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September 1, 2009
by Bill Millard

Exhibition: “China Prophecy: Shanghai” (through 03.2010)
Location: Skyscraper Museum

NY-China

“New York 1999,” New York World, December 30, 1900 (left); Lujiazui trio, Gensler.

Courtesy Skyscraper Museum

The third exhibition in the Skyscraper Museum’s “Future City 20 | 21” series explores the idea that China’s largest city may be to the next century what New York was to the last. “If you think of New York as a predictor, it predicted Hong Kong perfectly,” says museum director Carol Willis. “The question is, what’s the 21st century’s future city?” “China Prophecy: Shanghai” suggests that a new kind of city on an unprecedented scale will be the urban model of the future, as influential in its approaches to density, planning, and design as New York once was (and, in some quarters, arguably remains), while growing at a pace that’s distinctly Chinese.

Shanghai is home to 18 million people, including 10 million in Puxi, its historic core area one third the size of New York, and some 3 million “floating” or non-registered migrants; considering the influx from rural regions, some demographers project expansion to 23 million by 2020. Rapid expansion, naturally, means aggressive urbanization. Traditional lilong lanes and shikumen housing in much of the city have given way to high- or mid-rises.

The Pudong New Area — a stretch of waterfront and countryside across the Huangpu River from Puxi — now hosts the Lujiazui financial district and its exuberant icons, including the rocketlike Oriental Pearl television tower (a local equivalent of the Eiffel Tower), designed by Shanghai Modern Architectural Design Co., and two of the world’s top 10 supertall towers (about to be joined by a third). The three largest skyscrapers, says Willis, express Shanghai city leaders’ sense of the past, present, and future: respectively, the Jin Mao tower’s pagoda-like geometries by SOM’s Chicago office, the contemporary modernism of Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) and Leslie Robertson’s World Financial Center, and the twisting, segmented, biomorphic Shanghai Tower, a 128-story Gensler design that, when completed, will mark China’s place in the age of green building technologies.

Models and diagrams of these, KPF’s Jing An complex, John Portman’s mixed-use Tomorrow Square, the Xintiandi and Rockbund preservation/reclamation projects, and others offer details on the buildings’ structures, design evolution, and urban roles.

Three main models of urbanization, Willis says, characterize today’s Shanghai: patchwork modernization in the Puxi core, a commercial incursion of self-contained high-rises into the two-story, pedestrian-scale city fabric; superblocks with supertowers, executed by decree according to the master plan for Pudong, often surrounded by green space as separate islands with little street-level life nearby; and historic preservation with adaptive re-use, as in developer Vincent Lo’s Xintiandi (“New Heaven and Earth”), a car-free entertainment district of restored shikumen. Here, architect Benjamin Wood developed new variations on the lilong street form, hybridized with modern infrastructure and program.

Shanghai, like New York before it, is adopting modernity’s vertical and horizontal transformative technologies, but on a larger scale and several times as fast. Processes that took New York roughly from 1880 to 1930, Willis says, are occurring in Shanghai within 10 years, and a full century’s worth of development and acculturation here has shoehorned there into less than three decades. China has the advantage of modernizing at a point when ecological knowledge is far greater than when America was undergoing similar change, but Shanghai may not dodge the bullet of aggressive automobilization to the same extent New York did. With a far higher national savings rate, Willis notes, construction is unlikely to stop booming despite global recession. It’s possible that both American successes and American errors will find echoes there.

“China Prophecy” is evolving during its long run through next March: it will soon add a wooden scale model of the Lujiazui district, and a lecture/panel series featuring American architects with major Shanghai projects will begin in October. Along with models and other static visual elements, an animation by Crystal CG places newly planned buildings within their urban context, suggesting that the 2010 World Expo (“Better City, Better Life”) may situate Shanghai as tomorrow’s global utopia, much as the 1939 World’s Fair did for New York.

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