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Shanghai's first city hall

Shanghai's first city hall is a dramatic Chinese Renaissance structure designed in 1931 as part of the city's first urban plan. Michelle Qiao pays a visit.

Imagine our city government building reminiscent of a Chinese emperor's palace and located in far northeast Yangpu District.

This building is not fiction but stands in front of my eyes. Reached by long and broad steps, this massive three-story structure 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 Government Administrative Center, 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 northeast Jiangwan Town to build a new center of Shanghai.

As the most important structure in this ambitious plan, the former Shanghai city 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 an as 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 cheerful bright red color. Romanesque arches grace the side entrances of the building.

"In China in the past there was no such an occupation as 'architect,' and buildings were built by craftsmen whose names seldom were left in history," said Liu.

This project was different. The government had arranged a competition among China's first generation of modern architects to select the best plan. Most of the architects had studied in Europe or the United States. The government chose the design of Dong Dayou, a graduate from the University of Minnesota.

During the 1920s, the Chinese government began to call for revival of traditional culture, so architects of the "Greater Shanghai Plan" were directed to design in "traditional Chinese style."

Talented architects such as Dong applied their Western knowledge to design tall buildings with Western structural elements and added traditional Chinese elements, like the upturned roof. The style was known as Chinese Renaissance.

There are approximately 10 buildings in this style remaining in Shanghai, including the former Shanghai Library (now in Tongji High School) and the former Shanghai Museum (now Changhai Hospital's Screening Building), all designed by Dong in the early 1930s as part of the urban plan.

Historian Liu said the first-ever urban plan in Shanghai had been a very scientific one, providing a blueprint for a new metropolis, including road systems, port, railway and different areas for administration, commerce and residence. Traces of the plan are still visible in some parts of Yangpu District.

"It's a pity that the plan ended as war broke out in 1937," said Liu.

But this building influenced another famous Chinese architect, Charlie Chen.

"Standing in front of this Chinese-style former Shanghai city government building, I was so proud of being a Chinese. And I've decided to follow the path of architect Dong Dayou, to be a house builder," Chen wrote in his biography.

Chen later studied architecture in the United Kingdom and created the famous, controversial "Liang-Chen Plan" for Beijing with Liang Sicheng - it would have preserved the old city of Beijing and shifted the administrative center to the west. Chen's Shanghai residence on Hengshan Road will be introduced in the next column.

It's a pity that the ambitious "Greater Shanghai Plan" was never fully carried out. But it's fortunate that several big, beautiful Chinese roofs from the plan are still out there, telling us about a piece of nearly forgotten history not so long ago.


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