I’ve just left Pudong International Airport and am thundering through the neon-lit night in a cab that reminds me I have a tailbone. The frail undercarriage of the car has me absorbing every bump and pothole in one of Shanghai’s thousand highways, but that doesn’t stop me from looking over my five-day itinerary. As usual, it’s filled with food, architecture and art. As the principal of Ste. Marie Art + Design, a Vancouver design studio with a hospitality focus, this kind of agenda is typical for me, whether I’m on a business trip or vacation. I’ve come to Shanghai to experience its mixed heritage of international and local influences, of industry and commerce through time. What got me most excited about what’s been called China’s first modern city is that it’s so fast – buildings go up, buildings come down – making even Hong Kong pale in comparison. But some architects and designers are taking the time to adopt industrial buildings loaded with history, character and charm, reinventing them as fresh-faced hotels, shops and galleries. They also look to historical narratives in French colonialism, industrial might and Hollywood glam to interpret and amplify the city’s rich art deco legacy. To walk through Shanghai is to walk through a film noir sequel.
1. The Waterhouse at South Bund
Lay down your head at the Waterhouse hotel to experience the city’s cool, punchier side.
It’s mid-morning in the lobby of the Waterhouse, and my third espresso is waking me up to the details of the hotel’s architecture. It’s one of several spaces I’m visiting by Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, the cardinal firm in Shanghai working to graft new life onto the ghostly fragments of old buildings – in this case, a warehouse from the 1930s used as a Japanese army barracks during WWII.
The stitching of old to new reminds me of a young bride dancing with her grandfather at her wedding – a frail, fleeting harmony. In one gesture, wispy neon offsets the original brickwork, and in another, a dowdy domestic tile finds new life next to a rigid structural steel girder. And there’s a wall with three different finishes that have been forensically revealed to show three generations and three separate interpretations of the built environment. For this history, the feel is contemporary – a perfect jumping-off point into an intricate and layered city.Maojiayan Rd. No. 1–3, Zhongshan Rd. S., waterhouseshanghai.com
2. Fairmont Peace Hotel
Get a sense of what the epicentre of 1930s hedonism felt like in the octagonal atrium at the Fairmont Peace Hotel.
Considered a grande dame of Shanghai art deco, this stately block of a building symbolizes progress, speed and certainty. In its heyday, art deco was a celebration of industry and excess, and as I settle into the Jazz Bar at the Fairmont Peace with an old-fashioned in hand, I see the tenets of the era in every archway, inlay and motif throughout the hotel. You can’t spend five minutes in the central atrium without becoming energized by the force of the geometry and the light entering through the towering stained glass. I realize this is why the style is so at home in Shanghai: Speed and progress drive the culture of commerce here, even now. While some of the other designs I see in the city are a reaction to this (even in the best possible way), it’s not merely a resistance but an interpretation, a negotiation – selectively embracing and snubbing, courting and scorning.20 Nanjing Rd. E., fairmont.com/peace-hotel-shanghai
3. Long Museum West Bund
See the best of contemporary art, from here and abroad, under the vaulted concrete forms at the Long Museum West Bund.
I’ve meandered my way by hired car to the West Bund district to explore another example of how the industry-driven city reinvents space: the Long Museum. (The owners’ original Shanghai outpost, the Long Museum Pudong, opened in 2012 in the Pudong New Area.) A contemporary art gallery rising up from the site of an old coal-shipping facility on the Huangpu River, the museum incorporates industrial spaces and relics, including a dilapidated conveyor framework embraced by the new build’s curved concrete walls.
As I stroll the grounds’ courtyard and open spaces, I notice an almost eerie silence contrasting with the hyper-rhythm of the city centre, and attribute the calming effect to the smooth, continuous concrete finishes and vast, sweeping vaults. To top it all off, the resolute simplicity of form, atypical of Shanghai’s architecture, makes it easy to lose myself in the artworks on display within.Lane 3398, Longteng Ave., Xuhui District, thelongmuseum.org
4. Chi She
Head to the West Bund Art & Design complex to see how the Chi She gallery makes waves by mixing tradition and technology, in this case old bricks and robotic design.
What I love about this gallery is that it looks as though it’s held together by magic. In true Shanghai fashion, the architects took tradition – the reclaimed bricks from an existing building on the site – and added something new: digital fabrication technology by way of a robotic arm that joined those old bricks together again. The result is a bulging facade, a form that pushes the boundaries of the material so drastically it’s alarming. I’ve seen this before, but usually with brand new buildings. Here, the wave that ripples across the facade is executed with a material so modest, so simple and so old, the structure is something altogether different – it feels mystic. I’m suddenly struck by the fact that I’m in a truly ancient part of the world. While it’s unnerving at first, soon I’m just inspired that a building can kick with such force.West Bund Art & Design, westbundshanghai.com
5. Design Republic Commune
Shop for international and Chinese modern furniture and home accessories at Design Republic Commune.
My host, Ricky, disappears into this vast police headquarters turned design hub, leaving me leafing through a booklet. I come across a section that describes the sense of play behind Neri&Hu’s revamp of the colonial building along the lines of: Logic exists, but sometimes the logic is that of a dream. That sums up the atmosphere of lightness and even amusement in this heavy brick structure, where whole sections of the original floor plate were erased, creating sweeping, Escher-like views from one level to the next. Lath walls were stripped of plaster to form space-dividing screens.
And in addition to showcasing high-end furniture from international and local brands, the complex draws with a restaurant, a café and even a one-room hotel. Ricky sneaks up on me with more literature before leading me back out to the renowned Jason Atherton tapas restaurant, Commune Social, adjacent to the Design Republic. Jamón ibérico and a glass of lambrusco in the middle of Shanghai – seems as dreamy as the setting to me.88 Yuqing Rd., thedesignrepublic.com
The It Architects
After visiting four Shanghai projects executed by Neri&Hu, it’s clear to me why they call themselves both a design and a research office. Listening to the past before forging the future is fundamental to the work of Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, and this approach is evident in the respect and finesse I see in each project. “Demolishing, you run the risk of erasing the city’s memory,” says Neri. It is also why this firm is reinventing Shanghai, one forgotten building at a time.
Shanghai reminds me of the opening of Game of Thrones: There’s relentless progress amid a system of expanding complexity, yet turn a corner and somehow you’ve disappeared, enveloped in a cityscape that seems untouched for at least a generation. Orderly, despite being stacked on top of one another, these streets speak to the language of the culture. Fresh produce, fish and meat and piping-hot street food spill out of each tiny aperture, and it’s impossible to walk three paces without stopping to investigate or taste what’s on display, like xiao long bao, the soup dumplings native to Shanghai. It’s seriously slow going. Turn another corner and you’re transported once again, this time to a broader, tree-lined and decidedly less frenetic streetscape. Western buildings dominate the former French Concession, where the tidy sidewalks inevitably guide you to a posh boutique or café.
To see life in the megacity unfold on a human scale, pound the pavement. When you abandon the wild goose chase for the sidewalk route, you’ll have time to observe citizens on bikes and scooters jockey for position during rush hour, admire local street style, check out what’s for sale at the laneway markets and feel dwarfed by the city’s bamboo groves.
Tuck into scallion-oil pancakes any time of day thanks to street vendors in the French Concession and in the Old Town.
Served at the WIYF ice cream shop on Wukang Rd., Shanghai’s inside scoop is salted caramel.