Entertaining audiences in classic style

A 1930s cinema that is now today's cultural landmark, Shanghai Concert Hall is a rare surviving example of a Western classic building designed by Chinese architects.
Entertaining audiences in classic style
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

Shanghai Concert Hall, built in 1930, is a rare surviving example of a Western classic building designed by Chinese architects.

Entertaining audiences in classic style
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

Shanghai Concert Hall, a rare surviving example of a Western classic building designed by Chinese architects in old Shanghai, was the work of Fan Wenzhao and Zhao Shen, both graduates of the University of Pennsylvania. 

“They are representative figures of China’s first-generation modern architects,” says Tongji University associate professor Qian Feng.

The three-story concert hall was built in 1930 as the Nanking Theatre, a cinema, on today’s Yan’an Road E.

China Press called it “Shanghai’s New $500,000 Cinema” and said “its structure embodies most up-to-date features in construction” in October 1929, ahead of its official opening on March 26, 1930.

“The entire structure, which reveals many novel features both in point of artistic decoration and those designed with a view to the comfort of patrons, is being erected at a cost of more than $500,000 exclusive of the cost of the site,” the report said. “The most novel of these features will be the installation of an air-conditioning plant, by which air washed free of all dust will be circulated through the auditorium, at a temperature of from 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the years and its relative humidity will be scientifically controlled and adjusted. This apparatus is quite similar to those installed in the Roxy and the Paramount theaters in New York.”

Invested by Chinese-owned Shanghai Amusement Co Ltd, the cinema was equipped with Western electric sound projectors for Movietone and Vitaphone films. 

The building’s design is modified renaissance. The facade features arcades built with colored stucco and artificial stones. The structure had ancient Romanesque pillars and marble stairs in the north hall, a huge dome inside, as well as parapets with delicate carvings. During the early years of the theater, movies, acrobatics, circuses, dramas and traditional Chinese operas were put on here.

The China Press report said: “The arcades are surmounted by a sculpture panel with a suitable theme in relief. The side elevations are in Taishan face brick and artificial stone. The walls of the auditorium will be treated with a series of Ionic pilasters and arches decorated with rich draperies. The ceiling will be in rich, low relief. The lighting will be indirect.”

Entertaining audiences in classic style
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

Elegant tones of gold, grayish blue and beige were selected for the interior of the auditorium during the 2002 relocation.

Entertaining audiences in classic style
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

Many architectural details in the concert hall, such as the marble staircases and columns, have been well preserved.

Professor Qian notes that both the architects changed to Chinese renaissance and then to an utterly modern style after creating the Western classic building.

Zhao returned to China in 1927 to join Fan’s firm. He later co-founded the Allied Architects, one of the two leading Chinese design firms in modern China — the other being Tianjin-based Messrs Kwan, Chu and Yang, designers of the Shanghai No. 1 Shopping Center on Nanjing Road E.

“Zhao’s style is pretty much like his personality — simple, sedate and elegant, stressing functionality and economic construction. It’s interesting that both Zhao and Fan took part in the competition for designing Dr Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. They both won prizes, but the mausoleum was finally designed by another Chinese architect named Lu Yanzhi,” Qian says.

As modern China’s first-generation architects, Zhao and Fan designed some “Chinese renaissance” buildings which incorporated both Chinese and Western elements, such as the YMCA building with its upturned eaves and large plate-glass windows.

“And they both gave up the style,” Qian says. “Zhao’s firm launched a campaign to abandon big Chinese roofs while Fan seemed even more radical. He called on correction of this ‘big roof mistakes,’ especially after European architect Carl Lindbom and Chinese architect Wu Zi’ang joined his firm.”

“After his 1935 tour around Europe representing China at the 14th International Housing and Town Planning Congress in London and the 13th International Architectural Congress in Rome, he fully embraced ‘international-style’ architecture that valued the concept of ‘form follows function.’ His 1941 work, the Majestic Theater on Nanjing Road W., was a very modern piece,” she says.

According to Fan’s granddaughter Maureen Fan, he spoke English at home, counted foreigners among his friends and had chairs designed by German modern architect Mies van der Rohe in his living room.

“On weekends, he took my father, uncle and two aunts to see the Marx Brothers or Johnny Weissmuller’s ‘Tarzan’ free of charge in theaters he designed,” Fan wrote in an article published in the Washington Post in 2009.

In 1950, the theater was renamed the Beijing Cinema and in 1959 embraced a new name and new role as the Shanghai Concert Hall. Since then, it has been a popular cultural venue specialized in presenting classical music, jazz and traditional Chinese music.

It co-hosted the city’s major cultural events including the Shanghai Spring International Music Festival and the Shanghai International Arts Festival. World-class troupes and artists, including the Juilliard String Quartet, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, violinist Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Maurizio Pollini, have performed there.

Entertaining audiences in classic style
Shanghai Concert Hall / Ti Gong

The groundbreaking ceremony for the relocation of Shanghai Concert Hall in 2002

Entertaining audiences in classic style
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

A German musician rehearses on the stage of the concert hall, a cultural landmark specializing in classical music.

