Shanghai Civic Center (1927-1937): Chinese Renaissance and China’s first architects

In 1930s the anti-Japanese movement went into climax in Chinese section of Shanghai, and land value in foreign concession decreased because all the construction works were basically based on the promising future of Shanghai. The real estate had been in its “dullest period in many, many years”, and it was at that time people began to be aware that the construction of landmark architecture and apartment buildings in the settlements was “overdone”[1]. However, just four miles away from the Bund, the part of Shanghai under the govern of the Municipal Government had presented with a very vibrant market and high enthusiasm in constructing a new Shanghai. For the first time in Shanghai history, Shanghai was given an urban plan in which the civic buildings were carefully laid out and the road system well arranged. At the heart of the Greater Shanghai Plan was the Civic Center, the team was led by chief architect Doon Dayou.

The large scale project covered the land area of 16,700 acres and all the buildings were designed with mixture of modern material and Chinese traditional form[2]. This was known as Chinese Renaissance, led by a group of architects educated abroad and practice in China, armed with western urban knowledge yet rooted deep in Chinese culture, looking for answer to the question of what modern Chinese architecture should be. The Municipal Government Building, museum, library and gymnasium were the signature architecture of Chinese Renaissance style.

It was the chief architect Doon dayou who managed the trajectory of the architecture construction and design of the civic center. He was born in 1990 and studied architecture in Tsinghua University before he went to University of Minnesota and Columbia University. He went back to China in 1928 and became the main force of Chinese Renaissance architects.

Chao Shen, another architect who concerned the contradictory and possibility of Chinese tradition and modern architecture, won the first  prize for the planning of the Civic Center with Sun Hsi-Ming[3]. He also won the design of the Mausoleum for Sun Yat-Sen in Nanking, which was also an important building representing the marriage of tradition and modernity. Chao Shen went to University of Pennsylvania in 1923 and went back to Shanghai in 1927. He worked together with Fan Wenzhao for a while, who also graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, was regarded as “one of the most distinguished architects in China”.[4]

Despite Chinese architects, some foreign architects were also interested in the topic of Chinese modern architecture, among whom the most distinguished one was Henry Murphy. He was special and different from other foreign architect who were about to teach the Asians the western civilization. He was eager to study “the revival of the ancient architecture of China into a living style by adapting it to meet the needs of modern scientific planning and construction.”[5] This made him one of the jury of Civic Center planning competition.

The architects were humble and willing to learn new things, but not comfortable of directly taking the western sets of theory and technology in Chinese context. It was a pity that many of the architecture was destroyed by war between China and Japan, but the spirit of exploring Chinese architecture should be appreciated.



[1] Brooke T.W. and Davis R.W., The China Architect’s and Builder’s Compendium, (Shanghai:North-China Daily News & Herald, 1932), 108.

[2] Edward Denison and Yuren Guang, Building Shanghai: the story of China’s gateway, (London: Wiley-Academy, 2006), 183

[3]Shu Wei, Da Shanghai Jihua Qishilu: Jindai Shanghai Huajie Dushi Kongjian Xingtai de Liubian, (Shanghai: Tongji University,2007), 120.

[4] Arnold Wright, Twentieth Century Impressions of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Other Treaty Ports of China, (London: Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Co, 1908), 379.

[5] China Weekly Review, Vol 47, No. 4,December, 1928, 159.



China Weekly Review, 1928.

Denison Edward, and Guang Yuren. Building Shanghai: the story of China’s gateway. London: Wiley-Academy, 2006.

T.W.  Brooke, and R.W. Davis. The China Architect’s and Builder’s Compendium. Shanghai: North-China Daily News & Herald, 1932.

Wei Shu. Da Shanghai Jihua Qishilu: Jindai Shanghai Huajie Dushi Kongjian Xingtai de Liubian. Shanghai: Tongji University,2007.

Wright Arnold. Twentieth Century Impressions of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Other Treaty Ports of China. London: Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Co,1908.

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