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Shanghai: Art deco capital of the East
Architecture buff Spencer Dodington explains why Shanghai’s art deco heritage is unrivaled in Asia and how it differs from New York and Miami
Art deco is the leitmotif of Shanghai architecture, distinguishing its most significant buildings.
In the 16 years that he's spent in the city, architecture buff Spencer Dodington has lived almost exclusively in art deco buildings.
A passion for Shanghai’s art deco heritage has established the 43-year-old American entrepreneur as the go-to person on the subject. He runs personal tours (with agency Luxury Concierge China), provides consultancy on renovating pre-1949 Shanghai apartments and even designs art deco-themed fashion accessories.
“These lovely buildings got me hooked on the uniqueness of Shanghai 1930s architecture,” says Dodington. “It’s really different and interesting compared to Texas, where I’m from, but it’s also different from other cities with their own art deco, like Miami and New York.”
Dodington says Miami’s architecture is interesting because it’s so related to the ocean and sea life, including its color palette; the city is known for its pastels. Its art deco buildings are also very unfussy, with most taking the form of affordable, middle class low-rise apartments.
In New York, the majority of the city’s art deco buildings are tall and commercial -- the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings are among the most famous examples.
One of the greatest differences between Shanghai’s art deco and New York’s is that there was no Great Depression in Shanghai to stop the building of art deco structures.
1930s art deco unmatched anywhere
“Shanghai was experiencing a huge boom [in early 20th century] -- commercially, economically and population-wise -- so the western parts of the city, like the old international settlement and the former French Concession are full of 1930s art deco that’s unmatched anywhere," says Dodington.
“The building boom simply went on longer here, lasting into the 1940s.”
Dodington points out that Shanghai’s art deco is unique because traditional Chinese design elements were incorporated into a basic art deco palate. Because it’s a building style that invokes symmetry, art deco works particularly well with feng shui, making it popular with local Chinese.
Modern art deco in Shanghai
Art deco is part of Shanghai’s cultural palette, and Dodington is happy to see the style being applied to new construction. Jinmao Tower is one of the most recognizable examples, as is residential housing tower Lakeville Phase II, near Xintiandi.
“What’s more interesting is that, in English and in Chinese, [Shanghainese are] using the term 'art deco' to advertise the building," he says, citing a banner on Zhapu Lu, just across Suzhou Creek in Hongkou, that reads “live the elegant art deco lifestyle.”
“The banner shows two Chinese people in their Bentley convertible driving across Waibaidu Bridge, heading to their lovely art deco tower. I find that wonderful,” Dodington notes.
No World War II damage
Shanghai’s art deco architectural heritage is unsurpassed in Asia. Dodington credits the preservation of much of the city’s historic architecture to the Japanese invasion of Shanghai and China in the 1930s.
“One of the great things about the art deco here is that there was no World War II damage,” he points out.
“If the Japanese had won their war, they were going to make Shanghai the capital of their empire. They didn’t want to destroy the city; they wanted it when the war was finished.”
In the gallery above, Dodington introduces his top six Shanghai art deco buildings in his own words.