Skip to content

Expectations Exceeded

Post date:

The term expectations exceeded is frequently heard in academia, usually describing the inevitable outcome of some program or course assessment. The implication is that already high expectations were more than satisfied but, less frequently, the term can also be used to indicate that low expectations were exceeded. This post is about instances where someone has taken a project further than I imagined possible, without thinking too deeply about why my expectations were low or nonexistent. It’s about design, the right design, and just the right amount of design where and when you don’t expect it.

The Shanghai Tunnel Engineering Railway Traffic Design & Research Institute is housed in a low-rise building at the base of the tower which is the real star here. My friend told me it’s an air intake for the Yan’an East Road Tunnel. Someone has enjoyed designing it and they’ve done well. There was always going to be a problem with scale as its size and the size of the openings are determined by the rate of air intake and not by proportion or other arbitrary visual preferences of humans. The surface pattern resulting from the construction unit doesn’t make this building any smaller but it does help us understand it even though the openings aren’t trying to be the windows we want to see. The asymmetry of those openings, their asymmetrical grouping, and the offset pattern of dark squares all emphasize the cylindricality of this thing that’s going to be show different angular views when passed at speed.

It’s set in a small park and one side of the tower has the most and largest openings and, you might say the design opens up on that side. It’s probably something to do with the direction of the prevailing wind but I like to think somebody thought this might improves the quality of the air taken in.

A quick check shows the direction of the prevailing wind is SSE which is the direction of the large openings towards the base.

Here’s another tunnel air intake, this time along the historic side of The Bund under which passes the Wai-ting Tunnel. It’s a different approach to the same problem and, considering the designer’s hands were probably tied, it merges into the streetscape very well and doesn’t call too much attention to itself and which is probably all that was asked of it. With this one too, I get the feeling somebody gave its design more attention and care than was asked. It’s always a joy to find buildings that wear their art lightly and, if anyone notices them at all, are better than anyone expected them to be, if one notices them at all.

It’s the same with this little building that I suspect is some fake history but, unlike the tunnel vent above, this is fake undistinguished history. I really don’t know and can’t tell how old or new it is but I’m glad it’s there. There’s no date but the protruding window beneath the side balcony makes me think it’s not that old. A plaque on the gate reads Hydrometric Station in Huangpu Park, and the Chinese inscription on the wall says it belongs to the Shanghai Maritime Bureau. (A hydrometric station is a place on a river, lake or other body of water where data is collected and recorded for the water quality and quantity of water.) What I like about this little building is that it’s nicer than you think it needs to be. Someone appreciated the opportunity to design it and, like Ricardo Bofill, is aware of the affinity a vague Neoclassicism has for modular design and prefabricated construction.

Beneath the Yan-An Elevated Motorway are a series of buildings like this one which has a large circular motif facing the street. Another I saw was the same design and colour but with a triangular motif instead. There may be others. At first I thought it might be some sort of relay for a fibre-optic network strung along the elevated road but, seeing how important ventilation is, it’s probably a distribution station for the expressway electrics.

That raised door on the right is interesting, almost ceremonial. It doesn’t need a canopy but it has the suggestion of one and it’s exactly the height of the parapet on the left of the long side. Somebody thought the front and side elevations need to be be seen as parts of the same building. Notice also the three square windows in the middle? They’re not as big as the quarter-circle ones on the right, nor as small as the sixteen smaller ones on the left.
I suddenly noticed that canopy on the long side, and how it splits that circular window unevenly. And, now we’re looking at this end, what are those boxes symmetrically placed either side of the central door? And what is the purpose of that central recess? This little building seems to have a formal entrance and three different service entrances. It seems to have it’s own logic (as it would if it’s to do with the distribution of electricity) and I like how it doesn’t care if I can’t get my head around that.

This is the rear view of a third building. Somebody has thought about this. Again, it’s another example of a building that’s had just the right amount of design to show somebody cared. These openings could have been anything but somebody has chosen to make these ones. Those decisions weren’t random, but this building isn’t challenging us to analyze it. It’s also not apologizing for not giving us more to think about or me to write about. If this were in any other country people would be trying to jolly it up with primary colours or a community mural or otherwise deface it with posters, flyers or graffiti.

I don’t know the name or architect of this building which is a new-build two buildings north of Customs House. On the right is the Russo-Chinese Bank in Shanghai (1902) and on the left is the Bank of Communications (1948). The open frieze bridges the different heights in a way Asnago Vender were adept at. This frieze is a kind of negative ornament that doesn’t seek attention by being over or understated yet it’s still bold. With neighbours like these, an understated entrance would have drawn attention to itself, as would have not grouping the windows vertically. It’s not apologetic, self-conscious or reluctant. Somebody has looked at the problem and designed a fine and considered building. It was a tricky commission for a difficult site in a highly protected area and it works with what’s already there. It’s different in the same ways, lets say.

This little building seen from the sidewalk is a garbage collection point for a park and is lovely. A cat is sleeping on the roof.

The building is orthogonal where it needs to be orthogonal while its curved walls have been designed to follow the slope of the ground. These curves are the old fashioned type that could be set out and constructed by any stonemason using technologies no more complex than a wooden peg and a piece of string. The park is above a public car park and there are some public toilets along the street edge.

In many countries, we have low expectations of public toilets if we expect them at all but in Shanghai you’re never far from one. They will be clean and most likely have a paper dispensers operated by QR-code. In the previous post I mentioned these next ones and how the attendant has placed and is caring for the pot plants outside just as the ferry attendant was caring for the pot plants on the ferry. I’m also including these two examples in this post not as examples of gardening or greening the city, but of people caring for the places they have been entrusted to care for. They don’t have to do this but they do and I shouldn’t be so surprised and happy to see it but I am.



  • Love these hidden-in-plain-sight gems as well. I catch myself looking at them and wanting to know what’s inside. A bit related. Met an owner of a prominent retail store looking to renovate. A well-known, throw back voice over celebrity in these parts. Anyways, in the basement was a full bore server farm. Impressive and probably still there. Great, short and sweet piece by the way.

  • Lovely! I am reminded of the potential of what happens when architects take on these sorts of design challenges. A long time favorite of mine is the exquisite transformer substation by Conradin Clavuot in Switzerland from the early 1990s. It was featured in a book titled “Neues Bauen in the den Alpen” (New Building in the Alps), the accompanying volume to a prize and exhibition of the same name. That book featured the delicate detailing of a substantial concrete mass structure whose doors can be swung open by a single hand. One gets a sense of it on the architect’s website but the published drawings are far more evocative.
    Yes, Herzog and De Meuron’s copper clad Faraday cage is of the same period, but this little known, overlooked substation always captured my heart.