Sky-High Shanghai – Exploring the City’s Tallest Buildings

Sky-High Shanghai – Exploring the City’s Tallest Buildings
Jan 23, 2009 By Article and photos by Susie Go ,

Shanghai is undoubtedly a high-rise city. From the apartment complexes of Gubei to the monoliths of Plaza 66, almost everywhere you look, the sky is scored with monoliths. The Pudong skyline boasts some of China’s tallest buildings – the pagoda-like Jin Mao, the ‘bottle-opener’ World Financial Center, and the alien-esque Oriental Pearl – and will soon be home to the gigantic Shanghai Tower, set for completion in 2014. Like most Shanghai residents and visitors, you’ll probably have enjoyed the view across the Huangpu from the Bund bars of Puxi, but how much do you know about our city’s tallest buildings?

Even as late as the early 90s, Pudong was little but an uninhabited swamp. Development began, and soon it was taking shape as a hot new district. In 1991, plans began for a huge television tower to stand at the end of Lujiazui overlooking the river. It was designed by Jian Huan Cheng from the Shanghai Modern Architectural Design Co. Ltd., and was named the Oriental Pearl (Dongfang Mingzhuta). From the ground to the tip of its antenna, it would measure 468 metres, making it the tallest communications tower in Asia. Once it was built, it was the third tallest in the world, after Toronto’s CN and Moscow’s Ostankino. The Pearl was China’s highest building until 2007 when the Shanghai World Financial Center took its crown. The building divides onlookers; many believe it to be a blot on the landscape with its space-age design and gaudy magenta tiles, but others see it as an icon. Opinion may be split, but the Pearl attracts over three million visitors per year. It consists of 11 spheres of various sizes, the largest measuring 50 metres in diameter, the smallest just 14. It has 15 observatory decks including the Space Module at 350 metres. There’s a revolving restaurant 267 metres up, and a 20 room hotel called the Space Hotel between the two largest orbs. Interestingly, the design was inspired by the Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi’s ‘Pipa Song’ which depicts the sound of pearls dropping onto a jade plate. If you ever get the chance to see the tower from a distance between the Yangpu and Nanpu bridges, see if you think the vista resembles two dragons playing with pearls… This was what the architects intended.

Near neighbour and next to jut from Pudong’s former marshland is the Jin Mao Dasha – or Golden Prosperity Tower. Crowning glory of the skyline before the World Financial Center stole its thunder, the Jin Mao rises 421 metres behind the river-front. Its 88 storeys are used for office space and the Grand Hyatt hotel. The sight of the Jin Mao when you come up the escalator from Lujiazui metro station is knee-weakeningly impressive. Even behind the ubiquitous smog, its sheer size isn’t muted; it looks almost dimensionless. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill at their Chicago office, the tower’s engineering is based around Chinese principles of luck and prosperity regarding the number eight, like the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. In a nod to the power of eight, the tower was opened on 28th August 1998, and is built around an octagonal concrete core with eight exterior steel columns. Canny design makes sure that it can withstand winds of 200 km/h, and quakes up to 7 on the Richter scale. From the observatory deck on the 88th floor (beware of cabin-pressure in the elevator!) you’ll be able to see the exterior design up close. It has a bizarre, unfinished look, thanks to the metal latticework encasing the glass curtain wall.

From the Jin Mao’s observation deck, you’ll also see the building that’s fondly nicknamed the Bottle Opener. The Shanghai World Financial Centre is a slick slice of bluish glass and metal that shears up into the sky. From certain angles, it masks the prettier Jin Mao, much to the chagrin of many Shanghai-ites, but it has a beauty all of its own. Completed in late 2007 and reaching a roof-height of 492 meters, the SWFC is the second tallest building in the world, and the tallest in mainland China and Hong Kong. It was officially opened on 28th August 2008, exactly a decade after the Jin Mao, and is home to offices, malls, the Park Hyatt hotel, and conference space, along with several observation decks. Kohn Pederson Fox architectural firm were the brains behind the structure, but their design’s fruition was delayed for 10 years by the Asian Financial Crisis. Also, the blueprints weren’t followed exactly. The original design featured a circular gap at the top, echoing the moon gate of traditional Chinese architecture. However, the Mayor of Shanghai felt that the original design’s circular gap at the top looked too much like the Japanese flag, so it was changed to the trapezoid that we see today. The construction experienced some hiccups too, including a fire that broke out on the 40th floor in August 2007. It was caught before it could wreak any serious damage, and no-one was hurt.

So what’s next for our skyline? Big things. Now under construction is a thoroughly modern tower that will dwarf its neighbours when it is finished in 2014. The Shanghai Tower will twist 632 metres above Pudong, covering 128 floors. An innovative design including nine stacked towers encased in glass, will make it energy sustainable. When the Lujiazui financial district was being planned in the early 90s, it was always hoped that one day three super-skyscrapers would stand side by side. Almost two decades later, the planners’ dreams look set to be realised.

The story of China’s skyscrapers is so decked with superlatives – biggest, highest, tallest – that it’s sometimes easy to forget about what matters most: the beauty of our skyline. It’s well worth just sitting back and enjoying the view.

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