Shanghai is the most populated city in China and one of the most populated in the world. It is a tourist attraction due to its multiple monuments such as the Bund, The temple of God of the city, the Pudong skyscrapers, and it is also a cosmopolitan centre of culture and design. The city is the authentic engine of Chinas’ economic growth, it has the biggest cargo port in the world, and Shanghai’s stock-market is the second most important one around the globe. The city;s ‘boom’ started in 1992, and in the past 26 years, it has gone through an important transformation. The construction from the beginning of the XX century has led to some of the most modern skyscrapers and amazing light shows. Shanghai is experiencing a boom in construction and its architecture has a unique style.

The city of Shanghai is strategically situated in the Far East as a new first-order global financial centre and a new model of the modern city. This framework faces the challenge of embracing a huge urban population increase due to its demographic growth and internal countryside-city migration attracted by the accelerated economic growth in China. The planning in China has gone through multiple transitions due to successive structural changes. In this framework, at least four stages in Shanghai’s morphology can be recognized.

Architectural development of Shanghai, China - Sheet1
Shanghai today_© 1992-2021 Dezan Shira & Associates

Stages in Shanghai’s morphology 

The traditional walled-city was planned according to the old concepts of geomancy, Feng-Shui and I-Ching. The Rites of Zhou (1100-256 BC) help to emphasize the importance of these philosophies, the cardinal directions, and the harmony between the human and natural realms. Until the middle of the XlX century, Shanghai shared these characteristics. 

Architectural development of Shanghai, China - Sheet2
View of the Phoenix Tower, Shanghai, Cao Shiting. _© Shanghai Library Archive.

The socialist city (1950-1980) applied new planning policies that were focused on increasing the number of blue-collar workers, affordable housing, communal urban spaces, work units (known as danwei) , wide central avenues, big squares, and soviet style exposition centres. 

This is a hybrid city (1860-1990), which incorporates the planning and concepts of occidental design blended with the trace and principles of traditional Chinese architecture. Cities like this, such as Shanghai and Tianjin, were the first to develop infrastructure networks. This area is known as the Bund. Here we can appreciate the big stone European style facades, alien to any architectural style we could encounter in the country. 

Architectural development of Shanghai, China - Sheet3
1933 Slaughter House, Shanghai _© FAKE GOODS / Flickr

The global city (1990-onwards) plans economic growth to insert the region into the global economy as a key node in the globalized market. It is distinguished for counting with the Commercial and Business District (CBD), commercial and industrial zoning regulations on a large scale, international airport, multiple urban centres, corporate and national service buildings, extensive public transport systems, and high population density.

Today’s Shanghai 

Because of this large process, which was accelerated from the mid-XIX century, the city of Shanghai now presents five large morphologically differentiated sectors: a) the historic and traditional centre, b) the XIX century expansion area, c) the expansion of the city during the first half of the XX century, d) lately, the plans and strategies around the creation of the satellite cities, from the beginning of the 80s.

Architectural development of Shanghai, China - Sheet4
Traditional and historic center_© 2000-2022 Dreamstime.

For it, the municipal government decided that European architecture should play a central role in the creation of an urban identity for the centre of each New Town. Thus, there is a reminiscence of that type of hybrid city, intermingled with the global city that commanded this era, but still with remnants of the socialist city in transition from a planned economy to an economy open to the market. 

Now, we can see skyscrapers with curtain walls that serve as backrests for ancient Buddhist temples; old tea houses that coexist with new chains like Starbucks. The multimillionaire and ultra-modern renovation process in Shanghai are contrasted by its traditional architecture. Only 20 years ago, there were 150 skyscrapers, today there are over three thousand and it is still growing. This is giving the city a spectacular height, which situates it in the ranking of cities with the highest buildings. The city is also developing environmental awareness and investing in environment recovery projects under the motto “better city, better life”, and focused on developing more green sights. 

Shanghai Tower_© Connie Zhou Studio

Shanghai offers a planning system in transition, from the communist centralised system imposed in the mid-XX century to a progressive opening to market investments, although the decisions are still top-down through five-year plans. However, recently passed regulations appeal to the guiding principle of “planning first, construction later”.

Consequently, Shanghai presents a heterogeneous and diversified urban scenario according to the historical origin of each sector: Chinese traditional centre, nineteen century and first half of XX century occidental style expansion areas, socialist in the second half. It became a polycentric system about the reorganization of the regional structure with the creation of new cities and satellite villages, with some urban centres themed as European architecture sceneries. 


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