Shape of the City: Jin Mao tower

February 1st, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Shape of the City

Combining a modern interpretation of a Chinese pagoda with Art Deco flourishes, the Jin Mao tower fits perfectly with the eclectic mix of styles that characterize the urban aesthetics of Shanghai.

Along with New York, Miami Beach, and perhaps Mumbai, Shanghai ranks among the world’s top cities for Art Deco architecture. During the prosperous inter-war years, Deco was the style of choice for architects in the Ray Ban outlet French concession and International Settlement. For wealthy foreigners building in the city, the natural eclecticism of the style allowed familiar European forms to be augmented with oriental flourishes, producing a synthesis that expressed the worldly affectation of Shanghai’s foreign residents, and lent Shanghai a cross-cultural aura that persists to the present day.

Today, foreign architects building in Shanghai face issues that would have been familiar to their predecessors in the 1930s. How can a foreign design incorporate elements of the local culture? How does one strike a balance tradition and modernity?

Of all the architecture of Shanghai’s post-1990 boom, the Jin Mao tower (designed by Adrian Smith of SOM) hits the mark most effectively. The lucky number 8 is incorporated into the design to a degree bordering on obsession, from the 88-floor height, to octagonal floor plan, the 8 super-columns of the primary structure, the 8 Gafas Ray Ban outlet subdivisions of the façade, even on down to the street address: 88 Century Avenue.

The design is often referred to as modern pagoda, but to my eyes the tower has more in common with the masterpieces of New York’s late-20s building boom. Like the Chrysler Building & the Empire State building, the Jin Mao tower was constructed during a period of intense competition, and though it never held the title of tallest in the world, it remains in the top ten, and its incredible height is complemented by its elegant proportions and clever façade detailing, capped by a retro spire, making the neighboring World Financial Center look squat and simplistic by comparison.

If the Jin Mao tower is an homage to the Art Deco skyscrapers of the late 20s and early 30s, it can also be read as a contextual response to the concession-era architecture it faces across the Huangpu. Shanghai only grew into a modern metropolis after the 1842 Treaty of Nanking (which opened the city to foreign interests), and neoclassical and deco structures are at least as common in the city today as traditional Chinese constructions.

By combining a modern interpretation of a Chinese pagoda with a reference to the early supertalls, the architect has created a masterpiece: a work of architecture that participates in a global dialog, remains rooted in local traditions without pandering, and fits perfectly with the eclectic mix of styles that characterize the urban aesthetics of Shanghai.

The Jin Mao tower is located at 88 Century Avenue, a short walk from the Lujiazui metro station in Pudong.

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