pudong apart from my visit to the ZHA exhibition at Shanghai MAM two posts back. Instead, this is a first attempt to organize thoughts on what I’ve seen so far. An early draft quickly grew large and was clearly going to split. But into what? The following categories are provisional but are all aspects of the built environment that I think contribute to making Shanghai the unique and uniquely wonderful place it is. This list will convert to links as the various topics are covered, not necessarily in this order.

  1. Misfit’s Guide to SHANGHAI (incl. old buildings still being used for their original purpose
  2. Change Of Use (keeping buildings useful)
  3. The R’s (Reconstruction, Repair, Restoration, Remembering)
  4. Shikumen (a traditional Shanghai housing type)
  5. Learning from Shikumen (is there any life left in this typology?)
  6. Gardening The City (plants and their place in the city)
  7. Exceeding Expectations (when things are better than you were able to imagine)
  8. Aesthetic Efficiency (big returns for little else but thought)
  9. Delirious Shanghai (commercialized entertainment; nothing to do with housing)
  10. New Shanghai buildings (Pudong, outer Shanghai, etc.)
  11. Misfits’ Guide to HONGKOU (an older part of Shanghai)


It’s a miracle the West Bank of The Bund has survived as intact as it has. It’s now separated from the river by a raised embankment promenade that doubles as flood and storm surge barrier. It’s a popular place to enjoy the city on hot summer evenings. The historic buildings are illuminated as a single tunable array switched on at precisely sunset.

These historic buildings on and near The Bund resulted from China’s entry into the world of international trade and banking in the 1920s and 30s. Many are designed in the sober commercial style of the time and all seem strangely familiar. None would be out of place in Australia in St. George’s Terrace in Perth, Flinders Street in Adelaide, or Swanston Street in Melbourne, the common factor being a history of ties with the UK.

Most of these buildings have well-recorded stories and it’s difficult to say anything new about them. Instead I’m going to organize them differently and, at the top of my classification are old buildings still being used for their original purpose. Wherever they are, buildings like this are a very special and rare subset of historic buildings. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #19: Illarion Ivanov Schitz] Conversion, re-use and adaptive re-use are all important ways of extending the working life of a building but this has never been necessary for these buildings that were fit for purpose when they were built, survived various historical events and indignities, and are still fit for the same purpose today. In this next photograph, the HSBC Building (1923) on the left is still the HSBC bank, and Customs House (1927) on the right is still a customs house. Time, history, and modernity are all meaningless.

The tall building the right below is the Bank of China Headquarters (1937) which is still the Bank of China Headquarters and the one on the left is Sassoon House (1929) which is now a hotel on all floors instead of just five thru nine. The Hong Kong architecture firm Palmer & Turner either designed or had a hand in the design of these two buildings as well as the two below. Now known as P&T Architects, they recently celebrated 150 years since the company’s founding. Their work in Shanghai alone is a book in itself. Hereinafter, I’ll refer to them as P&T for, like these buildings, they’re part of a living history.

Shanghai’s Grand Theatre (1933) and Cathay Theatre (1932) are still cinemas.

Originally known as the International Savings Society Apartments (1924), this building is now known as Wukang Mansion and is the most famous apartment building on Wukang Road. It was designed by Ladislaus (Lazlo) Hudec, a Hungarian architect whose work in Shanghai is also worthy of a book if there’s not one already. The ground floor level may not always have been an art gallery but the upper floors are still apartments.

Changde Apartment (1936) formerly known as Eddington House is still apartments.

I’ve no information for this next building. It’s some distance from the river, and doesn’t have the swagger of many of the other buildings of the period. The minimal amount of applied ornament suggests economy and the late 1930s. I have warm feelings towards these underdog buildings. It’s still apartments.

The exteriors of these last three buildings all now have reverse-cycle air conditioner compressors they were never designed to have. This tells me these buildings are still used for their original purpose, and that their corridors and interiors might still be intact. In the case of large and grand apartment buildings now converted into hotels, an unchanged exterior most likely means upper floor interiors have been gutted to install additional plumbing and centralized air conditioning.

