Politics and Architecture: the operation of the Greater Shanghai Plan

There was no doubt that the Greater Shanghai Plan generated some remarkable buildings and valuable studies, but the architecture in Chinese part of Shanghai, like many things else, played second fiddle to politics. The situation was quite different to the one in concessions. Therefore, the Shanghai in the Greater Shanghai Plan was by the very nature Chinese, even though many parts of the city planning reminded people of western sample urban planning schemes.

In concession, the economy was the first priority.  The most important thing to maintain is a safe and prosperous future, even if it was a short one. the Shanghai in the early twentieth century had the reputation for business and pleasure. “The Paris of the Orient” was a summary for Shanghai’s diverse entertainment and unprecedented exposure to western civilization. The “architecture wonderland”[1] in concession Shanghai marked the zenith of design and construction activities in early twentieth century. The architectural statement of wealthy and power was too strong that Chinese area began to learn from every aspect of western modernism and silently vied with her western counterpart. The foreign dwellers were not interested in long term planning, therefore the architecture in the concession presented with a very high level of freedom. To review Shanghai’s rich architecture collection, a foreigner may find it ugly and grotesque.

But the architecture in concessions were the important reference for the greater shanghai plan. However, the government’s and investors’ understanding of western architecture was very different from the architects with western education background. Even though the greater shanghai plan massively referenced to western precedencies, the European and American schools of architecture were also going through a revolutionary debate on modernism and the meaning of modernity. But for Chinese officials and investors, the different styles of western architecture were barely visible, they were all categorized into “western architecture”, or “modern architecture”. The government officials’ understanding actually shaped the city, sometimes may even overtook the idea of the architects in the recent context of China.

At that specific period of time, architecture took the heavy burden of revive Chinese national identity, almost being the manifesto of national volition, thus was by the very nature political.

One of the most important feature of the governing of the Greater Shanghai Plan was that the process presented with strong government control over a huge scale project, together with it the termination of organic growth of urban fabric and ignorance of everything produced in the past. The unconventional methodology lived on to later mega projects concerning recent China development, many times made the impossible possible, and many times the ambition finally reduced to superficial parade of wealthy and power that was not yet there.

In 1927 the document Shanghai Special City Temporary Regulation outlined the regulation principle. The centralization of the state power was already the underpainting of the draft document[2]. The Municipal Council, the member supposed to be elected by the people, and the mayor together with the senators made the decisions. But in fact the Shanghai People never had the chance to decide who should be the mayor and senator, and all the members of the council were directly nominated by the mayor[3]. The greater Shanghai Plan was thus an upside down project, the mayor was far more powerful than supposed to be.

The government encountered financial problem. Here the advantage of centralization of power showed in the authority’s ability to gather money efficiently form the land policy[4]. It was controversial that the government took no respect to private properties, and this remain the attacking point for democratic countries even till now, but one cannot deny that the achievement was of rich historical meaning and revolutionary value.

The disadvantage, however, directly led to the failure of the master plan. Many said that the plan was terminated by the outbreak of the WWII, but the fail of the plan was inevitable, because the government was too much into the grandeur appearance of the plan, and neglected the infrastructural construction (the harbour and railway), which hurt the public interest, and finally hurt the very original spirit of making the plan[5].


[1] Denby, “Letters of a Shanghai Griffin”, accessed December 16, 2016, retrieved from: http://www.talesofoldchina.com/library/letters-shanghai-griffin#8

[2] An Ke Qiang安克强, 1927-1937 Nian De Shanghai-Shi Zheng Quan, Di Fang Xing He Xian Dai Xing1927-1937年的上海-市政权,地方性和现代性, (Shanghai: Shang Hai Gu Ji Chu Ban She上海古籍出版社, 2004), 15-16.

[3] An, 1927-1937,20.

[4] Shang Hai Shi Shi Zhong Xin Qu Yu Jian She Wei Yuan Hui上海市市中心区域建设委员会, Shang Hai Shi Shi Zhong Xin Qu Yu Jian She Wei Yuan Hui Ye Wu Bao Gao Di Er Qi上海市市中心区域建设委员会业务报告第二期, 51.

[5] Yi Shen沈怡, Shen Yi Zi Shu沈怡自述, (Taiwan: Tai Wan Zhuan Ji Wen Xue Chu Ban She台湾传记文学出版社,1985), 113-114.



An Ke Qiang安克强. 1927-1937 Nian De Shanghai-Shi Zheng Quan, Di Fang Xing He Xian Dai Xing1927-1937年的上海-市政权,地方性和现代性. Shanghai: Shang Hai Gu Ji Chu Ban She上海古籍出版社, 2004.

Denby, “Letters of a Shanghai Griffin”. accessed December 16, 2016. retrieved from: http://www.talesofoldchina.com/library/letters-shanghai-griffin#8

Shang Hai Shi Shi Zhong Xin Qu Yu Jian She Wei Yuan Hui上海市市中心区域建设委员会. Shang Hai Shi Shi

Shen Yi沈怡, Shen Yi Zi Shu沈怡自述, (Taiwan: Tai Wan Zhuan Ji Wen Xue Chu Ban She台湾传记文学出版社,1985), 113-114.

Zhong Xin Qu Yu Jian She Wei Yuan Hui Ye Wu Bao Gao Di Er Qi上海市市中心区域建设委员会业务报告第二期.

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