Eclectic Architecture

For all of Shanghai's exalted status as China's economic powerhouse, it has another claim to fame, and that is as a museum of architecture, albeit of the Western variety. Shanghai's history as a treaty port has led to it today comprising one of the richest collections of British colonial, Victorian, neoclassical, and Art Deco buildings anywhere in the world. The first three styles were common during the 19th century, and can be seen in many of the buildings in the old British-dominated, business-oriented International Settlement (which ran north of today's Yan'an Lu into part of Hongkou, and extended west from the Bund), with one of the finest examples being the neoclassical former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank on the Bund. In the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco took Shanghai by storm, and Art Deco apartment buildings sprang up everywhere, especially in the French Concession, whose leafy boulevards and fine villas made it an attractive residential area for many foreigners. Shanghai is said to have even more Art Deco buildings than Miami Beach.

At the same time, Shanghai has its own unique style of architecture in the li longtang (literally "neighbor lane space") lane housing that dominates much of the city. These rows and rows of wood and brick tenements in the settlements' many lanes popped up in the 1850s and 1860s when foreign settlement merchants saw a lucrative opportunity in building housing for the many Chinese who were fleeing the Small Sword Society uprising in the old Chinese city. Everyone conveniently ignored the stipulation in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking that the concessions were for foreigners only. The Chinese stayed on after the rebellions, and the li longtang became a fixture. Typically, a row of shops would front a warren of lanes of two-story brick tenement houses, each framed by stone portal doors -- called shikumen (stone gate) -- and leading to a small Chinese courtyard. Shikumen housing evolved over time to incorporate Western decorative devices and motifs as well. There was also a garden-style li long housing designed more for foreigners, featuring detached or semidetached houses in a variety of styles with accompanying gardens. Apartment li longs had five- to seven-story apartment buildings sharing a common garden. Since 1949, many li long houses have been torn down, and more were razed in the 1990s for commercial redevelopment. Many of the remaining li longs are now designated for preservation.

The frenzy to tear down old buildings was especially acute in the final days of the 20th century, as the Shanghai government rushed to modernize and build skyscrapers and malls, but heedless destruction has since stopped. The government realized that conservation, restoration, and redevelopment of old properties has a significant commercial upside, and that modern-day visitors seem to like nothing more than to recapture a flavor of old Shanghai in restored projects like Xintiandi and some of the converted buildings on the Bund, and that expatriates will pay top dollar to stay in refurbished old houses and apartments. Unfortunately, the quality of preservation of old buildings has been uneven.

Overall, the future of architecture in Shanghai looks bright. As China has opened its doors to foreign architects in the building boom of the last 15 years (for example, American architect Ben Wood is responsible for designing both the Xintiandi complex as well as the new Waitanyuan project behind the Bund), Shanghai has been the beneficiary of some sublime pieces of modern architecture, such as the Jin Mao Tower, which has since been bested in height by the less interesting but taller Shanghai World Financial Center. The Shanghai Grand Theatre, the Shanghai Oriental Art Center, and Tomorrow Square (Mintian Guangchang) housing the JW Marriott Hotel are some other attractive modern buildings. Architecture was also the star at the recent 2010 World Expo which featured many innovative and creative designs in the various country and theme pavilions. A crowd favorite was the cube-shaped "Seed Cathedral" UK Pavilion, looking like a dandelion but made of 60,000 acrylic rods containing seeds from around the world. Unfortunately, the majority of pavilions are to be torn down at the end of the Expo, with only five structures to be retained, including the prominent Chinese Pavilion looking like an Oriental crown, and the 1km-long (2/3-mile) Expo Axis.

But Is It Art?

As recently as a decade ago, Chinese contemporary art was still largely an underground phenomenon, with exhibitions frequently shut down by authorities. Today, the scene has not only gone legitimate, but it has become passionately embraced both locally and internationally. One reason for modern Chinese art's popularity is its comparative affordability: These days, the works of high-profile Chinese artists typically fetch between $20,000 and $500,000 in overseas markets, sums still considerably cheaper than works by artists of similar stature in the West, though a new auction record for Asian contemporary art was set in mid-2008 when Zeng Fanzhi's painting of youths wearing masks and Red Guard scarves was sold for $9.7 million.

Independent, foreigner-owned galleries were some of the first players on the contemporary Chinese art scene, first establishing themselves in Beijing in the early 1990s. In Shanghai, the grandfather of them all was the independent ShanghART Gallery started by Swiss Lorenz Helbling in 1994, and quickly followed by galleries such as Biz Art and Art Scene China. Relocated to much larger premises at 50 Moganshan Lu, where much of Shanghai's nascent art scene has started to coalesce in the last few years, ShanghART represents and shows some of Shanghai and China's hottest contemporary artists, such as painter and performance and video artist Xu Zhen, video installation artist Shi Yong, and pop artist Zhou Tiehai, the last known for his series of paintings anthropomorphizing Joe Camel, and also for his painting of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani framed by elephant dung. Other famous local artists include photographer Deke Erh and painter Xu Jie, known for her series of China Doll paintings.

Today's Chinese art encompasses everything from pop art and photography to shock art and video installations, but the largely politicized images of the '80s and early '90s have given way to a more sophisticated attempt to capture a subtler contemporary ethos reflecting the tensions of urban Chinese life. When they do occur, political images and statements can sometimes still get an artist into trouble. In general, as is to be expected of a still-young art scene, quality is at best uneven.

What particularly worries some observers of the Shanghai art scene is the pressure exerted by the rampant commercial impulse of the city. Whereas foreigners and philanthropic collectors interested in nurturing Chinese talent were the ones collecting Chinese contemporary art in the early days, much of the extraordinary art boom in the last 5 years has been due to an ever-growing Chinese economy and local buyers entering the market. Newly minted millionaires with bagfuls of disposable cash have been engaging -- with the help of large auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's -- in what some observers fear is an irrational exuberance of buying, artificially driving up prices and creating a speculative bubble. Still, Shanghai is nothing if not speculative and brash, and if ever there was a city that needed to decorate the walls of its skyscrapers and had the financial wherewithal to do so, Shanghai is it. Little wonder, then, that the art scene in Shanghai is growing at warp speed and the city is well on its way to becoming if not the nation's art center (that title still belongs to Beijing), then at least a gateway to some of the country's most interesting and provocative contemporary art.

In addition to 50 Moganshan Lu, visitors can also view all manner of modern art at the new Rockbund Art Museum just behind the Bund, the Museum of Contemporary Art in People's Park, the Zendai Museum of Modern Art at Fangdian Lu 199, Building 28 in Pudong, the Duolun Modern Museum of Art, Taikang Lu Art Centre, Creek Art at Guangfu Lu 428, Shanghai Sculpture Space, the Shanghai Gallery of Art, and a plethora of galleries around town. As well, the Shanghai Biennale, originally started in 1996 as an all-local affair, is now an international event held every other autumn.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.