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Architecture In Shanghai

8,008 km so far.

Gazing up at the buildings of a city often fills me with the same kind of awe as standing at the foot of a towering mountain or looking out across the vast ocean. It’s not just the beauty of the stone, glass, and steel structures before me, but the history that fills each one.

Walk down any city street and you can move back and forth through time, just by noticing its buildings.

Shanghai, of course, is an architectural and historical jewel, mixing the old and new into one fascinating cityscape.

With such a huge population, much of Shanghai’s architecture is dedicated to living space. These three apartment blocks originated in their own distinct eras, yet they are all a living part of Shanghai today.

High-rise apartments, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

High-rise apartments, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Utilitarian apartment block, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Utilitarian apartment block, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Brick apartments, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Brick apartments, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Some buildings have been carefully preserved, even though their function might not have remained the same throughout the decades.

Christian church, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Christian church, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Many places have been torn down, displacing thousands of people, and making way for a very different kind of structure.

Window washers atop a modern structure, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Window washers atop a modern structure, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Towering, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Towering, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

The Radisson Blu is the 34th tallest building in Shanghai.

Pointy dome, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Pointy dome, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

A few of these newer buildings hearken back to a different age.

The Bund Center, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

The Bund Center, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

The modern high-rises of Pudong have radically changed the view from The Bund over the last decade, bringing a little Hong Kong flavour to Shanghai.

Pudong skyline and smog, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Pudong skyline and smog, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Modern Pudong, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Modern Pudong, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

I imagine the Bund itself looks much as it did in the 1930s, when it was the swinging-est place to see and be seen in Shanghai.

The Peace Hotel has been at the heart of the life of the Bund since it opened, as the Cathay Hotel, in 1929. It was simply *the* place to stay or party in the 1930s. The Peace Hotel is one of the most famous buildings along Shanghai’s Bund, and it holds a special place in my family’s history.

The Peace Hotel and the Bank Of China building, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

The Peace Hotel and the Bank Of China building, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

It is partly because of this hotel that I am here to write this today.

In 1937, my grandparents, Rose and Jimmy, were a young couple living the good life in Shanghai. China and Japan were at war and the fighting had finally come to the city. The expat community carried on with life as normal, believing that the Japanese would not attack those living in the International Settlement.

The Peace Hotel from the awning of the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

The Peace Hotel from the awning of the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

One summer Saturday, Jimmy, Rose, and her parents were strolling along The Bund when Chinese fighter planes filled the skies. Their target was the Japanese Navy vessel Izumo. Through a combination of bad weather and bad equipment, the Chinese fighters accidentally unleashed their bombs into the heart of the International Settlement instead.

One fell at the junction of The Bund and Nanjing Road, exactly where the Cathay Hotel was located.

Detail on the exterior of The Peace Hotel, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Detail on the exterior of The Peace Hotel, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Amid the chaos, Jimmy smashed a window into the Cathay’s dining room. He dragged his fiancée and soon-to-be mother-in-law through the shards of broken glass to safety. The dining room was set for dinner, all white table clothes and immaculate place settings. Rose used one of those white cloths to staunch the wounds her mother had received from the shattered glass.

Inside The Peace Hotel, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Inside The Peace Hotel, Shanghai, architecture photo exercise.

Hundreds of people died on The Bund that day, but thanks to the quick action of my grandfather, and the proximity of the Peace Hotel, my grandparents were not among them.

My great grandfather was not so lucky. He had been hit by shrapnel during the bombing and did not make it to the hotel with the rest of his family. They later found him in a hospital, with his leg amputated and death sneaking up on him. He didn’t survive.

This is a story I’ve been hearing since I was too young to know what China was, or to understand that my grandmother could have ever been a young woman-about-town. It’s hard to imagine the terror that they would have felt, sheltering inside the hotel as chaos reigned outside, not knowing what was happening or when it would end.

Visiting the hotel, seeing the same walls that protected my family more than 70 years ago, gave me a little more insight into what that day must have been like for them.

That’s the power of architecture.  

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2 Comments

  1. […] with low townhouses called shikumen, each rising only two or three stories. These days though, architecture in Shanghai is all about looking up. Waaaay […]

  2. andrea says:

    That’s a great story to share, thanks Jane.