Much of Shanghai's older architecture is first-rate. In what used to be the walled city center, the 400-year-old Yu Yuan Gardens offer a respite from the bustle of the city (if not from its tour guides), with meandering paths and open-air pavilions with intricate wooden and stone detailing. So does the Huxinting Teahouse, a charming building with a steep pagoda-style roof that sits in the middle of a pond just outside the garden gates. In both places, you can get a sense of what Shanghai must have looked like before the Japanese, English and French arrived, although a nearby Starbucks now gives the teahouse some competition.
The real discovery for me on my most recent trip was the work of Ladislaus Hudec, a multitalented architect who studied in Budapest, Hungary, before coming to Shanghai in 1918. Perhaps 10 of his buildings remain, most notably the Park Hotel, a brooding design that mixes Gothic and Art Deco elements and overlooks the open spaces of People's Square, once a racetrack but now home to the Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Grand Theater. The 22-story Park was the tallest building in Asia when it opened in 1934 and remained Shanghai's highest into the '80s.
Another Hudec design worth seeking out is a streamlined Corbusian-style villa on Tongren Road that was built for a wealthy entrepreneur. It could use a renovation, but the fact that a nightclub (Mint) and a restaurant (Mandarin Sky) have recently opened inside means tourists can see the interior for the first time in its history. I had what struck me as a quintessentially Shanghai experience (at least for an architecture critic) one evening at Mint, leaning over the DJ booth to check out a bit of applied ornament, which looked to be original, on one of the pink-painted walls.
In other parts of the city, thankfully, a fledgling preservation movement has begun to take root. Mostly, the renovation of attractive old buildings has been undertaken by foreign investors and architects; that was the case with two of the glitziest addresses on the riverfront. At Three on the Bund, Michael Graves' restoration cost $50 million and has provided space for an Armani store, the city's most upscale contemporary art gallery and a restaurant run by French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Up the street at No. 18, a building designed in the early 1920s by the British firm of Palmer and Turner for the Chartered Bank of India was renovated recently, partly by Italian craftsmen flown here to clean the details on its ornate facade, behind which are pricey restaurants and a Cartier store. To house a popular nouvelle-Japanese restaurant called Shintori, an old warehouse, hidden away under an elevated highway, was turned into a stunning two-story atrium. The China Daily described the interior as "Zen modernist," but on the night I visited it was too packed with young locals to feel very calm.
In a few recent cases, government officials have begun to show an encouraging interest in preservation, if only because they realize that a main part of Shanghai's appeal for foreigners — investors and tourists alike — is its diverse historical architecture. The best-known example of this trend is, undoubtedly, the commercial development known as Xintiandi, between the heart of the French concession and the old walled city. The attractive gray-brick buildings on the site were slated for demolition but were saved because, as it happens, they were adjacent to the site of a 1921 meeting — which included a young Mao Tse-tung — of what became the Chinese Communist Party.
When the government decided it wanted to turn the spot of that meeting into a museum, it made sense to preserve some of the neighboring buildings as well, to provide some architectural context. The American firm of Wood & Zapata, working with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, was hired to convert about two square blocks of buildings into upscale shops and restaurants.
The project involved more reconstruction than you might guess, which makes it less a pure case of preservation than some of its champions (mostly editors and writers at American and European design magazines) have suggested. But it is frequently packed with wealthy locals and foreigners, and that success has opened the eyes of developers and public officials to the financial possibilities of restoring older buildings. "Clients ask me all the time, talking about retail projects, 'Can you Xintiandi it?' " said Christopher Choa, an American-born architect who works in Shanghai for the multinational firm HLW. "It's become a verb," he said with a laugh.
A fitting ending
On my last night in town, after a dinner at Shintori, two friends took me to see what surely qualifies as the most inventive restoration project in the city. This is a private club called the Yong Foo Elite, tucked away on a pretty street in the French concession.
The club fills an entire compound, really, centered on a 1930s villa that once held the British Consulate. The interior has been impeccably restored, its cracked, dark-stained wood now gleaming and the central garden beautifully landscaped. But what makes it pitch perfect is the effortless way it mixes elements of Western and Eastern design: Chinese lanterns, for example, hanging from a magnolia tree and illuminating the neoclassical details of the villa's facade.
If it makes sense to begin a visit to Shanghai at a rooftop bar along the Bund, it seemed nearly perfect to end one at the Yong Foo Elite. Where luxurious colonial privilege was once enforced, that luxury has now been put — with aplomb but also unabashed, almost startling confidence — in the service of making money. Lots of it.
From LAX, China Eastern offers nonstop service to Pudong Airport, and JAL, All Nippon and United have connecting service (stop, change of plane). To Hongqiao International Airport, which is about eight miles from downtown Shanghai, nonstop service is offered by China Eastern, direct service (stop, no change of plane) by United and connecting service by JAL, All Nippon, United, Thai, Air Canada and China Southern. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $799.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 86 (country code for China), 21 (the local city code) and the local number.