The regeneration of an electrical power building

The attempt to turn a modern high-rise at 201 Nanjing Road E. into an Art-Deco hotel triggered controversy leading to a drastic change in plans. 
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The 24-floor East China Electrical Power Building, at 201 Nanjing Road E., is under redevelopment into a boutique hotel.

Zhang Xuefei / SHINE
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The protruding part on the 21st floor

The attempt to turn a modern high-rise at 201 Nanjing Road E. into an Art Deco hotel triggered a controversy that led to a drastic change of plans last year. Now the reworked plan is nearing completion and is being hailed as one of the examples of urban regeneration in Shanghai.

It was not the first time that 201 Nanjing Road E. aroused controversy, according to Tongji University associate professor Hua Xiahong.

“The modern appearance was weird to many people when it was erected in 1988. Since then the building has been widely discussed and studied by scholars, and even won many architectural awards,” says Hua, who was giving a lecture at Xuhui West Bund.

The first “super high-rise” to come up on Nanjing Road after 1949 was the 24-floor East China Electrical Power Building. It was designed during a dynamic “new era” — the late 1980s and early 1990s, just years after the reforms and opening up policy was taking effect in China.

Two Chinese architects, Luo Xinyang and Qin Yong, both graduates of Tongji University, tried to “innovate in architectural forms with the use of local cultural and post-modern symbols,” saysd professor Hua, who researched them along with her student Liu Jiawei.

Built on a small site, the building is shaped like a giant cubic with a protruding part on the 21st floor, a striking microwave tower over the top and sloping roof, all of which were bold, innovative treatments back in the late 1980s.

The architects made efforts to allow the high-rise to mingle with the historical context of the region. Triangle windows, inspired from the old Shanghai dormer windows, and pentagon windows that relate to Gothic arched windows, were adapted to echo with the Bund nearby and the adjacent Trinity Church on Jiujiang Road.

The building won numerous awards including one of “Shanghai’s 10 Best Buildings” in 1989, “Shanghai Classic Building” in 1999 and a big award for creative design by the Architectural Society of China in 2009. But people continued to have different opinions about the building.

“A 1990s survey showed most architects and architectural scholars had positive comments about the building, while up to 53 percent of the general public thought it was an ordinary design. At least six percent of them thought it was an ugly building,” Hua says.

Shanghai-born artist Zhang Lansheng is one of them.

“During that era it was a very modern building, but to me it appeared to be an immature Chinese imitation of Western modern buildings. I couldn’t admire it aesthetically,” recalls Zhang, who was a professor of art history in Shanghai and later in Sydney, Australia.

“The post-modern feel has faded over the years. It’s no longer eye-catching in a city which is filled with post-modern, futuristic buildings. However, it mirrors a special time which is probably the value of preserving it,” Zhang says.

Fan Jiashan / Ti Gong

Chief architect FAn Jiashan (left) and interior designer Sheng Ling pose in front of the building's signature triangle window which has been preserved.

Fan Jiashan / Ti Gong

To restore the beams of the sloping roof at a faster speed, construction workers pass on barrels of cement hand by hand. 

Fan Jiashan / Ti Gong

The spiral staircase links the 23rd and 24th floors.

Fan Jiashan / Ti Gong

The change of plan

The building was restored in 2000 to house more staff of East China Electrical Power Management Bureau, which was later moved to a new office in the Pudong New Area.

In 2013, Shandong-based real estate and new energy developer Luneng Group took over the building and the adjacent No. 181 — a 1930s Art Deco building which was the headquarter of Shanghai Power Company.

The developer invited four architectural firms, Chinese and foreign, to come up with a plan to merge the two buildings into a luxurious boutique Edition Hotel. The plan was part of the local government’s efforts for urban regeneration, lack of upper-class hotels along Nanjing Road E. and Luneng’s purpose of branding itself on a prominent location in Shanghai.