It’s relatively easy though not guaranteed for small apartment buildings to stay apartments. These next three examples were neither important enough or large enough to warrant attention let alone a change of use. I’m glad they remain along with many others, and that they remain residential.

If a villa remains, it’s more likely to remain a villa if it’s not too large. The one below has a plaque and I’m glad to see many other buildings with similar plaques that remind us to look and to see why.

A plaque at the northern end of Garden Bridge tells me it was completed on December 29, 1907 as the first long-span bridge in Shanghai linking the Hongkou residential area to the north with the then city centre. Now known as Waibaidu Bridge, it was a important link across the river and it’s probably still in use because much traffic was absorbed by Shanghai’s metro and the inner and outer ring roads, construction of which began in the 1990s. The miracle is that the bridge survived until then.

I can’t find any information about this next building. I’d expect to see a plaque if it was a reconstruction, restoration or relocation but no. One aerial photograph shows it whitewashed. I think I can just make it out in a photo from maybe 1935. My guess is it’s just something that survived, probably because it never had an important use and there was never any reason to demolish and re-use or appropriate its narrow site. It’s currently a restaurant but the large windows and roof deck make me think it’s always been something similar, perhaps a clubhouse or, at most, a police checkpoint for river traffic along Suzhou Creek which is what this Huangpu tributary is called.

On one corner of the intersection known as Bund Circle is this building (1922) which was the Shanghai Municipal Council Building (1922). It’s currently vacated while the rear of the block is being redeveloped.

I’m mentioning it here because its curved entrance facade is mirrored across the street by the Hotel Metropole (1933) designed by P&T, mirrored again with Hamilton House (1933), also by P&T, and mirrored again in the third building (1937) for the Commercial Bank of China. The corners of the intersection follow these four facades and the curbside hotel drop-offs form what looks like a roundabout. I can’t vouch for the traffic safety but these drop-offs are space-saving, efficient and impossible to clog as hotel drop-offs often do. The hotel is still a hotel and still an upmarket on. Alas.

There’s something compelling about the space these four buildings make. It’s too strong and unapologetic to be pretty, and impossible to convey without resorting to panorama.

Shanghai has two YMCA. The one from 1938 was, in 2006 at least, the Shanghai Sports Club and government offices and so will appear in a later post. Chinese architect Poy Gum Lee’s 1931 YMCA is in this post because it was the YMCA Hotel for a while and is now the Jinjiang Metropolo Hotel Classiq, YMCA.

If ever anyone was to write the book Delirious Shanghai, then The Great World (1917, rebuilt 1928) would be Shanghai’s Coney Island and Downtown Athletic Club combined, and probably it’s Rockerfeller Center as well. It was an entertainment complex with all the amusements and entertainment of the times, as well as music halls and theatre. The building suffered an accidental bombing in 1937, service as a refugee center during WWII and closure between 1974 and 1981 before reopening as the Great World Entertainment Centre.

Despite these periods of abuse, disuse and re-use, the Great World is once more doing what it was designed to do although with different amusements and entertainments. I’m told the interiors are relatively intact but, more importantly, the building is still as popular as it ever was.

“Great World Entertainment Center” (1941), signed An Lan, Published by Global Heji Poster Company, Collection of the Shanghai History Museum, Contained in “Shanghai: Art of the City” by Michael Knight and Danny Chan, Asiann Art Museum – Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, 2010

There are also department stores that are still operating as department stores. This one is the Wing One Department Store (1918) by P&T.

On the adjacent corner is the Sincere Department Store (1917) which was Shanghai’s first department store but only because it opened slightly earlier. Both department stores included hotels, restaurants and tea rooms as well as retail spaces and continue to do so today.

“Nanjinng Road – From Series of Views of Shanghai (after 1932), Zhao Weimin, Published by Global Heji Poster Company, Collection of the Shanghai History Museum, Contained in “Shanghai: Art of the City” by Michael Knight and Danny Chan, Asiann Art Museum – Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, 2010

These two department stores are the only two buildings in this post I deliberately set out to find. The others I just happened to pass by while wandering across and around Shanghai’s Huangpu District. There’s much I missed and much more I don’t even know I missed. I will return to Shanghai with a list of buildings I want to see but it’ll just be an excuse to walk the city again and get to know it better.