Sometimes buildings reveal the complex relationships between seemingly allied nations. Originally known as the "Palace of Sino-Soviet Friendship", the Shanghai Exhibition Center is one of these ambiguous monuments.
The construction of this vast complex was decided in 1953. Mao had just founded the People's Republic of China four years before. To him, showing the triumph of communism should be done as soon as possible with new large buildings in the most important Chinese cities. If the country didn’t lack good architects, the Chinese architecture became for a while depending of the bulky Soviet influence. Stalin took advantage of Mao's feigned reverence to send him many technical advisers. So, the construction of this monument was presented by Moscow as a gift from the USSR to the PRC.
The two governments have carefully chosen the authors of this facility, intended to convince the people of the communism superiority – therefore politically essential to display the supposed firmness of the alliance between these regimes!
The Russian side selected Viktor Andreev (1905-1988). This professor at the Moscow Institute of Architecture had previously cooperated in the construction of the Center for Economic Achievement in Moscow. In addition, he had just built the USSR pavilion at the 1952 Vienna exhibition. This work testified to his constructive talents as well as his ability to deal with the propaganda purposes. Staying somewhat in Andreev’s shadow, his wife, Kaleria Kisalova (1918-1989) actively cooperated to each of these buildings.
To help carry out the Russian-designed project, the Chinese side mobilized Chen Zhi (1902-2001), Wang Dingzeng (1913- ?), and Cai Xianyu (?- ?). If unfortunately little biographical information is available on these builders, nevertheless they were trained in the USA during the interwar period. This Shanghai Exhibition Center brings together seasoned servants of the Soviet regime, with local technicians who also have solid international experience. But the work between the Russians and the Chinese was not necessarily harmonious!
For example, Andreev had originally planned to build a tower inspired by traditional Chinese pagodas. This wasn’t really appreciated by his colleagues on the spot, because this idea reminded them too much of the Ming imperial past... Above all, this kind of building had already been done by the nationalists, recently defeated by the Mao regime. Here, Stalinist logic citing ancient cultures (thus putting them at the service of communism), stumbled over the embarrassment of the Chinese vis-à-vis their own heritage.
In addition to sharp stylistic disagreements, the team dealt with linguistic misunderstandings. A mistake made by a Soviet engineer prompted the Chinese to speed up the finalization of the drawings, and to start construction early before the agreed timetable… Despite these misadventures and economic difficulties, the work was carried out with remarkable speed: the complex was completed in just ten months. With a spire of 131 meters, a total surface area exceeding 18,000 m2, and the use of numerous decorative marbles, this was an extraordinary achievement.
The grid plan allowed great ease of movement: something essential for the building good use. This spatial organization also helped to design large façades, its monumentality underlined by porticos connecting the different wings together. It reveals Andreev’s experience in exhibition centers architecture, and his mastery of optical tricks to accentuate the monument majesty.
The central pavilion was designed to attract maximum attention. The tower with a colonnade and a long spire is inspired of the Saint Petersburg Admiralty, built during the first years of the 19th century. For the Russians, it was obviously a patriotic quote. While Andreev was building his Chinese work, in the USSR his colleague Iouri Chtchouko (1905-1960) built the central pavilion of the VDNKh in Moscow according to the same logic. Boris Jejerin (1912-2006) used a similar formula for the smallest central pavilion at the national exhibition in Kiev. The use of the Admiralty ultimately gave a certain strangeness to the Stalinist exhibition pavilions, with their appearance of mini skyscrapers... This architectural oddity (a very high spire on a fairly massive building) did not prevent the Russians from design real skyscrapers. For instance, the Ukraïnia Hotel, built on 1953 by Arkadi Mordvinov (1896-1964). He also uses the Stalinist architectural cliché of the Admiralty-like spire.
Actually Andreev’s work remains very strange in the Chinese cultural landscape, definitely appearing to be a foreign export to his host environment. In order to compensate for the undeniable Western classicism, special attention was given to the Chinese design of many details. Here also it was a kind of Stalinist orientalism, thinking of enslaving Chinese culture to its universalist propaganda. This idea results in a fascinating ornamental sumptuousness. Sometimes the charm of the decor seduces. Other elements are bordering on kitsch. The balance between elegance and ostentation is so fragile to achieve!
When it was finished, the style of the monument was already seen as old-fashioned in the USSR. The new Kremlin master vilified the work of Stalin's architects for flattering the dictator megalomaniacal pride. However, the PRC stayed away from these convictions mixing aesthetic discredit and political damnatio memoriae.
In addition, relations between Moscow and Beijing were starting to strain. If Mao still needed Soviet technicians, he did not intend to follow his Soviet partner in his change of ideological direction. On the other hand, while the Kremlin was shaming builders like Andreev, the Maoist power continued to mix classicism and national style.
Finally, as traps were multiplied around him, Andreev remained the most active Russian architect in China. In addition to the Shanghai exhibition center, in 1954 he built a similar facility in Beijing. It also has a tower very reminiscent of the Vienna pavilion. Tireless, he signed the USSR Embassy in Beijing the same year. In return, the Chinese asked him in 1956 to build the PRC Embassy in Moscow.
His achievements bear witness to the short period in which the Soviet and Chinese leaders engaged in a dangerous political dance, alternating between a desire for seduction and a will to conquer. In this way the Shanghai Exhibition Center appears as a sumptuous twilight for the Stalinist architecture, and as an irresistible cultural eccentricity in China... A magnificent monumental vestige of an entente cordiale quickly buried.