Shanghai (1927-1937):The change of style in the practice of constructing the Civic Center

The main content for the Greater Shanghai Plan was to re-arrange different programs, ideally to surround the urban civic center with a green belt, and arrange the factories and residential area as satellite cities on the peripheral[1]. The incompletion of the plan resulted from not only many problems concerning the plan itself, but also the unstable political environment. Therefore the civic center project became the only part of the Greater Shanghai Plan that had built architecture projects. The architecture in the center were typical translation of the spirit of the Greater Shanghai Plan, which was about giving the answer to the question of “Modern Chinese architecture”.The style of architecture in the civic center could be summarized as “Chinese Renaissance”[2],which means to dialogue between local and local, tradition and modern.

The civic center was the great experiment field for the architects to explore architecture styles. “To inherit Chinese style”[3] was first expressed in architecture as building form, later the additional elements to the building, and finally reduced to ornaments.  In the early drafts of the proposals , there was a clear inclination towards Chinese traditional architecture. Later the designers realized that the Chinese traditional way of making architecture was too delicate and expensive for modern requirement, they looked for more reasonable way of expressing national identity. For the Aircraft Museum and Municipal Library,Chinese elements were added onto the modern building, usually constrained to Chinese roofs with upturned eaves, and the logic of making and layout were totally modern (fig.1). Later when it came to the civic hospital, the building was a very  typical clean and efficient modern architecture. The Chinese identity showed only in decoration, such as carved stones. The architecture in the civic center showed a learning process of Chinese architects and designers.

fig.1 Municipal Library

The Greater Shanghai Municipal Government’s Planning Commission started a competition in 1929. The competition was by the very nature political, because the design brief asked for Chinese style architecture, to “keep the style as Chinese traditional one, refer to the modern needs, and make it the representation of modern Chinese architecture.”[4].The Municipal Government Building, referred to the winning proposal, the style was pure traditional. The central part had a saddle roof (Xieshan), and two sides hip roofs (Wudian).  The interior design also used traditional motifs, with red columns and colorful paintings. However, the structure used reinforced concrete, and the program layout concerned the zoning of functions. The Municipal Government Building inspired further architecture experiment of Chinese modernism. But the Chinese traditional motifs were just against modern architectural idea of efficiency. The cost of the building was far too high, and forced the designers to look for change.

In 1935 there constructed the Aircraft Museum, with the nickname of “plane building”. The building marked the change of style in the construction of civic center. The front wing of the “plane” was the museum, the main body the offices, and the back wing the salon. On top of the middle section of the building added a Chinese traditional roof. The building was considered as a success in combining Chinese traditional elements and modern architecture order. The style of architecture in Civic Center began to deviate from pure Chinese traditional style, and embrace modern design strategy.

The layout of Municipal Hospital built in 1934 was already typical modernist architecture. The building also used reinforced concrete as structure. The facade of the main building of the hospital comprises three sections, the central part was 5 storey high and two side wings 4 storey. The Chinese identity represented in the building as detail decoration, such as carved Chinese characters and painted interior.

Nanking Government had an open attitude towards western urban theory, but also want to re-establish national identity. The key content of the construction of Civic center planning was to experiment on solutions to the paradox of modernization and Chinese tradition, and represented in the changing of style in architecture.



[1] Dafeng Cai 蔡达峰 and Fansheng Song 宋凡圣, Chen Cong Zhou Quanji: Shanghai Jin Dai Jian Zhu Shi Gao 陈从周全集:上海近代建筑史稿 , (Shanghai: Feng Huang Press, 2015), 30.

[2] Scheme for Greater Shanghai Development, 1933, 9

[3] Shanghai Shi Zhong Xin Qu Yu Jian She Wei Yuan Hui 上海市中心区域建设委员会, Shanghai Shi Zheng Fu Zheng Qiu Tu An 上海市政府征求图案, (Shanghai, 1930), 1.

[4] Shanghai Shi Zhong Xin Qu Yu Jian She Wei Yuan Hui 上海市中心区域建设委员会, Shanghai Shi Zhong Xin Qu Yu Jian She Wei Yuan Hui Ye Wu Bao Gao 上海市中心区域建设委员会业务报告, (Shanghai, 1930), 71.



Cai  Dafeng 蔡达峰 and Song Fansheng 宋凡圣. Chen Cong Zhou Quanji: Shanghai Jin Dai Jian Zhu Shi Gao 陈从周全集:上海近代建筑史稿. Shanghai: Feng Huang Press, 2015.

Scheme for Greater Shanghai Development. 1933.

Shanghai Shi Zhong Xin Qu Yu Jian She Wei Yuan Hui 上海市中心区域建设委员会. Shanghai Shi Zheng Fu Zheng Qiu Tu An 上海市政府征求图案. Shanghai, 1930.

Shanghai Shi Zhong Xin Qu Yu Jian She Wei Yuan Hui 上海市中心区域建设委员会. Shanghai Shi Zhong Xin Qu Yu Jian She Wei Yuan Hui Ye Wu Bao Gao 上海市中心区域建设委员会业务报告. Shanghai, 1930.

3 Comments on “Shanghai (1927-1937):The change of style in the practice of constructing the Civic Center

  1. The narratives are quite comprehensive and well cited so far. Please do build up the posts by supplementing them with historical documents/plans/visuals.

  2. The new style of public buildings emerged in the Shanghai civic centre demonstrated how the urban fabric was used to establish political power and cultural identity. Symbolism in architecture is a powerful tool in promoting ideas. Collective changes in the urban landscape effectively deliver the message of the political regime, as everyone walking in the city would experience the changes. This reminds me of Ulaanbaatar, where the civic centre, Sukhbaatar Square, was periodically destroyed and reconstructed under political paradigm shift. The changes in Shanghai during this period of discussion were not as dramatic as the Mongolian case. This results in the complex mix of styles in the urban fabric, which is visible till today. The city itself gives invaluable historical evidence of the tension and struggles between the Chinese government and the foreign powers.

  3. It is comprehensive to see how architects and designers at that time learn from western architecture and technology, while at the time incorporate traditional Chinese identity into the building in civic center. For me, it seems like finding a balance between rational and perceptual design. In other words,it is a culture clash of “efficient modern style” and “expressive traditional style”. This evolution in architecture is spontaneous, when Shanghai government and architects try to create better architecture suitable for modern developments.Differently in Hong Kong during the 20th century, it was English government tried to establish their political power in the colonial land that they applied English style to the local buildings. In both cases, we can see how architecture play an important role in representing national identity and establishing political power.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.