Shanghai might be famous for its Bund-side buildings, Art Deco icons and the Lujiazui skyscrapers that make for that Insta-perfect skyline shot, but the stories of many of these buildings remain unknown to most. And then there are the architectural feats that we walk by on the daily without even noticing. Enter customised tour specialists Shanghai Insiders – convertible, vintage Beijing Jeep engines revving – who have paired up with American architect Ben Wood (the man who designed Xintiandi) to create a tour of Shanghai’s modern architecture that answers the questions you didn’t even know you had. Yes, the Huaihai Zhong Lu building now housing luxury designer store Shang Xia used to be a prison.
Starting off at the pick-up point outside Wuyuan Lu café Bitter, over four hours and a couple of beers the tour winds from the city’s west to east (and back again). In a flurry of fast facts, you learn that Nanjing Xi Lu’s Park Hotel Shanghai – built in 1934 and Shanghai’s tallest building until 1983 – was modelled after New York’s American Radiator Building (now the American Standard Building) and is the city’s central point, which means whenever you’re outside the city and see distance markers to Shanghai, it’s to this point.
You hear the legend behind the gilded Nine Dragon Pillar that stands out at the intersection of Yanan and Chengdu Bei Lus, involving a series of strange deaths and monks appeasing an angry dragon. Sitting in traffic outside Xintiandi (built to be ‘a meeting place for the nouveau riche,’ explains tour guide Thomas Chabrières), discover Wood’s plan for the area and the bomb shelter his team found when they were renovating, walls decorated with pictures of Mao Zedong.
Moving farther east, get the details of the fire hazard concerns that delayed the opening of the Shanghai Tower and find out (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the architect behind the Pearl Tower ‘was inspired by American 1930s science-fiction comic books’. It’s a lot to take in over an afternoon, but somehow it still feels like a scratch on the surface of Shanghai’s everchanging urban landscape.