Shanghai's Columbia Circle repurposed for the 21st century

Just 8.5km away from The Bund and 9.5km away from Shanghai World Financial Center is a 47,300-sq m (about 11.6-acre) historical site called Columbia Circle, more popularly known as Shang Sheng Suo (the Mandarin short-form for the Shanghai Institute of Biological Products). Preceded by various other names, they hint of the site’s rich history.

Situated right at the junction of Panyu Road and Yan’an West Road in the heart of Shanghai City, the site’s main landmarks are the two Baroque-style buildings which were designed and purposely built for foreign expats as their recreational club in Shanghai almost a century ago. Known as Columbia Circle, it  had a golf course, swimming pool, tennis court, squash court, bowling alley and library, just to name a few.

A few years after it was built, Columbia Circle’s lead Hungarian designer built his own villa and garden on the site which was later transferred to Sun Ke, the grandson of the first president of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen. The villa was renamed as SunKe Villa and became part of the Columbia Circle.

The place was taken back by the government after the formation of the “new” China in 1953 and was given to the Shanghai

Institute of Biological Products as its manufacturing plant and offices. The entire place was then renamed Shang Sheng Suo.

The state-owned corporation thereafter added in a few more buildings to the site as business expanded, which included

Shanghai’s tallest building at that time, a 14-storey research and development centre.

In 2015, the Shanghai Institute of

Biological Products moved to a bigger site and called for tenders to rejuvenate the site. Property developer China Vanke Co sent in its proposal and won the tender over almost 30 other bidders.

Back to its former glory  

During a Malaysia media visit to Shang Sheng Xin Suo or New Shanghai Institute of Biological Products, the official name of the place now, a Vanke spokesperson explained that in a redevelopment project, the usual route taken would be to tear down the old structures and start from scratch or to renovate and modify the existing building structures. Rarely does a developer maintain the current building, but Vanke decided to do exactly that.

Vanke is one of the top developers in China. It is engaged in developing, managing and selling properties across more than 60 mainland Chinese cities, as well as overseas markets such as Hong Kong, USA, UK and Malaysia.

Vanke believes each building in Shanghai’s past plays an irreplaceable role in telling the city’s history. 

In fact, it was in support of the restoration and rejuvenation of the historical site that Vanke decided to participate in the Shang Sheng Xin Suo project redevelopment.

The restoration project began at the tail end of 2016. Being developed over two phases, the first phase involved 23,000 sq m (5.6 acres). After completion, it has been open to the public since May 2018. Meanwhile, the second phase, which includes the construction of new buildings and the restoration of the standalone SunKe villa and garden, is targeted to be completed by mid-2021. 

When asked, Vanke declined to disclose its total investment on the project but said the project is meaningful not because of its return on investment but because it contributes to the development of Shanghai city and the preservation of its unique history. 

“It has given the team great satisfaction to see how the completed first phase has successfully unlocked the value of the site while benefiting the neighbourhood, as the entire area surrounding it has become more lively,” said the spokesperson. 

The first phase of Shang Sheng Xin Suo saw the restoration of the two Baroque-style buildings as well as the research and development building, canteen and other smaller building structures erected by Shang Sheng Suo.

Today, the place has been turned into one of the most Instagram-able locations in Shanghai, thanks to the excellent restoration works done by the team.

Vanke explained that the core design concept of Shang Sheng Suo was to “restore it to its original state”.

While the facade of all the old building structures have been restored 100%, the team has put in a little bit extra by repurposing the spaces.

For example, the main hall of one of the  historical buildings has become a popular event space for a flea market and cultural events while the offices surrounding the swimming pool have been taken up by restaurants and the smaller buildings have become offices of innovative businesses such as co-working spaces and tech-related firms. The old football field is now a central park open to the public.

With its function diversified and upgraded, Vanke hopes the community would be able to enjoy some spillover benefits such as attracting more visitors to the Changning district, leading to more commercial opportunities for local businesses.

Vanke also purposefully planned the restored site to be 70% offices and 30% commercial and retail, hoping it will bring in more international corporations and brands that could give the old district an upgrade and greater vibrancy.

The 15 retail lots and 12 corporate office lots in the first phase have been fully occupied as at September 2019. Now it has a total of 27 tenants. Among the significant tenants here are international co-working space WeWork and virtual-effect technology firm owned by Hong Kong pop-star Nicholas Tse - Digital Domain. 

While Vanke continues with the second phase of Shang Sheng Xin Suo, the company said the second phase will have a similar proportion of offices and commercial spaces as the company has a very clear objective for this restoration project – to give the historical site a new lease of life.

This story first appeared in the pullout on Oct 25, 2019. You can access back issues here.

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