Architecture: In With the Old in Shanghai

This year rings in the Chinese year of the bull—a good marketing hook for an old Shanghai slaughterhouse turned art hub. Constructed in its namesake year, 1933 was built from Portsmouth concrete imported from the U.K. and decorated with an art deco façade and Moorish dome. Along with many other state-run factories and warehouses, the building fell into disuse as the government pushed industry to the city's outskirts in the decades following China's economic reform and opening up. But in 2007, Paul Liu, former executive director of one of Shanghai's premiere shopping and dining destinations, Three on the Bund, took up the restoration charge, backed by the district government. Today, the pens that held livestock house cafés, art galleries and offices. A spacious circular area on the top floor has been turned into a theater with an oculus, and celebrity chef David Laris plans to open a steakhouse—called Maverick—later this year.

Liu represents a new breed of developer who recognizes the value of old Shanghai architecture. They have transformed warehouses into rock-and-roll clubs, flour mills into art galleries and longtangs—traditional alley neighborhoods—into shopping malls, simultaneously preserving Shanghai's heritage while advancing its status as a center of cutting-edge cool. And they have arrived just in the nick of time; as in Beijing, where massive swaths of the old city were torn down in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, municipal planners in Shanghai have demolished 18,000 residences over a 5.28-square-kilometer area to develop grounds for the World Expo, which the city plans to host in 2010.

Now, in the competition for municipal and overseas investment, a new slate of district-level officials is reaching back into history. Working with the Shanghai Creative Industry Center (SCIC), a government-supported private enterprise that helps identify and promote "creative industry clusters," district governments have raised the incentive for preservation by offering tax breaks and rent cuts for the repurposing of old buildings. It remains to be seen whether they will ultimately salvage entire historic neighborhoods; in Shanghai, as elsewhere in China, urban planning is a tenuous waiting game with seemingly arbitrary rules. As soon as officials decide to protect one street, they tear down six blocks behind it. But one thing is clear: the itchy TNT trigger finger has been given pause as officials adopt a long view of the city's urban identity. "Shanghai aims to move away from manufacturing toward innovation," says Charlie Q.L. Xue, a fellow at the Architectural Society of China and the author of "Building a Revolution: Chinese Architecture Since 1980."

Officials like Sun Jiwei, the current governor of Jiading district, have taken this mission seriously. After successfully overseeing the construction of Xintiandi, a swish mall designed in traditional shikumen (stone gate) style that is often cited as a progenitor of the trend, Sun tackled the dusty suburb of Qingpu district, revitalizing Ming and Qing dynasty bridges and gardens and transforming it into a major tourist destination. Unlike their predecessors, Sun and his peers came of age in a more open environment and received formal education in architecture and urban planning, allowing them to "see the value of historical buildings," says Xue.

Private entrepreneurs also appreciate the possibilities, and take particular delight in revamping old socialist structures. On Yanping Road, in the middle of bustling Jing'an district, boxy former communist-era factories house the 98 Creative Zone, one of the SCIC's 75 official "creative industry clusters." Among its tenants: One Wellness, the first carbon-neutral gym in Asia, and the second in the world. Even after decades of neglect, the potential of the original cedar-and-pine roof of the former produce market enticed developers. They replaced rotten beams with wood from demolished longtangs, filling in two floors with state-of-the-art exercise equipment and chill-out zones equipped with Wi-Fi.

Projects like these have made Jing'an a district to watch. Nearby, the old Jiangning Cinema—one of the first theaters to open in Shanghai after Mao took power—has been reincarnated as the Ivy Hotel. Developed by Thailand's Cyrus Hotels & Resorts and designed by Dillon Garris, who also dressed up Hong Kong's five-star Shama serviced apartments, the Ivy offers 46 rooms with custom-made furniture and intriguing details, such as round doors and latticed windows. Elements of the theater's proletariat past—a tongue-in-cheek army camouflage exterior, Mao kitsch and a socialist film library, for instance—meet playfully with tributes to Shanghai's more glamorous jazz age, such as mammoth chandeliers.

From the same era, the old Shanghai No. 10 Steel Factory, built in 1956 and located in the Changning district, has been reborn as the Shanghai Sculpture Space. Sculptures from China and around the world pose on the wide green lawn, sit pensively in an indoor pit, and dip and dance from the ceiling. The expansive red brick building houses art galleries, design studios and cafés, as well as exhibition space.

Even bomb shelters have found a second life in Shanghai. From the 1930s, when Japan stepped up its aggression against the city, through the later years of China's civil war and the Cold War era, anti–air-raid committees dug thousands of bomb shelters. Today, two of them function as nightclubs. At the Shelter, a sparse space down a spooky, winding tunnel, Chinese and Japanese musicians perform in harmony. And at Shanghai Studio, which also houses an arty men's underwear shop, bartenders serve up stiff drinks in a mod bar–cum–art gallery.

Body & Soul Yoga Studio further reflects the city's multicultural flavor. At the turn of the 20th century, Jewish immigrants arrived from Bombay and Baghdad and settled in a residential neighborhood called Pacific Gardens. One hundred years later, Indian gentiles have come to teach yoga at a renovated merchant's home, just down the road from the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, where Jews worshiped from 1920 to 1952.

More projects are on tap. Hongkou district plans to transform the city's first auto parts plant into a 40,000-square-meter trade center for renewable-energy businesses, while Huangpu district will convert an old motorcycle factory into a showcase arena for luxury brands. There's no better symbolism for a city turning to its past to keep its economic engine humming.