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Shanghai International Cruise Terminal, Shanghai, by Sparch Architects

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Though not yet complete, the ‘Shanghai Chandelier’ is already able to overwhelm the senses, reports Rory Olcayto. Photography by Christian Richters

Without fail in Shanghai, at dusk, the city is transformed. It’s freakish skyscrapers - unabashed and mutant in daylight - take on another guise. They become like special effects, like a backdrop to things you’ve seen before, but not for real, perhaps like the opening sequence of Blade Runner, or archive footage of a neon New York.

The second-tallest building in the world, the KPF-designed Shanghai World Trade Centre (SWTC) towers over them all, a thin strip of blue light outlining its shape and the gaping, squint square hole carved out of its peak. You blink, and blink again, but when you open your eyes, the city is still there. Shanghai is for real.

Every building begs for your attention. The best view is from the Bund, pedestrianised in preparation for this year’s Expo, and originally developed by the British as a trading post in the 19th century. From its promenade, and across the Huangpu River you see Pudong, where the SWTC and other, almost as tall megatowers huddle together. Behind you, evidence of that original capitalist surge: the proto-skyscrapers of ex-pat architects Palmer and Turner among others. Formerly banks, now hotels not so different from Liverpool’s spectacular waterfront townscape, they date from the 1920s and 30s.

It is into this context that Sparch’s Shanghai International Cruise Terminal has emerged. At more than 800m long and with 260,000m2 of floorplate (half of which is underground), this is what you might call a China-sized development. When fully operational, it will accommodate up to three 80,000 tonne cruise ships at a time and handle up to 1.5 million passengers annually.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this project began to coalesce into something tangible for Alsop Architects in 2002, when the client asked the firm to develop an undernourished masterplan, the same year that its now abandoned ‘Fourth Grace’ project was proposed for Liverpool.

‘In China, you can do things with clients that no client in Europe would contemplate’

John Curran, operating from Alsop’s Shanghai office, led the project, and is now seeing it through to completion for Sparch, the new wholly-owned foreign enterprise, and the independent successor to Alsop’s Asian network.

If the terminal’s sheer scale doesn’t leave you awestruck - this is a piece of city-making that encompasses a wide strip of waterfront parkland, a vast underground car park, and an art gallery, as well as office space - its centrepiece structure will. Though not yet complete, it has already been named the ‘Shanghai Chandelier’ because of its unusual form: three inhabitable amorphous blobs -suspended with cable within a 40m-tall, glass-clad portal. Garish, almost grisly, the portal is emblematic of Shanghai’s ‘crazier-than-yours’ development culture that is bringing thunderous change to this Asian mega-city with a population of more than 20 million.

Either side of it, three seven-storey blocks with multi-coloured and bulging pigeon breast facades, an 18-storey tower, and a faceted smaller pavilion, complete the composition.

It’s all a bit much to contemplate on site. Later, when I return to England, Will Alsop, discussing the project’s origins, says: ‘In China, you can do things with clients that no client in Europe would contemplate.’ Anyone who has stood on the Bund at dusk, and looked across the Huangpu River, would surely have to agree.

Project Data

Start on site 2009
Contract duration Phase 1 October 2009; Phase 2 2011
Area above ground 130,073m2
Public facilities, entertainment, retail, F&B 20 per cent GFA
Commercial offices 80 per cent GFA
Client Shanghai Port International Cruise -Terminal Development Company
Engineer Arup Hong Kong
Facade engineer RFR Paris
Lighting consultant Lighting Design -Partnership
Gross internal floor area 237,560m²


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