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Shanghai Calling: It's like falling into an Escher drawing

Student Eleanor Jolliffe explores an architecture tied to China’s long history

Just inside the Puxi side of the river lies the Yuyuan Gardens - a Ming Dynasty triumph of garden design. Despite the ubiquitous crowds of tourists the elegance and grace of its design and skill of its designers is evident.

It is more architecture than garden – a series of outdoor rooms that seem much larger than their two hectare area. It is a fantastical place with warriors, deer and dragons frozen on the dramatically curling roofs; ‘secret’ doorways through giant rocks; and stone walkways worn shiny with centuries of feet.

It is a fantastical place with warriors, deer and dragon

At times I felt I had fallen into an Escher drawing, walking for several minutes through a covered path or clump of bamboo, only to glimpse ahead the place I had just left. The design and symbolism has been skilfully considered. It is subtle, yet omnipresent - and ties the gardens to the country and its long history.

Visible through the curly roofs of the Yuyuan Gardens are the skyscrapers of Pudong

Visible through the curly roofs of the Yuyuan Gardens are the skyscrapers of Pudong, glass and steel masterpieces that clearly face towards the future. However in the design of the Jin Mao tower, completed in 1998, there is a clear attempt at integration between past and present. Love it or hate it, this skyscraper, reminiscent of a pagoda, is supposed to represent the Past to the World Financial Centre’s ‘Present’ and The Shanghai Tower’s ‘Future’.

The references to Chinese context and history felt a little contrived

The octagonal-cored Jin Mao tower has eighty eight floors and the height of each of the sixteen ‘pagoda steps’ is one eighth shorter than the sixteen storey base. (The number eight is traditionally considered very auspicious by the Chinese.) Having been up to the eighty eighth floor viewing deck I found the elegance and grace of the design in Yuyuan Gardens rather conspicuously missing - the references to Chinese context and history felt a little contrived.

The tower is undeniably impressive but I am not convinced of its true understanding of Chinese design. However, whether genuine homage can be paid to Chinese cultural context by an American architect is rather beyond the scope of this blog - as is dissection of its success in this respect, by an English writer!

My eyes were constantly drawn into the fast growing skeleton of Gensler’s Shanghai Tower

In the spectacular view from the eighty-eighth floor my eyes were constantly drawn into the fast growing skeleton of Gensler’s Shanghai Tower. The renders look as graceful and elegant as the curling roofs of the Yuyuan Gardens and it definitely responds to the context of Chinese growth both economically and in international relationships. For the moment, though, we are held in suspense- awaiting China’s future and how it will reference the past…

Eleanor Jolliffe has just completed her Part I at Nottingham University. She is currently doing an internship in Shanghai.This is the fourth of a series of regular blog posts.

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