The Towering Ambition Behind Shanghai’s Skyline ‘Syringe’
This year marks the 30th anniversary of a central government proclamation that accelerated the development of Shanghai’s eastern Pudong New Area. Sixth Tone looks back at some of the individuals and organizations that made the district what it is today.
Look at any photo of Shanghai’s skyline taken in the past few years and there’s a good chance it’ll be dominated by the city’s trio of skyscrapers: the Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, and the Shanghai Tower. Together they’re often affectionately referred as the “kitchen trio”: the syringe, the bottle opener, and the egg beater, respectively.
What you might not know, however, is just how close a lack of funds and technical expertise came to derailing construction on the oldest of these: the Jin Mao Tower.
China’s then-paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, proposed developing Shanghai’s Pudong New Area in 1992. At the time, the district was little more than a ramshackle collection of mudflats and low-lying housing — not exactly the kind of place Fortune 500 companies go to do business. To boost Pudong’s profile, in February 1992, Minister of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation Li Lanqing suggested his ministry take the lead and build a tower capable of luring top global firms to Pudong.
As Li’s assistant and the person he put in charge of the project, my first question was simple: Where were we going to get the money?
At the time, the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation (MOFTEC) oversaw numerous companies with overseas interests. These companies were allowed to retain 20% of any money they earned, subject to government approval. I figured I could use this pool to get the tower built. Li signed off on the idea, and we outlined how much each company should contribute.
Actually getting the cash was another matter. I gathered CEOs of the companies together for what I jokingly referred to as a “Hongmen Banquet” — think of a Game of Thrones-style “Red Wedding” for their wallets. At the banquet, we handed out envelopes to each CEO, inside which there was a request for the amount of money they should put in.
Not every firm was enthusiastic about the project. Many had investment plans of their own. You could say it was a mixed market-executive fundraising effort: I leaned half on market incentives — we made it clear they’d be given shares in the tower’s proceeds — and half on Li Lanqing’s authority. In the end, a total of 14 companies invested around $200 million. With the startup capital in place, the project could get underway.
The design process posed its own challenges, however. MOFTEC boss Li outlined two guiding principles: internationalization and professionalism. Internationalization meant the tower must be in line with the latest international architectural trends. Professionalism meant we should listen to the experts and not interfere too much with their work.
To that end, we invited six well-known domestic and international design firms to participate in a design competition. In the end, we were most impressed by the proposal of the American company Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM).
SOM proposed the tower should incorporate China’s own cultural and architectural tradition. Their designers specifically looked to famous ancient Chinese pagodas, such as the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in northwestern city Xi’an and the Tiger Hill Pagoda in eastern city Suzhou.
This wasn’t merely a matter of aesthetics: One of the key structural elements of pagodas is that they’re hollow. Shanghai’s ground is soft and sensitive to heavy loads, so keeping the tower hollow helped cut weight.
Those weren’t the only Chinese principles that found their way into Jin Mao Tower’s construction. Its design elements feature a mixture of the very traditional and the ultramodern. The 88 floors accord with Chinese numerology, eight being an auspicious number. The building’s pen-like structure and skirt in the shape of an open book, however, are explicit allegories to the spirit of China’s “reform and opening-up” — fitting, as the plan was approved by Deng Xiaoping himself.
Finally, we had to choose a name. At the time, convention dictated MOFTEC building names include the words “trade” and “economics.” That seemed a little wooden and old-fashioned for a building we hoped would become China’s window to the world, however. Eventually we settled on Jin Mao, a homophone for “trade and economics” with the far more appealing meaning of “golden splendor.” In another feng shui-inspired twist, the characters for “jin” and “mao” each have eight strokes, and Pudong officials gave us the street address 88 Century Avenue.
The Jin Mao Tower benefitted greatly from China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, as banking, fund management, insurance, and investment firms set up offices there. Even non-financial firms like IBM and General Motors moved in. In the process, the tower directly raised the land value of the entire surrounding area, giving a much-needed boost to the development of Pudong as a major urban center.
Even beyond Pudong, however, Jin Mao’s status as the tallest building in China at the time made it a symbol of a resurgent Shanghai. In later years it would be surpassed in height by the World Financial Center and the Shanghai Center, but for my money, the beauty of our so-called syringe is the most enduring.
As told to Xie Liping, Guo Ji, Huang Xiao and Yao Ji’an.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: 500px/People Visual)