Architecture Planning and Preservation Architecture of Shanghai
Cole Roskam
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0078


Shanghai’s architectural and urban history has long been linked to the city’s prominent role in regional and global trade. Its official designation as a market town (zhen 镇) and market city (shi市) in 1074 and 1159, respectively, may be attributed to its location along the Huangpu River within the shifting flows of the Yangtze River delta and its adjacency to the Grand Canal and coastal shipping routes. Over time, increased, water-based commercial activity fueled extensive diking and dredging efforts as well as the construction of the city’s original walls in 1554 to defend against pirates—constraints that also produced a dense urban fabric composed in part by an array of diverse forms of residential and commercial architectural expression. By the mid-nineteenth century, Shanghai’s status as an important regional port prompted its identification by British officials as one of five Qing ports to be opened to British trade in 1843 following the first Opium War. During its subsequent, one-hundred-year existence as an international treaty port, Shanghai further developed into a center of modern Chinese—and global—architectural production through continued flows of capital, goods, and people, particularly a cosmopolitan community of craftspeople, contractors, architects, and engineers from numerous parts of China and around the world. Much of the existing architectural historical scholarship on Shanghai has focused on this treaty-port era, the city’s reemergence after the advent of economic reforms in 1978 as a shipping, financial, and cultural capital, and its current, continued expansion as one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas. There exist fewer scholarly accounts of the city’s architectural development prior to 1843 or after 1949, when Shanghai lost its status as a hub for architectural culture to Beijing even as it remained an important Chinese industrial center. The bibliography of Shanghai architecture reflects the ebb and flow of the city’s status as a global commercial entrepôt amid the various political and economic shifts that have roiled China over the course of the twentieth century. It has been organized into historical periods and thematic and typological categories in an effort to capture the many ideas, forms, styles, and iterations at play in the city’s built environment over time.

General Overviews

Comprehensive overviews of Shanghai’s complete architectural history are rare, as most architectural surveys of the city tend to emphasize architectural design and construction produced during the international treaty port era (1843–1943). Balfour and Zheng 2002 and Denison and Ren 2006 offer the most detailed, English-language introductions into the subject.

  • Balfour, Alan, and Shiling Zheng. Shanghai. World Cities Series. Chichester, UK, and Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Academy, 2002.

    A wide-ranging survey of Shanghai’s architectural and urban development that includes a brief introduction into the history of imperial Chinese urbanism but gives more attention to international architectural production in the city since the 1990s.

  • Denison, Edward, and Guang Yu Ren. Building Shanghai: The Story of China’s Gateway. Chichester, UK, and Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Academy 2006.

    A beautifully illustrated study of the city’s physical growth extending back to its origins as a regional commercial gateway to the twenty-first century, with scholarly emphasis placed on its rise and development as a treaty port.

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