Motianlou — reaching for the skies

After a brief hiatus following World War II, Shanghai’s skyline began to soar since the 1980s.

Skyscrapers in the Pudong New Area, including the Shanghai Tower

Shanghai's skyline mirrored its economic development and began sprouting in the 1920s and early 1930s. It almost ceased after World War II, but restarted after 1978 following China’s reform and opening-up policy. 

East China Electric Power Building was one of the earliest skyscrapers to come up in the 1980s.

According to a study by Tongji University researcher Liu Jiawei, Shanghai constructed only 40 buildings between 1950 and 1978, all of which were under 15 floors. In the 1980s, the city constructed 812 tall buildings including a first high-rise taller than 100 meters — the 108.65-meter Lianyi Plaza near the Bund in 1985.

Most high-rises were built in an area featuring foreign hotels and commercial buildings, such as Hongqiao Economic and Technological Development Zone. The Bund and Nanjing Road area also saw a growing number of tall buildings in the late 1980s and 1990s, including East China Electric Power Building and today’s Hotel Sofitel Hyland Shanghai.

High-rises began mushrooming around Shanghai after the 1990s. According to 2013 Shanghai statistical yearbook, the city had more than 100 buildings higher than 20 floors by 1990, and the number soared to 3,754 in 2000 and 7,402 by 2012.

Shanghai’s peak was pushed forward by the 632-meter-high Shanghai Tower at Pudong’s Lujiazui area last year, which is seven times higher than the Park Hotels, which remained the city’s tallest building from 1934 to 1983.

The Chinese term for skyscraper, motianlou, means the magical big building that reaches the skies. In his famous book “Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China 1930-1945,” Harvard University professor Leo Ou-fan Lee describes the skyscrapers as the most intrusive addition to the Shanghai landscape that was in sharp contrast to the low-rise Chinese architecture.

Tongji University associate professor Liu Gang is of the view that the skyscrapers are a kind of a flower arrangement.

“Owing to rebounding of accumulated historic energies (from the 1930s until 1978), we unconsciously have built Shanghai into a unique, prosperous and stunning city,” he says.

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