Visiting Shanghai's First City Hall

Michelle Qiao pays a visit to one of the most iconic buildings of yesterday’s Shanghai.

October 25, 2010

Michelle Qiao pays a visit to one of the most iconic buildings of yesterday's Shanghai.

Imagine a city government building reminiscent of a Chinese emperor's palace. This building is not fiction, but stands in front of my eyes. Accessed by long and broad steps, this massive three-story structure — located in Shanghai's Yangpu District — features a Chinese roof with overhanging, upturned eaves, huge scarlet wooden gates and exquisitely painted traditional patterns on its exterior.

It was designed in 1931 as the Shanghai Municipal Government Administrative Center — and was the signature building in the "Greater Shanghai Plan." It has been studied extensively by Liu Gang, a PhD scholar in architectural history from Shanghai Tongji University, who called it "an example of Chinese Renaissance style."

According to Professor Wu Jiang's book "A History of Shanghai Architecture 1840-1949," the "Greater Shanghai Plan" was the first urban planning project in Shanghai. It was initiated by the Nanjing Kuomintang government in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Since downtown Shanghai was mostly occupied by foreign concessions, planners looked instead to a vast area in the city's northeastern Jiangwan Town to build a new center of Shanghai.

As the most important structure in this ambitious plan, the former Shanghai Municipal Government Building is both beautiful and interesting. It looks traditionally Chinese with a Western, contemporary body.

"The big roofs, the wooden gates and the framed windows are all designed with traditional Chinese symbols," Liu said. "But the general structure, the facade and the entrance clearly showcase the eclectic style popular in the 19th century. So it is a Western contemporary building designed in a language of Chinese Renaissance style."

On a cool, cloudy July afternoon, Liu showed me around the building, which is now used as an office building of the Shanghai Sports Academy.

As I walked up the steps adorned with giant stone carvings, Liu told me it had been a popular venue for wedding ceremonies and photographs in the 1930s. The unusually large scarlet wooden gate must have perfectly set off those pure white wedding gowns.

The interior is much simpler in design. The flooring is yellow terrazzo. The centerpiece of the lobby is a map of Shanghai in the 1930s, including the "Greater Shanghai Plan." The iron railings of the staircase are a bright red color. Romanesque arches grace the side entrances of the building.

"In China in the past there was no such occupation as

Takeaways

"In China in the past there was no such occupation as

During the 1920s, talented architects applied their Western knowledge to design tall buildings with Western structural elements and added traditional Chinese elements.

The "Greater Shanghai Plan" was the first urban planning project in Shanghai, initiated by the Nanjing Kuomintang government.