Toby Header Shanghai Cultural Square

Map Historical Shanghai Cultural PlazaShanghai Cultural Square

The Shanghai Culture Plaza is a space in Luwan district, within the former French Concession of Shanghai. The site has a remarkably turbulent history, that despite its sometimes uneasy history, is important to remember.

The original Canidrome built in 1928 included a hotel with the largest ballroom of the time, plus a stadium structure intended for greyhound dog racing.  It quickly became a multi-purpose entertainment space for the Shanghai elite pre-war.  During the war, it was converted to Japanese military horse stables.  After the war, it became a place for political rallies after the founding of the People’s Republic of China and a mass execution facility.

Then, after a fire, it was rebuilt in 1972 and once again it became a theatre and exhibition space, a stock exchange and finally a huge flower market before it was demolished in 2006.

Today, the theatre covers the area like a white wave flowing over its fascinating history.

The Birth

The awarding of the Expo in Shanghai caused the Communist Party to think about the planning of Shanghai.  Thanks to well politically connected Fang QuanLin the day before my birthday in April 2005, I was involved in an interesting meeting with the local cultural and propaganda authority in determining the principle purpose and ideal size for a new theatre to ultimately establish spec out for future RFP for architecture firms.

Fang QuanLin was an ex political and ex-military leader, who also had aspirations to be just like Leo Bloom in The Producers wanting to produce long lines of showgirls and fill his pockets with lots of cash in his retirement. He had created a local Shanghai cultural development company called Shanghai 999 to position himself, and became a consultant briefly during my last Nederlander days, but I digress….

The meeting was held in large room with a long rectangular table, with the Shanghai Propaganda head sitting in the centre, next to the Shanghai Cultural head.  At one end of the table were the leaders of the Shanghai Grand Theatre (at the time, the largest and most prominent theatre) and at the opposite end was my friend Wang Jingbo of the Majestic Theatre (a medium size Art Deco treasure).  I was seated directly opposite the Shanghai government leaders, with my assistant Wang Chao to my left and Fang QuanLin to my right.  Scattered between us all were the managers of most of the other Shanghai theatre’s, typically small size.  The symbolism of the seating was not lost on me — it was like a boxing ring.

To my far right, the leaders of the Grand Theatre wanted the new facility to be tiny so as not to compete with their venue and were pushing for a tiny local drama theatre of 500 to 999 seats, while to my far left, the smaller theatres in Shanghai, seemingly taking their lead from Wang Jingbo of The Majestic, wanted it to be massive, in the 3,000+ capacity range to focus on grand spectacle, opera and ballet to stick it to the seemingly uppity management of the Grand Theatre of the time. I was the lone voice in the room that recommended it be in the middle of the 2 opposing voices, at 2,000 seats, with a focus on international quality productions with ability to house musical theatre shows.

What made this funny, at the beginning of a very long 2 or 3 hour, and rather heated meeting, where Wang Chao was having difficulty keeping up with translating the yelling between the small and large theatres, I had written down “2000 seats” on a napkin, folded it, and placed it on the centre of the table, told Wang Chao to only give me highlights, and sat back, smoked a few cigarettes, sipped a terrible coffee or 2 and waited… and waited…

Towards the very end of the marathon meeting, the Shanghai Propaganda Minister asked me for my thoughts.  The room fell silent, all eyes on me, and I simply pointed at the folded napkin (how theatrical!).  The Minister reached for the napkin and revealed what I had recommended 2-3 hours before.

“2,000 seats

The government approved the plans almost immediately to issue the instruction for the cultural space to focus on musical theatre with 2,000 seats.  The concept for the park began in 2003 and after a series of international design competitions were held, won by Beyer Blinder Belle & Balmori Associates whose theatre and refinement to the park was designed in late 2005, and was completed in 2011 with a 2011 seat musical theatre venue, over 3 levels, in 65,000 sqM of largely underground space.

Shanghai Culture Square Theatre