Formerly known as the Sino-Soviet Friendship Building, today’s Shanghai Exhibition Center is far more likely to host a Millionaires Fair or iteration of the biannual ShContemporary Art Fair than a plenary session of a revived Communist International.
Regardless, it’s a splendid building worth exploring no matter the event taking place within its spacious halls. Completed in 1955 before Soviet-style architecture took a turn for the bland and blocky, the Exhibition Center is more wedding-cake (albeit a Stalinist-Maoist wedding) fantasy than grim monument.
Reminiscent of the famed All-Russion Exhbition Center in Moscow, the building commands its share of central Shanghai’s skyline with a red star-topped spire that soars above broad halls enclosing an enormous courtyard. The inside is equally impressive with its high ceilings, pillars and rather ornate chandeliers.
All in all, the building embodies an post-War communist optimism that hadn’t yet hardened with the Cold War and still had enough of a sense of style to delight rather than intimidate. Indeed, it was the first international exhibitition space to be built after the founding of the People’s Republic, and with the inward–and anti-Soviet–turn that Mao’s China took later in the 1950s and on through the Cultural Revolution into the 1970s, the SEC occupies a unique place in the rich history of Shanghai architecture.
Viewed at night with the nearby Moller Villa’s quirky brick walls and Gothic towers on the other side of the impressive Yannan Lu flyover (lit up by blue neon on its underside on weekends), the SEC provides a wonderful counterpoint to the surrounding mix of sleek modern glass towers, ungainly early Opening and Reform-era tile-clad high rises and remaining strips of pre-War Shanghai low-rise shops and lane houses.