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Shanghai's art-deco masterpiece; Architecture: In China's grossly overbuilt financial capital, the 88-story Jin Mao towers over a cityscape reminiscent of "Blade Runner."


SHANGHAI, China -- After littering the skylines of its cities with anonymous high-rises, China has built its first world-class skyscraper by mining the architectural heritage of both East and West.

Combining art-deco lines reminiscent of New York's Chrysler Building with the tapered form of a Chinese pagoda, the Jin Mao Tower creates a striking presence over this urban landscape of more than 14 million.

The 88-story building, which opened last year, has emerged as a landmark in Shanghai's new Pudong district, which until recently was mostly fields and factories. From across the Huangpu River in the city's older main section, tourists frame their photos with the skyscraper and Shanghai's other modern colossus, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower.

Praise rolls in from high critics and sidewalk spectators. "Successfully fuses past and present, melding the two with subtlety and restraint," judges the magazine Architectural Record. "Spectacular!" exclaims tourist Tang Xiaoliang, peering through pay-per-view binoculars along Shanghai's picturesque promenade, The Bund.

At 1,379 feet, the Jin Mao -- "luxuriant gold" in Chinese -- is the tallest building in China and third-tallest in the world. China's only comparable structure is Hong Kong's 1,209-foot Bank of China, a razor blade of a building designed by the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei and built when the British still controlled the former colony.

Internationally, only the Petronas Towers (1,483 feet) in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur and the Sears Tower in Chicago (1,454 feet) are taller.

The Jin Mao is also home to the world's highest hotel, the 555-room Grand Hyatt Shanghai. It begins with a lobby on the 54th floor and stretches 33 stories up a vertiginous atrium that looks like an elongated version of the Guggenheim museum in Manhattan.

Little more than a fishing community in the 18th century, Shanghai is one of China's youngest and most Westernized cities. After the 1842 Opium War, foreigners made it a Treaty Port and ran it until the communist takeover in 1949. British, French and Americans built enclaves, creating a city of extraordinary architectural diversity near the mouth of the Yangtze River. A colorful cast of gangsters, prostitutes, refugees and gamblers earned Shanghai its reputation as "The Paris of the East" and "The Whore of Asia."

Elements from China's architectural tradition and Shanghai's colonial past come together in the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill design for the Jin Mao. Recalling a pagoda, the building of stainless steel, aluminum and glass rises in ever-decreasing steps, culminating in a shimmering spire. At its base, a translucent footbridge zigzags across the adjacent retail annex -- just like the wooden one that leads to a tea house on the edge of Yuyuan, the city's classic garden. Some hotel rooms feature lacquered headboards inscribed with Tang Dynasty (618-907) poetry.

In the late 1920s, architects in Shanghai embraced art deco, using elaborate grillwork and stained glass in such landmarks as the Peace Hotel that stands along The Bund.

Across the water and 54 stories up, the Chinese accents in the Grand Hyatt's lobby recall the heyday of the Peace. Thinly cut alabaster gives the lobby's fluted lights the muted glow of old oil lamps. Grillwork behind the reception desk resembles a traditional pattern from a Chinese window.

"A lot of the art-deco designs were originally inspired by Asian motifs," says Jean-Philippe Heitz, who designed the hotel with the Florida firm of Bilkey Llinas Design. "So to reuse them in the creation of a new Asian style is perfectly logical. In the end, the whole design looks Chinese to Chinese people and art deco to foreigners."

Among China's many mysteries is how a culture that once produced such exquisite architecture as the Forbidden City could build such unimaginative modern skylines.

In Beijing blame falls to the municipal government. Former Mayor Chen Xitong, who is serving 16 years on an unrelated corruption conviction, demanded that new buildings have neo-traditional, Chinese roofs. Architects responded by slapping what often looked like conical hats on top of high-rises -- to hilarious effect.

Shanghai's skyline beats Beijing's, but not by a lot.

Glass and steel towers of the Houston variety jut up in an architectural hodgepodge. At night, when building lights wink through the smog, Shanghai resembles the futuristic cityscape in the 1980s science-fiction cult film, "Blade Runner."

The Jin Mao is a $540 million government project overseen by the China Shanghai Foreign Trade Center Co. Instead of dictating the design, the government held an international contest overseen by a panel that included architects from the United States, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Officials required only that the building have 88 floors -- eight is an auspicious number in Chinese culture -- and a hotel on top.

Designing a workable hotel at such a height required creativity. Buffers were installed in the laundry chute to slow speeding bags of towels and sheets and check their tendency to split open and tear up the ducts. To minimize trash volume, employees downstairs do preliminary food preparation, such as washing and peeling carrots, before sending them up in one of the building's 61 elevators.

"Vertical transportation is life for us here," says Tina Liu, the hotel's communications manager.

If Jin Mao is a hopeful sign on Shanghai's architectural horizon, it also symbolizes the excesses of the city's building boom during the 1990s. From the observation deck on the 88th floor, visitors peer down on the ponds, shards of old factories and empty construction pits that pockmark Lujiazui, Shanghai's would-be Wall Street.

A part of Pudong, Lujiazui is a dramatic study in transitional neighborhoods. Within walking distance of the Jin Mao stand patchwork, one-story homes. The nation's leaders see Lujiazui as a financial showcase, but like much of the rest of Shanghai, it is grossly overbuilt.

When the Chinese economy caught fire in the early 1990s, officials here boasted that a fifth of the world's construction cranes were at work reshaping Shanghai. Whether or not that was true, many of those cranes stopped moving some time ago.

Real estate prices have plummeted, and many building plans have stalled for lack of funds. Among the delayed projects is the World Financial Center, which -- at 1,507 feet -- would be the tallest building on earth if completed.

At the Jin Mao, only 30 percent of the office space is rented. The Hyatt lists single rooms at $280 a night, but discounts them significantly in the low season to boost its occupancy rates of between 50 percent and 60 percent.

The lull in Shanghai's transformation gives officials and citizens an opportunity to catch their breath and consider what they want the financial capital of China to look like in the 21st century.

"They have a chance to make it into a serene, intellectual environment -- but they can also make it into 'Blade Runner,' " says Adrian D. Smith, Jin Mao's chief designer and a partner with Skidmore. "It's not too late to turn the tide, because there is still a lot of space left there."

Pub Date: 2/02/00

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