Darryl Chen, 27 07 08


[originally published in Architectural Review, Feb 2003]

Shanghai presents a unique almost control-model kind of urban subject matter among world metropolises. It is a city which after experiencing incredible economic prosperity through the turn of the nineteenth century froze its free market development under thirty years of failed socialist revolution, and then started again on an accelerating trajectory towards capitalist ideals. The city currently exists in a giddy state of equilibrium between government control and market forces, the monolithic state regime acting as a valve for releasing massive forces which would otherwise send the country into a multi-directional frenzy of socio-economic instability. It is an increasingly well-documented picture of intersecting sociological vectors and is clearly shown in urban form transforming so rapidly as to render it inapplicable to traditional static analysis. Visitors should be warned of making hasty conclusions about a city which lends itself too easily to cliche and whose presence in popular imagination is potently fuelled by a mythologized past.

The government continues to invest heavily in urban infrastructure — the kind of investment which represents the hardware of any global city. Since the early 1990s, which saw construction of overhead expressways and an underground transit network, the city has seen massive upgrades in its infrastructure — a fifth road bridge has just been completed over the Huangpu River with two new under-river tunnels under construction; the outer ringroad has recently been completed; the world’s first commercial magnetic levitation rail system will later this year link the new Pudong airport with the central city; US$3 billion has been allotted for the 2010 World Expo; and public green space is marked to triple per capita by 2020. These measures are accelerating the city into modernization and to some degree designed to impress a world audience. Whether the bureaucratic animal can manage the hardware and sustain modernization beyond the construction of bridges and subway lines is yet to be seen.

The most high-profile development in recent years has been Xintiandi. Here architects preserved and reconstructed two city blocks of shikumen (literally, ‘stone gate’) houses and opened a public spine through the middle to create a dining/retail/entertainment district capitalizing on the historic value of the distinctly Shanghainese building type. Xintiandi is a site rich in irony — here the city’s privileged classes dine on sushi adjacent to a house memorialized as the site of the Communist Party’s first congress. And while the project introduces quality urban public space to a city increasingly reliant on indoor shopping malls, it is a semi-private space under the burden of heavy automated surveillance and guards who will exclude shabby-looking locals. The development is but one stage of a massive urban intervention which sees neighbouring blocks to be developed with high-rise serviced apartments, luxury apartments, hotel and artificial lake. Preservation enthusiasts have largely been impressed with Xintia ndi, though the success of the project has inflated land values in the district and is leading to the quick demolition of neighbouring shikumen communities as property prices soar. It is an increasingly common condition of modern cities that historic conservation can only be successful when preservation goals are aligned with those of developers and inevitably those of the massive global tourism industry.

Traditional housing in Shanghai from the mid-nineteenth century consisted mostly of lilongs, or dense networks of connected two-storey buildings occupying a city block with shops fronting outwards onto public streets, and residences above accessed from internal alleyways. The term lilong refers to these alleyways which are first reached through gateways from main streets, and then are hierarchically organized through semi-public, semi-private and private lanes and courtyards throughout the block. The apparent lack of formalized public space in the history of Chinese architecture can be partially explained by this model — residents talk, cook, eat, wash anti play in these alleyways and form a strong social fabric which extends the nuclear family unit to a network of extended family and neighbours. This homogeneous mat of housing throughout the city was augmented with uniform medium-rise worker housing in the ’50s and ’60s. In recent years with wholesale razing of neighbourhoods for high-rise developments and transplanting entire communities to government subsidized housing on the city’s fringes (part of the massive shift towards private home ownership), comes the discontinuation of a way of life which gave at least a semblance of stability and security to the city’s inhabitants.

As regrettable as it is to see such lively urban fabric instantly erased, clearing such communities is an upgrading of the city’s amenities and marks just the latest wave of urban renewal. The low-rise clustered urban form was a result of developers in the late nineteenth century rushing to meet new housing demands in a city transforming itself from feudal village into modern city. At the onset of the Communist revolution, the state assumed ownership of land and enforced a collectivized model of living.

Municipal agencies have now identified nearly four hundred structures and 11 districts as ‘fine historic buildings and zones’, for example, detached garden houses in the former French concession. Such policy seeks to preserve an urban form unique among Chinese cities, though a clear strategy for their ownership, upkeep and protection has yet to be approved.

A parallel phenomenon to the displacement of lower class residents sees citizens from the burgeoning middle class renting closer to the centre of the city in a glut of residential apartment complexes. Developers have been having a field day buying rights and providing upmarket housing in the form of post-modern pastiches taking on such names as Versailles and the French Riviera. Further up the economic scale, developers are also pillaging the worst of Western sprawl with gated communities and suburban replica villages in far flung Pudong, Gubei and Hongqiao districts.

Exemplars of contemporary architecture are still mainly the domain of foreign architects — SOM, KPF, Jerde, Foster, MVRDV, Wood+Zapata, Arquitectonica and RTKL all have projects here, with Tange, Graves and many others well on the way. While the presence of foreign design expertise is upping the ante with local design institutes and contributing to an international standardized cityscape, these buildings with notable exceptions are largely singular monuments. Planning authorities, property developers and architects have rarely beneficially focused interests. The Lujiazui financial districts opposite the Bund and the rest of Pudong have succumbed to engineering-led urban planning and scaleless development parcels which leave little opportunity for an urbane pedestrian environment. Huaihai and Nanjing roads have developed as credible ‘market streets’ and their skylines have given hierarchy to the city’s urban form. As the public domain is upgraded and the built fabric stitched together over time, hopefully we will see a more legible environment for humans within this realm of isolated shopping malls and high-rise towers.

The urban architecture of Shanghai is the physical corollary of the paradoxes and conflicts in current political dogma, a turbulent modern history and an inherently flexible and resourceful people.

4 Comments

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  • 1. Allen Taylor  |  July 27th, 2008 at 12:00 pm

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    Allen Taylor

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  • 3. Kristina  |  February 7th, 2009 at 1:00 am

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  • 4. loan  |  October 11th, 2009 at 6:09 am

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