To make way for urban construction, the building was relocated in 2002. It was lifted and moved 66 meters southeast to sit in the Yan’an Road M. greenland before reopening in 2004. Some expansion and renovation was carried out during the project.

“At the same time as cleaning and restoring the original facade, we enlarged the stage from 100 to 298 square meters and added a sunken orchestra pit. Seats and modern facilities for artists and audiences to relax were also added during the project,” architect Zhang Ming wrote in an article.

Today, the concert hall still looks like the building China Press described in 1929.

It said then: “The main lobby is characterized by a marble staircase giving access to a spacious promenade on the mezzanine floor. Here marble columns will rest on a cain-stone base course. The ceiling will be richly ornamented. There will be a foyer on the east side of the building connecting with the main lobby beneath a beautiful rotunda. The main lobby may be viewed from the mezzanine floor promenade through a marble colonnade.”

Zhang says the ceiling, the rotunda and walls have been repaired with original materials according to their old look. Elegant tones of gold, grayish blue and beige were selected for the interior decoration to suit the ambience of the building.

“The building is more than a concert hall. It’s not only a 1930s building, but also has a story of floating and relocation. I’ve worked here for more than 10 years and often find our audiences enjoy taking photos of the building before or after a concert,” says Fang Liang, the venue’s general manager.

“This building is an entrance for people to get to know about Shanghai. We have a responsibility to preserve it well and share its stories. I hope visitors to Shanghai Concert Hall admire elegant music, meanwhile walk up the 80-year-old staircase, touch the handrails of the veranda and feel the warmth and depth of our city,” she says.

About the building

Yesterday: Nanking Theatre

Today: Shanghai Concert Hall

Address: 523 Yan’an Rd E.

Date of construction: 1930

Architects: Fan Wenzhao and Zhao Shen

Architectural style: Western classic style

Tips: The concert hall is open only to its audiences. I’d suggest you visit the building one hour ahead of a performance to admire it and have a drink at the cafe in the western hall, which was built during the relocation project. For ticketing information, visit www.shanghaiconcerthall.org.

Entertaining audiences in classic style
Shanghai Concert Hall / Ti Gong

The Nanking Theatre, the predecessor of Shanghai Concert Hall, was a cinema built in 1930.

Modern architecture ‘needs no frills’

That modern architecture needs no frills was stressed by Mr. Carl Lindbom on Feb. 9 at a reception given in his honor at the office of Mr. Robert Fan, with whom Mr. Lindbom has gone into partnership. The reception was well attended, and Mr. Lindbom, with the aid of beautifully made models explained the new “International Style of Architecture” of which is he an exponent.

The style, Mr. Lindbom said, is rapidly becoming universal as combining beauty with simplicity, it is sweeping away older, more expensive styles. Early in the 19th and 20th centuries, he went on architecture aimed at the imitation of former periods by the use of “motives and ornaments placed on the body of the buildings without having an inner connection with them.”

On the other hand, Mr. Lindbom does not approve of “Modern Architecture,” which is “not architecture” but contains various experiments in vertical and horizontal expression, shiny metals and various ornaments, all of which are “largely superficial things.”

The international style, however, demonstrates a type, which, not existing for its own sake, is determined by the particular nature of the building it is intended for. For instance, a “talkie” studio, designed by Mr. Lindbom, is roughly in the form of a semi-circle. By the use of this form of construction all supports and beams are done away with, the entire building being executed in concrete and sternly business-like has no external frills.

Another instance is an apartment building, constructed with steel, concrete and glass and so built that each apartment juts out somewhat like a shelf from the main building and being made of steel and concrete requires outward support. Light, air and sunshine thus are able to play upon all three sides of the apartment, no matter in which direction it faces. There are no external frills, none being necessary.

Mr. Lindbom, completing his schooling at the Royal University, Denmark studied architecture at the Royal Art Academies of Copenhagen and Sweden. At one time or another he has been a student of such modern architects as Walter Gropious, Le Corbusier, Lurcat and F. L. Wright.

Some of his works include the Bernheimer Gardens at Santa Monica on the estate of Mr H. C. Cotton; architect of San Clemente City, California, chief designer of the Bennar Berit Temple, which costing G$2,000,000, is exploited as the finest example of Italian architecture in America; the Normandy Village, Hollywood, home of many of the stars; and he has just completed the plans for the first hotel in the international style to be built at Las Vegas, Nevada, which will have a capacity of 1,000 rooms, and will include swimming pools, ballrooms, theater, casino and very extensive grounds and stables.

“New buildings will soon be undertaken,” concluded Mr. Lindbom and he would draw to the attention of financiers the cheapness, simplicity, and beauty of the international style, which would be all they would require for their purposes and more.

— Excerpt from The North-China Herald (February 15, 1933)

Entertaining audiences in classic style
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE
Entertaining audiences in classic style
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE
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