One hundred years ago in 1912, a young architect was assigned from Hong Kong to Shanghai to expand business for his agency. With talent and luck, he got a project, executed it superbly and thus won a galaxy of notable projects, most of which are still glistening on the crescent Bund.
The architect was George Leopold Wilson, then 32, from Messrs Palmer & Turner Co. And the first project that brought him good fortune was the Union Building, widely known today as Three on the Bund.
In 1916 the Far Eastern Review newspaper called the six-story building one of the most noteworthy advances in construction and design in Shanghai - it used a steel skeleton, a technological advance that would make skyscrapers possible.
"The lines of the building are beautiful and the structure is graceful in the extreme, forming a noteworthy monument to the skill of the architects, Messrs Palmer and Turner," it said.
Even the blueprint showed a distinctive structure, notes Shanghai Tongji University Professor Qian Zonghao.
"With a corner tower topped by golden argosy weather vane 150 feet (45.72m) above the ground, the edifice is built with skeletal steel framework, a bold new technique which was used in Shanghai for the first time," Qian says.
He defined the style as "free Renaissance," marked by vertical lines expressing the skeleton construction.
According to Lou Chenghao's new book "Shanghai's Architects and Builders 1840-1949," the edifice 46 meters high was the tallest building in the city of then. The previous record was held by the 40-meter-high, Song Dynasty (960-1279) Longhua Pagoda for more than 1,000 years. Before the Union Building, the tallest structure on the Bund was the former Palace Hotel.
Three on the Bund was the first Bund building to be renovated for commercial use - a hub of high-end restaurants, luxury shops, spa and art gallery. Like the Xintiandi project, the renovation that began in 2001 was controversial because it dramatically altered the original interior. Tourists and merchants loved it while preservationists disliked it and believed it opened a kind of Pandora's box bringing "mercantilism" back to the Bund.
In the book "Images and Legends of the Shanghai Bund" (2008), local writer Chen Danyan recalled the only party held on the empty plaza right before renovation began.
"The empty building was full of the smells of cold concrete and lime powder, which mingled with the aroma of fresh basil and melting cheese from a Hilton hotel buffet serving here, and a variety of fragrance from the bodies of guests," she wrote.
"In the mixture of smells, the Bund was awake. Her thirst for money and gold, spirit of adventure and ambition to seize and develop in a heartless way, all woke up."
Dating back to the 1910s, the ground, first, second, third and fourth floors were leased out as offices, part of the first floor being occupied by the Union Insurance Society, the owners of the building.
On the fifth floor were residential flats of the highest class, with roof gardens on the flat concrete roof. These flats command a magnificent view of the river and of Shanghai. The height ensured coolness and quietness, a treasure to enjoy in a city with hot summers and without air-conditioners.
With windows on three sides, the office on the ground floor, which had been taken by an American import and export house, was the largest single office without dividing walls in Shanghai.
The building is also known for one of its former tenants, the Mercantile Bank of India, whose Chinese name You Li was used as the building's name.
In 1941 Japanese invaders occupied the building. The bank restarted business four years later but retreated from China in 1949. In 1953 another legendary architect moved to work in the building, Chen Zhi, director of the Civil Design Institute of Shanghai. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania from the United States, the man was among the first to record and preserve the city's historical buildings after the 1950s.
"The plinth of the building is of granite, the remainder of the filling walls being of brickwork finished with an artificial stone facing," Professor Qian says. "The principal entrance was flanked by massive granite columns with carved pediments, leading to an imposing entrance hall. It is really the first masterpiece of Palmer & Turner in Shanghai."
Founded by William Salway in 1868 in Hong Kong, Palmer & Turner had a Chinese name "Ba Ma Dan Na," a Cantonese translation of its English name. As soon as the Union Building was completed, the firm moved its Shanghai office in, created a nice Mandarin name "Kung-woo," or "Fair and Harmonious" and developed dramatically in this "Paris on the Wangpoo (Huangpu) River."
Within decades the company created more than 30 excellent structures in Shanghai, including eight of the 23 waterfront Bund buildings, such as the HSBC Building and the Sassoon House. After 60 years' absence from the city since World War II, the company made its way back to Shanghai, having designed new skyscrapers since the 1990s including the Raffles City Shanghai and One Park Avenue.
"When we came here, we introduced ourselves as ?Kung-woo' and people here all were familiar with this name," says architect Lee Kian Siew from Palmer & Turner Consultants (Shanghai) Ltd, who, like Wilson, was sent from Hong Kong to expand business in Shanghai in the early 1990s.
"We have seen the opportunity and the Shanghai office has grown from 20 to 200 employees today," Lee says.
According to Wu Jiang's book "A History of Shanghai Architecture 1840-1949" (2008), Palmer & Turner grew to be the largest and most important architecture design firm in Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s. Their works were almost a mini collection of the Shanghai architectural scene. And it seems that the history-rich firm had picked the right time to open a Shanghai office twice within 100 years.
NO. 3 on the bund
Yesterday: The Union Building
Present: Three on the Bund
Address: 3 Zhongshan Road E1, by Guangdong Road
Architectural style: Free Renaissance
Designer: Palmer & Turner
Admission: Visitors can see each commercial floor. I suggest going onto the balcony for a drink where one can look up to see the stunning corner tower and overlook a perfect skyline dotted with three famous roofs of the Bund - the former HSBC Building, the Customs House and the Sassoon House, all of which were designed by Palmer & Turner.