What's the big ideal? Shanghai's skyscrapers, foreign influence, Chinese tradition and hypermodernity

by Michaela Kron
Posted: November 17th, 2010 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Pudong at Night In the first of a series on contemporary Shanghai architecture, Michaela Kron takes a closer look at Shanghai's super-tall (and getting taller) skyline. Long famous for foreign concession-era Art Deco and Neoclassical buildings that speak of a past replete with "unequal treaties" and Western economic dominance, 21st century Shanghai has a few new things to say about the relationships between architecture, power and influence... and the world is definitely listening. But what, exactly, is the message? >>> Since coming to Shanghai, I've heard all sorts of things about the city. "Shanghai isn't the real China." "It's the Paris of the East." "Shanghai's architecture is all pretty much borrowed." Are these statements completely hackneyed and clichéd? Do I really need to answer that? These claims do, however, refer to an important idea, and that's the magnitude of foreign influence in Shanghai's past and present, which just can't be ignored. I've been to the Bund and the former French Concession, where the European influences are more obvious than gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. But I've also seen Lujiazui in Pudong, where skyscrapers such as the flashy Oriental Pearl Tower, the pagoda-like Jin Mao Tower, and the ultramodern Shanghai World Financial Center dominate the skyline. [pullquote]...a rocket ship, pagoda, and bottle opener in the form of skyscrapers? All in the same place?[/pullquote] It is in Pudong where Shanghai's foreign influence is perhaps less blatant but still very much present (at least in terms of architecture). Both the Jin Mao Tower and SWFC were designed by American-based architecture firms, yet they retain certain traditional Chinese elements, even as symbols of hypermodernity; the Jin Mao Tower resembles a pagoda and its 88 stories reflect the idea that eight is a lucky number in China, and the aperture at the top of the SWFC is meant to evoke a moon gate, a popular element of traditional Chinese architecture. When I saw these structures up close, along with the Oriental Pearl Tower nearby, I was mesmerized. A rocket ship, pagoda, and bottle opener in the form of skyscrapers? All in the same place? It all adds up to an eyeful of eclectic hypermodernity—urban development at its fastest, and it's not even close to being finished.... It is this fascination with Shanghai's architecture that has led me to focus on some of the city's most iconic structures for a research proposal I'm completing for one of my classes at NYU in Shanghai. The course, taught by Dr. Anna Greenspan and titled "Global Connections: Shanghai," aims to examine Shanghai's development in the context of globalization, and for the assigned research project, I am consulting both primary and secondary sources to acquire in-depth knowledge of the foreign influences in the design of Shanghai's major skyscrapers. Specifically, I'm focusing on the Jin Mao Tower, the SWFC, and the Shanghai Tower, which will be completed in 2014 and will be the world's third-tallest building. Pudong's Skyscrapers What is perhaps most intriguing about these towers is that once the Shanghai Tower is built, they will make up a trio of supertall skyscrapers, buildings that can be considered monuments to the global economy and symbolize Shanghai's ever-evolving role as a global city—and China's as a world power. To the casual observer, it might seem a bit of a stretch to think that towers have that sort of capability, right? After all, they're simply skyscrapers like so many others in dozens of other major metropolises worldwide, right? Not so, according to Koon Wee, the academic director of the architecture program at the Hong Kong University Shanghai Study Centre. In an interview I recently conducted with him, Koon referenced an interesting idea set forth by MADA s.p.a.m., a Chinese architecture firm: any building below 20 meters signifies realism, and any building above 20 meters signifies idealism. Given Shanghai's new skyline, that's a lot of idealism. The next question might be: What is that idealism all about? What are the intended messages, and to whom are they directed? Indeed, with each major architectural project, Shanghai is growing taller, which says a great deal about the direction the city is going in. Idealistic or not, Shanghai's skyscrapers are recognized worldwide. They each showcase their own identities and scream their own messages, and with each new tower, the messages become louder and louder. As I continue, I intend to get a better sense of how these buildings, with their unique messages, have come to represent Shanghai—and China as a whole—to the rest of the world. I also intend to learn more about deeper cultural meanings that are reflected in their glistening facades. If you've got your own opinion on the matter, feel free to comment below, and stay tuned for future posts on Shanghai's biggest buildings—present and future—and what they have to say about the way China sees the world, and the world sees China.
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