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Celebrating Over 25 Years

At its grand opening in October 1990, the Shanghai Centre was the tallest building in Shanghai. It was also the first serviced apartment complex downtown and home to the first international supermarket providing imported goodies. Today, 25 years later, Shanghai Centre is still "the Center of Shanghai"…

Architect Jack Portman reflects on the past and future of Shanghai Centre

In Jan 1979, just one week after Normalization between China and the US, architect Jack Portman went with the Portman delegation to Shanghai, Beijing, and Hangzhou to investigate business opportunities in China. A few months later, in 1979, Deng Xiao Ping visited The United States, and one of his stops was Atlanta. Deng stayed at a hotel at Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta designed by Portman, and gave a luncheon address to the Atlanta business community. In that speech, Portman recalls, Deng was very impressive, talking about the growth and future of China. Just a few months later, Portman was back in China, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become one of the earliest and most successful East-West joint ventures -- Shanghai Centre. Here, Portman shares his memories of that very special time, as well as his reflections on the future of Shanghai as an international city, and the on-going relevance of Shanghai Centre.

What are your memories of Shanghai at that time?

Going to Shanghai in 1979 was a step back in time. Streets were narrow, trees were almost like caverns, with the leaves over hanging off the trees, and streetlights had this soft, dull, amber light that was almost mystical. It was like being in the 1940s. Nothing had changed over all those years. No cars on the street, lots of bicycles, and everybody wearing blue or gray, no color whatsoever, and all was very quiet.

What was on the spot where Shaghai Centre stands now?

The spot to where Shanghai Centre stands today was Xinhua News Agency. It was a five-story brick house that Xinhua used as their headquarters, directly across the street from the Shanghai Exhibition Centre. It was the Shanghai Exhibition Centre group with their partners who arranged for the acquisition of that site and assisted us in the financing of it. Other Portman projects in Shanghai include Tomorrow Square, The Bund Centre, and today we are developing Portman House at JYL, in Xuhui District. Lane houses in the old Shikumen style, as well as a service apartment building, will be called the Portman House.

Shanghai Centre is one of the city's older buildings, yet it seems to have aged very gracefully over the years. Why do you think that is so?

Shanghai Centre has aged gracefully because it was designed in a timeless manner, focusing on the functional aspect of how people live, what people enjoy in terms of material textures, and most importantly, how people relate to space. We have created an iconic building that has timeless qualities. The building is quite simple, unlike some of the current buildings in Shanghai which have very elaborated curtain walls or very expensive finishings. So it's not the building as such that makes Shanghai Centre timeless, but it is more so the way the space has been allocated, and how the various uses: retail, restaurant, exhibition, hotel, have been orchestrated to enforce the spaces that are in front and around them. Shanghai Centre is not a building, not a series of buildings, but a community. It is a community for people to shop, to work, to live, to recreate -- a city within a city. The fact that we provide almost every service that people can utilize is a factor as well.

How do you rank Shanghai Centre compared to other the projects you've done around the world? Does it hold a special significance for you?

Shanghai Centre remains my favorite development of all time. To me, it is the most meaningful real estate development that Portman has ever done. It shows our foresight in moving into China, and it shows our ability to understand and to anticipate market demand, thereby creating one of the most successful real estate developments anywhere, and it remains so due to its development, design, and management, as one of the preeminent project of Shanghai. Shanghai will rank at the top of future cities of the world, and Shanghai Centre represents the dynamic spirit of the growth of China. It will be considered the prime address for decades to come.