VIDEO: Shanghai Night Lights, Part 1. Shanghai World Financial Center's colorful evening light show, and the massive "supertall trio".
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Not a single moth or mosquito remains in the Lujiazui business district in Shanghai. I know this because I spent three nights strolling the streets there with my eyes agog and my mouth hanging wide open in amazement. My Chicago pedigree has made me mostly indifferent to other cities and their tall buildings. (Some exceptions: PPG Place in Pittsburgh and the St. Louis Arch. And I haven't been to London in awhile.) But my evening walks in Lujiazui left me gasping for air and without words. It is off-the-scale, in-your-face outrageous.
The corner of Dongtai and Huayuanshiqiao Roads just off Century Avenue, the main arterial through the district, is one of the centers of the tall building universe. Gathered around this corner, literally across the street from each other, are the Jin Mao Building (1999) at 1380 feet/421 meters; the Shanghai World Financial Center (2008), third tallest building in the world at the time of our visit at 1614 feet/492 meters; and the under-construction Shanghai Tower (2014) which will reach 2073 feet/632 meters. The master plan developed for the Lujiazui Financial District called for three supertall towers of varying heights at this location. Jin Mao, with its frenetic, finely detailed facade and fantastic take on the traditional pagoda motif, represents China's past; SWFC, with its long lines and cool, quiet presence, represents the present; the twisting form of Shanghai Tower, called “the dragon” by some, represents the future. All were designed in the United States by American architecture firms.
When standing between them, it's possible to aim your camera straight up and get all three in the picture, with the buildings visually converging at their tops. While there are and have been several places around the world where supertall buildings stand together, usually twin buildings, Shanghai is unique in the world for having supertalls of different designs and heights standing so closely together, shoulder-to-shoulder. There is no other tall building experience anywhere else in the world quite like the Shanghai trio. Worth a 14-hour airplane ride to a tall-building fanatic? Oh, yes.
On the evening of my arrival day, I set foot out of Jin Mao around 5 p.m. for my first walk. Almost immediately after getting off the premises, I was set upon by sidewalk vendors hawking various items including skyscraper souvenirs, call girls and, somewhat to my alarm, green laser pointers. They were very nearly as annoying as time share salespeople in Sedona. More about them in a minute.
I crossed the street to look around the base of Shanghai World Financial Center. I had seen photos of the base, but I never really understood how the building met the ground, why a slender base of stone rather than taking the glass facade all the way down. Louis Sullivan, the American "father of skyscrapers"; famously designed his buildings with a bottom, a middle and a top, and SWFC definitely had the latter two. I understood the context of SWFC's base once I saw how it interacted with the landscaping.
The monolithic stone walls add a massive feel to the bottom and announce the building at ground level with a power that a glass curtain wall alone could not. Stone provides a drastic but harmonious visual change from the look of the building itself. On the side of the building across from Jin Mao and near the observatory entrance, the greenery and a small plot of bamboo trees work with the stone to create a serene, green space next to the reassuring presence of a sheer rock cliff. SWFC's main entrance carries the monolithic look indoors, making it clear you are on the ground floor. You'll have ample opportunity to experience steel and glass in the rest of the building.
How a building meets the ground is a great consideration in the modern supertall era. In two instances from the previous generation, Chicago's Willis (Sears) Tower and Aon Center (once the Amoco Building) meet the ground with no fanfare: their facades simply terminate at grade. In my tall building travels, such as they are, SWFC is perhaps the nicest execution of this principle I have seen so far.
After dinner and some down time in my room, I went for another walk around 9:30 p.m. (not at all like me) to see the Shanghai trio after dark.
In certain places, the visual effect of these three giants standing together is overwhelming. Viewed from Century Avenue, they form a massive, multi-textured wall, a huge wave of steel, concrete and glass that is nothing short of hair-raising to see in person. Here is where I lost my power of speech and turned glassy-eyed and drooling.
WOW. I will let my pictures and video tell the story from here.
I lost count of the sidewalk vendors early on and I did my best to ignore them, but the ones with the green laser pointers were particularly obnoxious. One of them collared me as I was walking up Century Avenue. “Look! Look!” he said, and aimed the laser pointer down the busy street. About half a block away, a reflective road sign exploded with light as though it had burst into flames.
My sphincter grabbed air and I about dropped my teeth. Laser light can temporarily blind and cause serious eye damage. Particularly stupid people in the United States have been arrested and prosecuted for aiming laser pointers at flying airliners on landing approach. In this country, shining a laser pointer down the street would get you a stern warning from a police officer, at the very least. It should also get you a fresh one to the chops from people on the receiving end.
I spent the remainder of my evening walks watching for laser vendors and being ready to turn my head if I saw green light headed in my direction. This was good advice along the Huangpu riverfront. I narrowed my eyes as I saw a light-saber wielding man approaching me. "Look! Look! Three kilometers!" He aimed the pointer across the wide river and onto a distant building. I could see it flicker with a faint green glow.
The last such demonstration came across the street from Shanghai World Financial Center as I was walking back to my room. "Look! Look!" The man pointed the light midway up SWFC and moved it up the building to the underside of the aperture and the 100th floor observatory. Holy crap. I toyed briefly with the idea of giving the guy 5 yuan just to take some pictures, but it felt too much like complicity in a misdemeanor. I continued walking.
I'll say one nice thing about Shanghai's street vendors. There are plenty of them out there trying to turn a profit through sales, the good old-fashioned way. I saw only one dog-and-pony beggar act the whole time. In Chicago it would be all beggars, and whatever that entrepreneur on the corner is selling, buddy, it ain't souvenirs.
By later in the week, I had seriously had my fill of friggin' street vendors, who had to be navigated as one would circumvent a cloud of gnats. So I offered one a downright insulting price on some skyscraper knick-knack, which she tried to turn from 10 yuan ($1.60) into 10 U.S. dollars (63 yuan) as I strolled away. She gave me a long and particularly nasty look and I just smiled
Ahhhhhhh. After three days in China on my best behavior, I was finally feeling right at home.