What If China’s Viral ‘Wanghong’ Architecture Is Good, Actually?
One of the most noticeable trends of the past few years is the rise of wanghong — or “internet celebrity” — culture. In the context of architecture, the term mostly evokes images of superficially photogenic buildings and fast-food aesthetics that are dismissed by most serious architects. Nevertheless, fueled by social media, and especially lifestyle sharing apps like Instagram and Xiaohongshu, wanghong architecture has become increasingly popular across China, as cities and towns seek viral fame — and the tourists that come with it.
At first glance, Shanghai’s Wukang Building might seem a classic example of wanghong architecture. Originally known as the Normandie Apartments, the Wukang Building is situated in the city’s former French Concession. Built in 1924, its distinctive wedge-shaped design is the work of the acclaimed Hungarian-Slovak architect László Hudec — one of the most prolific and accomplished architects working in the city in the 1920s and 1930s.
Yet the Wukang Building’s rise to wanghong status is a recent development. Before 2018, it was mainly known in architectural preservation and historical circles. That year, the city undertook a round of renovations to restore the structure’s brick walls, windows, doors, and plumbing, as well as bury the wires that once obscured it from view. The results have been striking: Now more accessible and photogenic than ever, the Wukang Building has become a magnet for locals and tourists alike.
Cities and developers around the country have been particularly active in embracing and cultivating wanghong architecture and buildings as a way to drive social media attention and economic development. Architects are less excited. I can sometimes feel the consternation and confusion among my peers at the sudden rise of wanghong architecture. It’s seemingly everywhere these days: from beachside resorts hours from Beijing to hulking libraries in otherwise deserted new developments in the country’s interior.
But wanghong doesn’t have to be synonymous with superficiality, cookie-cutter new designs, or misguided urban development. There’s a tendency to think of wanghong architecture as needing to stand on its own, but the Wukang Building suggests another approach: not building something flashy and new, but making holistic improvements to an entire area until it becomes a place people want to visit and spend more time in.
When renovations first started on Wukang Road in the 2000s, it’s unlikely that city planners were thinking about the area’s social media potential. But they did take what was then a novel approach in China. Rather than solely focus on sprucing up a few key buildings, the city included Wukang Road in the broader “Hengshan-Fuxing Historical and Cultural Urban Area.” The local street management office — one of the lowest rungs of China’s urban bureaucracy — worked with city planners on a comprehensive set of spatial and management upgrades: The maintenance of historic buildings was integrated with the management of nearby neighborhoods and the powerlines that once nearly obscured the Wukang Building from view were buried. Planners also made small quality-of-life adjustments, such as widening sidewalks opposite the building and carving out an exception to the typically rigid street sweeping rules to allow leaves to accumulate on the ground in Fall — a small change that generated major discussion on social media in 2013 and has since been expanded elsewhere.
The residential communities along Wukang Road include a mix of apartment buildings, row homes and detached houses, most of which are walled off for privacy. As a result, in terms of vitality, Wukang Road is traditionally less well-regarded than more commercial streets like Huaihai Road. To address this, the city opened the area up and emphasized mixed-use development, transforming the area from an upscale residential neighborhood into a mixed residential-commercial area. The city encouraged new businesses to move in, and today Wukang Road is packed with cafes, vintage shops, and galleries.
All this has led to increased foot traffic. And because the Wukang Building sits right at the convergence of two newly-walkable, redesigned roads, it is a natural endpoint of a day spent exploring that section of the old French Concession, and a perfect backdrop for a photo. Visitors then share these images on social media, attracting even more people to visit the building.
In essence, the wanghong popularity of the Wukang Building is the product, rather than the cause, of a revived, increasingly vibrant neighborhood. In this, it has benefitted from a rare mix of preservation, street management, commercialization, and refined urban management.
Compare this to the best-known example of wanghong architecture in China: the “Lonely Library” in the northern beach resort town of Aranya. Although that building’s photogenic concrete silhouette has made it a trendy “check-in” spot for hipsters and influencers, it has little more to offer beyond a pleasant backdrop.
This could pose challenges in the long-term. Although popular in today's wanghong economy, trends have a way of changing fast, and unless wanghong buildings can find some other source of appeal besides their unique designs, they could find themselves left behind.
There shouldn’t be any stigma attached to architecture or styles popular on social media, but more work needs to be done to integrate wanghong buildings into cities and neighborhoods. Of course, not every city has the same history as Shanghai, but the popularity of the Wukang Building at least suggests an alternative path in which neighborhoods explore and preserve their cultural heritage first — and reap the benefits second.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A Santa Claus-shaped balloon on display at the Wukang Building in Shanghai, Dec. 10, 2021. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)