Magazine article History Today

Shanghai's Deco Shangri-La

Magazine article History Today

Shanghai's Deco Shangri-La

Article excerpt

* Is this going to be the new Shanghai? The Portman Shangri-La hotel is the newest and tallest building in the city at fifty storeys, but it may not be the only one for long. Another bridge across the Yangtze is planned to connect with a recently announced new city. When the Red Guards cut a hole in China's history they did untold damage to ancient monuments. In a decade they destroyed much: who knows if new construction will not cause similar devastation?

The ghosts of China are not all from a long imperial past - in Shanghai, port and one time pleasure dome, other more recent treasures can be found. For Shanghai has a wealth of Art Deco buildings planted in its commercial heart.

The buildings along the Bund are classics of the 1920s. Here, seventy years ago, a large resident European population of 50,000 made money and marked it with monuments to their success. From stately homes to hotels, from cinemas to shipping offices, the centre of Shanghai is rich in the styles.

Looking at the new Portman, you cannot help questioning if the future will bring this building the architectural cachet of the Peace Hotel. A landmark, at the corner of Nanking Road and the Bund, at the city centre, it has been splendidly restored. its upper floors with ballroom, bar, grill room and oriental restaurant waft you back to the time of Noel Coward. The glass screens, plasterwork, fittings and light fixtures, are all in perfect order; marble and gilt in the lower foyer add to the atmosphere. The Peace is a marvel not to be missed in this city.

Art Deco is a style that in many parts of the world is in danger of being erased. Such buildings often occupy important central city sites, prime meat for the developing butchers. In London we have lost many grand cinemas; in the USA the early skyscrapers, now redundant, are even harder to defend. That unpredictable wild beast, market forces, has cut down many unusual and valuable Western buildings, but since it is a new arrival in China the heritage of the 1920s and 30s is still intact. Is it being taken care of and is it appreciated?

In Shanghai I talked to Scot Ying, whose office provides intelligence and information services. …

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