Like Chicago when it was young, Shanghai is building fast. Now its leaders have given themselves a sharp deadline-the 2010 World Expo-to make a distinctive architectural mark to go along with a large concrete footprint. Among the projects of interest are three by major Chicago firms, which, in their quest to create world-class architecture in one of the planet’s busiest construction zones, face capricious clients, impenetrable public officialdom, and engineers left over from the Cultural Revolution.

Shanghai Grand Center (2008)
Project specs: A 40-story tower with 1.1 million square feet of office, lobby, and atrium space.
Special features: A concrete core/steel frame enveloped by a glass curtain wall, which features operable windows for the free circulation of fresh air.
Backstory: When complete, Shanghai Grand Center will stand near the end of Century Boulevard, a Chinese Champs Élysées that bisects the New Pudong financial district. After Shanghai Grand developers deemed designs by other architects to be unsuitable, they approached architect Adrian Smith, whose Jin Mao Tower a few blocks away (completed in 1998) is still the skyscraper against which all others in China are judged. Smith heard a simple message: his clients wanted a profitable building but also pizzazz. Smith says that his design has “gardens in the sky,” or large atrium spaces on the corners. The architect calls it “restrained” and “quiet” in the context of Shanghai. “But when I say ‘quiet,’ this design would be positively exuberant if it were in Chicago.”
Shanghai Lujiazui Diamond Tower (2009)
Project specs: Commissioned by a consortium of diamond merchants, the 15-story building will offer 535,500 square feet of office space, half for the local “diamond exchange,” half for rent-paying tenants.
Special features: A concrete core, steel frame, aluminum-and-glass curtain wall, and atrium wall of cable-supported glass.
Back-story: Also located on Century Boulevard, Goettsch Partners’ first venture in Shanghai features a fritted-glass screen to diffuse light in places where diamond wares will be displayed. Diamond Tower’s corners house stairways and elevators, eliminating privileged corner offices-a not-so-common egalitarian impulse in the new Shanghai. Metal trusswork over the atrium exhibits a diamond pattern when viewed from beneath. “One thing the Chinese definitely like is strong symbolism,” says architect Jim Goettsch.

New International Exposition Center (2001-10)

Project specs: A work in progress, architect Helmut Jahn’s design calls for 18 pavilions, three glassy entry halls, and some two million square feet of exhibition space.
Special features: Columnless clearspan space-72 meters wide in each pavilion-created by Jahn and a frequent collaborator, the German structural engineer Werner Sobek.
Backstory: Murphy/Jahn were the hands-on architects in the first phase, completed in 2001; later pavilions have been built using Jahn’s design template, but executed by Chinese firms. This situation-not particularly pleasing to the Chicago firm-comes as no great surprise. It reflects two strong tendencies in China: the development of homegrown architects, and, second, the fact that in China the rights to intellectual property are neither ironclad nor well understood. The sad outcome, says the architect, is that construction doesn’t meet U.S. or European standards. “You lose total control over your project in China,” complains Jahn. He adds that he’s in no hurry to take a big job there again.

Illustrations: Shanghai Grand Center Courtesy Of Skidmore, Owings And Merrill, Shanghai Lujiazui Diamond Tower Courtesy Of Goettsch Partners, New International Exposition Center Doug Snower