Most plans changed the facade or wrapped it with another facade. Another plan was to convert the original modern facade into an Art Deco one with vertical lines to go with the 1930s Art Deco building.

It sparked controversy, heated discussion and media attention after Tongji University professor Lu Di posted about it on his Weibo site. The Architectural Society of Shanghai even organized a “quartet dialogue on urban regeneration” to discuss the fate of this building. It was attended by representatives from the government, the developer, the designing firms and the media.

“After many discussions, the plan was finally altered and emphasis was placed on protecting the historical memory of the building that allowed for changing the interior but required 90 percent of the facade to be preserved — a very high rate. All the four major elements: the silhouette, the triangle windows, the sloping roof with the microwave tower and the architectural color had to be preserved. An atrium was added to link the building with the No. 181,” Hua says.

During the “quartet dialogue,” Chen Haitao of the Luneng Group said the principle of the project was “form follows function” but the process was “very difficult.”

“Four architectural firms designed more than 50 different plans to ‘’save the building’,” he said. “The final plan was drawn by Chinese company ECADI, which incredibly managed to fit in all the pipes and wires into the building’s limited structural spaces. Neri & Hu, which was responsible for the interior decoration, also smartly used the interior space of historical elements, like the triangle windows.”

“It’s a challenging project because the building’s regeneration has a lot of limitations. We have to maintain the original size, original elements like the microwave towers, sloping roofs and triangle windows. Meanwhile, we needed to change the function from an office building to a hotel. It’s like stuffing a peach into an apple,” says Fan Jiashan, chief architect of the project.

East China Architectural Design & Research Institute / Ti Gong

An artist's rendition of the new Shanghai Edition Hotel and its surrounding area

Neri & Hu Design and Research Office / Ti Gong

An artist's rendition of a hotel room featuring a redesigned triangle window

Neri & Hu Design and Research Office / Ti Gong

An artist's rendition of the lobby of Shanghai Edition Hotel which is nearing completion

“It’s a project that is painful and joyful at the same time. People are happy to see the facade has been successfully preserved but they don’t know the backbreaking process. The developer has also spent a lot of time, energy and money on it,” Fan adds.

Cao Jiaming, head of the Architectural Society of Shanghai, was one of the seven experts who insisted on preserving the facade.

“I was astonished when the building’s ‘face’ was about to be changed since it had won so many awards. But the building has less than 30 years’ history which is legally not a historical building for preservation. However after the efforts of so many people, including the media, the experts, the government and cooperation of the developer and designing firm as well, it is a happy ending and will forever become a classic case of regeneration of existing buildings in Shanghai,” Cao says.

Professor Hua compared the project with the recent 888 Julu Road case. The Julu Road villa attracted even wider attention when the owner used steel and concrete structure to replace a 1920s villa designed by Park Hotel architect L. E. Hudec without permission as “it was too dilapidated to be repaired.” The owner was fined 30.5 million yuan (US$4.46 million) for damaging a historic villa.

Professor Hua adds that the two buildings, 201 Nanjing Road and 888 Julu Road, were built in different styles in different eras, but “they encountered similar problems during renovation and mirrored the attitudes of different powers towards conservation in our city.”

“For conservation, the city needs to have its own character. In the 1990s people preferred newer things in China but nowadays more people are realizing the value of history. The two buildings are interesting cases of the process," professor Hua says.

Building details

Yesterday: East China Electrical Power Building

Today: The Shanghai Edition Hotel

Address: 201 Nanjing Road E.

Architectural style: Modern

Architects: Luo Xinyang and Qin Yong

Year of construction: 1988

Tips: Please admire the facade and the four major elements that have been preserved after considerable efforts — the silhouette, the triangle windows, the sloping roof with the microwave tower and the architectural color.

Michelle Qiao / SHINE

A magnificent view of Huangpu River and the Pudong skyline seen from the top of the East China Electrical Power Building

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