Having braved the smog of Beijing and Xian, it was literally like ‘a breath of fresh air’ when we touched down in Shanghai. Not that the city was any less populated or had less traffic and congestion, it was simply that it had the good fortune to be situated near the coast, with regular fresh sea breezes dispersing much of the pollution like a giant fan. Just like every other city we had seen throughout China, the place appeared to be going through a major construction boom with countless cranes dotted around the city and the unmistakable silhouette of yet more high-rise apartments springing up on the distant horizon.
Much like Hong Kong, Shanghai immediately conveyed to us a sense of confidence and assuredness that we felt was somehow lacking in Beijing. As the largest city in China (over 23 million people) and the sea faring gateway to the country, it’s position as a major global player has remained unquestioned and it was certainly clear to us that this city knew it! As we cruised along the Huangpu River which threads its way through the middle of Shanghai, Jules and I could clearly identify two distinct facets to this city. It was like two cities in one. In just a single view we could see both its past and its future!
On one side of the river is ‘The Bund’ which is the famous embankment along the shoreline that is lined with historic buildings reminiscent of Shanghai’s colonial past. With most built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, these grand structures reflect the truly international nature of this port when it first established itself as the major financial hub for Asia. The classical architectural styles of banks, custom houses and hotels line the promenade and while all of the statues of foreign dignitaries have long since disappeared, it all looks very much as it did 100 years ago. We were told that strict building regulations continue to maintain the integrity of this area, with building heights restricted and preservation orders for most of the surrounding area. One of the nicest and most historic of these areas is ‘The French Quarter’ (also known as the French Concession), which is a leafy residential area set back from The Bund. Here many of the old residential buildings and European trees remain from the days when the area was essentially a French settlement. Also referred to as the ‘Paris of the East’ there are also quaint little laneways with plenty of street cafes. We wished that we had a little more time to explore this spot, as it has now become a great location for restaurants, designer shopping and numerous contemporary art galleries.
On the other side of the river there is quite a contrast! This is modern Shanghai, with some amazing architectural structures that are both eccentric and futuristic. The Oriental Pearl TV tower has become a distinctive symbol of the city since being built in 1995, but many other unique skyscrapers have since joined it. The most notable is the 492 metre high Shanghai World Financial Centre or as it is affectionately referred to by locals and tourists alike as ‘The Giant Bottle Opener’! Completed in 2008, this sleek lined architectural marvel is something to behold as it towers over the neighbouring buildings, reflecting the surrounding skyline. Yet there are many more that continue to make this area an essential reference point for any student of high-rise architecture. With more relaxed building regulations on this side of the river, it seems that here ‘the sky’s the limit’!
Both Jules and I were quick to agree that Shanghai is a most impressive city that had successfully managed to combine shades of both old and new. It is truly a global metropolis that continues to attract the very best that the world has to offer and while its urban landscape is continually evolving, it has not lost sight of the essential qualities that make this city livable. Trees, parks and water features seem to soften the more brutal aspects of modern city life, while historic low-level buildings add essential character. With a progressive attitude to urban design that would be the envy of the west, Shanghai remains a city on the move and it will be interesting to observe its development in the years ahead as it continues to address the two distinct sides to the city. With its growing financial opportunities and the ongoing return of foreign investment, it appears that Shanghai is fast re-establishing itself as one of the great cities of the world!