Insider's Guide: Shanghai's Finest Art Deco Buildings

Insider's Guide: Shanghai's Finest Art Deco Buildings

The past few decades of break-neck economic development has fuelledthe resurrection of Shanghai as one of the great commercial and cultural centres of the world. A city born out of globalisation and capitalism in the mid-19th century, this city was governed by international businesses interests and developed a urban culture that fused traditional Chinese ways with western modernity.

More tellingly, due to this unorthodox political arrangement, Shanghai developed much apart from the tumultuous torrents of upheaval shaping the rest of China.  Eternally operating on a massive scale, today we find a city that has re-invented itself as China’s show-piece – yet deeply rooted in its golden age of the 1920s and 30s.


The quintessential art-deco features of the Astrid apartments (1934) on Nanchang road
Credit: Art deco buildings 

Shanghai - Art-Deco Forever

The most outstanding legacy of those glamorous days is the architectural heirlooms that still remain – witness to so many of the historical episodes and dramas this city has faced over the decades. 


The fusion of Chinese and western styles coming together beautifully in the former YWCA building (1933, designed by Lee Poy Gum)
Credit: Art Deco Buildings

The art-deco style, all the rage these days, is Shanghai’s defining aesthetic and most identifies with the city’s cosmopolitan urban culture. While definitely originating in the west, the art-deco style made its way to Shanghai and gradually became synonymous with the city – in many examples mixing with Chinese architectural traditions to create a unique Chinese fusion art-deco modernist style.

The lobby of architect Lee Poy Gum's former YWCA building is a masterpiece of East-West fusion.  
Credit: Art Deco Buildings

We simply adore the art-deco style - from the awe-inspiring grand  stone exteriors, to the luxurious and warm gilded and oak-paneled interiors.  Within Asia, Shanghai is the undisputed Mecca of all things art-deco, and as a celebration of this, we discuss some of the city’s finest art-deco masterpieces below.


Shanghai is a treasure trove of art-deco features, such as this fascinating circular doorway located in the former French Concession
Credit: Art Deco Buildings

1933 Building – Former Slaughterhouse: Where Gotham City meets Shanghai Cityscape

Built in 1933, this four-story building was designed by British architects and developed by Shanghainese developers with concrete imported from Britain. This imposing and eerie structure has seen many functions, from its original role as an abattoir, to medicine factory to its present role as event space and f&b venue.

1933 building -This masterpiece is one of the finest examples of art-deco architecture on the globe
Credit: Art Deco Buildings

This fabulous building, an ode to modernism and concrete, was built to great expenses, with historical records stating that it cost 3.3 million silver taels to build, including construction and facilities. It had hollow walls that were 50cm thick that allowed for temperature control, particularly in the hot and still Shanghai summers. Without doubt, the most striking feature of this building is the internal network of elevated walkways and staircases - the mesmerizing interlace of pathways makes 1933 a must-see for all architecture aficionados passing through Shanghai.   

The mind-boggling interior walkways of the 1933 building
Credit: Art Deco Buildings

Christian Baptist Publications Building

Walking around Shanghai, it is hard to avoid the indelible presence left behind by the iconic work of Hungarian Architect Laszlo Hudec who live in Shanghai from 1918 to 1945. With a prodigious work rate, Mr Hudec was the designer behind many of the city's architectural gems, also including the homes of some of Shanghai's whos-who of the day, including Sun Ke (Sun Yat-Sen's only son), Shanghai magnate D.V. Woo and Hong Kong. Taipan Robert Ho Tung.

The imposing façade of the Christian Baptist Publications Building, recently restored to its former glory  
Credit: Rockbund

One of his most dramatic works, was the Christian Baptist Publications Building, located on the north end of the Bund, behind the Peninsula Hotel, was built in 1930 and completed in 1932. This striking building is noted for its imposing and powerful façade,  regardless of its obvious modest physical size. The angular lines of the numerous parapets, combined with the American-style brick work infuses the strong exterior with vibrant modernity. 

The fascinating angular parapets inject a strong sense of modernity to the building
Credit: Shanghai street stories

Normandie Apartments 

Among the many residential buildings designed by Hudec, the Normandie Apartments (built in 1927) are often singled out as his best, and one of the finest pre-world war 2 apartments in Shanghai. It was often referred to a the "Little Flatiron" due to the structural similarities the Normandie had with the famous New York Flatiron skyscraper. While purists may argue that is not a true art deco building due to its elements of French renaissance style, we couldn't help ourselves and included it in the list because of its sheer beauty. 


The Normandie stands at the confluence of five roads in the elegant former French Concession
Credit: China daily

Reputedly possessing the first balconies on an apartment building in Shanghai, the building was one of Shanghai's first high-end residential developments and was initially rented out to senior employees of blue-chip international corporations such as HSBC. Situated in a much sought-after area of town, the triangular plot of the Normandie is at the junction of five streets and provides a great open vantage point from the balconies - the sleek and "sharp" form of the building jutting out like a battleship into the grand vista created by the large road junction.


The Normandie  still has much of its original fittings, this being the grand lift lobby on the ground floor
Credit: China daily

Pei Mansion

Not far the bustling side walks and modern sky scrapers of West Nanjing road, is the delicately tucked away Pei Mansion - the home of the illustrious Pei family in their heyday. This grand property was  built in 1934, and was second only to local magnate Wu Tongwen's Hudec designed villa on West Beijing road as the most luxurious private home in the Far East. Notable members of the Pei family include the world renowned architecture I.M.Pei who was designer of the Lourve renovations in Paris and was behind the famous glass pyramid structure, and Pei Zuyi - the long-residing president of the central bank of China during the whole Republican period (1912-1945).  

The grandeur & luxurious front of the Pei Mansion: One of Asia finest elite residences
Credit: Pei Mansion hotel

After navigating the grand entrance to the compound, one is transported into a Suzhou-style classical garden with all the features you'd expect to find in a traditional elite Chinese home elsewhere in the empire - with elegant waterways, bridges, a pentagonal pavilion, and carved stone statues.  The Pentagonal pavilion is the focal point of the garden with the 5-side structure closely abiding to classical Chinese philosophy of the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. The house itself is actually a single imposing three storied "block" stone structure, ornately decorated with a fusion of art-deco and Chinese design aesthetics.

Classic Chinese elements coming together beautifully with western features in the graceful front garden
Credt: Pei Mansion Hotel

Today, the Pei Mansion has been lovingly restored to its former glory (2007), and anyone who wants to experience the glamorous lifestyles of the rich & famous in old Shanghai can spend a few nights at this swanky boutique hotel. A major component of the restoration project was remodelling of the hotel lobby and the major bedrooms in an authentic way that stayed true to the style and tastes of the day. As you enter the lobby, hotel guests make their way past a gramophone  and an original fireplace, with the walls carefully decorated with photographs of the Pei family. Everything comes together beautifully, and the overall effect is stunning - as guests get as close as they will ever to that long gone era.

Window into the sophistication of Shanghai's golden era of the pre-war period
Credit Pei Mansion Hotel
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