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The skyscraper race in Shanghai

by Michael on September 17, 2011

When Larissa visited Shanghai five years ago the tallest building in town was the Jin Mao Tower, designed to resemble a pagoda it was the tallest building in China. She marveled at the view from the 88th floor observation deck. But five years in the turbocharged Shanghai economy is like thirty years anywhere else.

Shanghai World Financial Center and Jin Mao Tower duke it out

On this trip we sought out a newer building, the Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) with its 100th floor observation deck. It is built right across the street from the Jin Mao Tower so from certain angles the shorter building is completely blocked from view, as if David Copperfield had come along and figured out a way to make an 88-story building magically disappear. The Jin Mao’s observation deck was a must-see tourist attraction until it was eclipsed by its taller neighbor right next door.

Unlike the Jin Mao’s sympathetic architectural approach that blended Asian elements and angles, the SWFC is forward looking, not wanting to be tied down by the past. The end result looks like a swirling space-age opener for a Brobdingnagian bottle of Tsingtao beer. Visitors can purchase a cheaper ticket that only gets you to the 94th floor viewing platform but true building geeks (that includes us) spring for the higher price ticket to go all the way to the 100th floor.

Looking down on Jin Mao Tower, the former champ

The extra few bucks are well worth it as the view from the top is spectacular. At a current estimate of 23 million, the population of Shanghai exceeds the number of people living on the entire vast continent of Australia. All those people have to live somewhere. The evidence is at our feet as the parade of high-rise apartment buildings extends beyond the horizon, unable to be captured in a single photograph.

The observation deck spans a 10-story cutout in the building that creates the bottle opener look. The designers placed Plexiglass covered sheets in the floor so the visitor can look all the way down onto the streets and rooftops below. That feature may not be for the squeamish or the acrophobe. But you can step around these clear openings and plant yourself firmly on relatively solid ground to admire the distant view. 

Shanghai's Legoland

Each new development of 20 or 30 apartment buildings (these projects are massive) has a color coded rooftop providing a kaleidoscope effect measuring the march of progress of Shanghai. From this vantage point the city looks less like an actual place and more like a model put together with a gargantuan set of Legos.

At this point we noticed that the building was swaying. We’ve been on top of tall buildings before and known that they move. Far from being an item of concern it’s actually a good thing. If the building didn’t bend it would break. But we’ve never been on a structure that swayed this much. It felt like being on the deck of a cruise ship, one in calm waters, but moving at sea nevertheless. It’s hard to imagine having an office this high.

While we were busy congratulating ourselves for standing on top of the tallest building in China we noticed a building under construction down below us, just across the street. It looked like it was up to about 15 stories so far.  We learned that this is the site of the Shanghai Tower, due to open in 2014 and topping out at 126 floors.

Meet the new boss, the Shanghai Tower under construction

Yes, the sleek 100th floor observation deck upon which we were standing is about to become obsolete too. In Shanghai, the push to be king of the hill is relentless, but once it is earned the title is short-lived. Welcome to the new Shanghai.

Details for visiting can be found at the Shanghai World Financial Center web site. Or you can wait until 2014 and see the completed Shanghai Tower.

Click on the link to see more stories about our trip to China.

Pete September 21, 2011 at 12:01 am

Wow, this is nothing like my pictures from the Shanghai of 1987 (I have to dig these out of a box somewhere in the ever-more-cluttered basement…)! Back then I only remember one or two tall buildings and they were definitely of the “socialist worker housing” variety.

I remember something the tour guide said back then. In what may have been an excellent, and effective, use of propaganda, she asked everyone on the bus look out left, right, front, and back as we were inching our way through a particularly busy intersection somewhere in the center of Shanghai. She smiled confidently and said, “you have just looked at one million people”. It was certainly within the realm of believability.

If we could see a million people on a bus at ground level in 1987, I wonder how many people you were actually looking at from the top of the tower there. Even the shorter one.

Michael September 21, 2011 at 4:17 am

If you could scan and send a picture of Shanghai in 1987 I’d love to see it. We stayed in a complex of 30-story high-rise apartment buildings that was still farmland in 1995.

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