Go East

Go East

The towers of Pudong rise across the Huangpu River.
Courtesy Skyscraper Museum

China Prophecy: Shanghai
Skyscraper Museum
39 Battery Place
Through March 2010

During a visit to Shanghai in 2007, Paris Hilton—that noble sage of our times—gushed to reporters repeatedly throughout her visit that “Shanghai looks like the future!” This caused her quote to be splashed across headlines around the world, with the line often appearing next to photos of her eating dumplings in old tea houses, or wearing traditional Chinese qipaos while sauntering through historic villas.

I often wonder who gave Paris the idea that Shanghai was a futuristic place, especially since she spent most of her time in the city’s historic core and colonial districts. This duality of Shanghai is ever-present, because despite the art deco villas, old Chinese lane houses, and omnipresent bicycles, the city currently enjoys an image in the popular culture as a place of Dubai-esque urban ambitions.

The once and future shanghai skyline. 
courtesy skyscraper museum

China Prophesy: Shanghai, a show curated by Carol Willis at the Skyscraper Museum, threatens to deliver just that image, but ends up giving so much more. The last in a series that earlier focused on New York and Hong Kong, the core of the show consists of three super-tall skyscrapers designed for Luijiazui, the new commercial epicenter in Shanghai’s Pudong, or “east of the river,” district.

In the early 1990s, when the city government was developing this farmland tract across from the city’s historic riverfront Bund district, it decided that three mega-tall skyscrapers would rise, each successively taller than the other, in a spiral-like arrangement. In 1998, Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed the 370-meter (1,214 feet) Jinmao Tower, while Bill Pedersen’s Shanghai World Financial Center, completed last year, reached a height of 492 meters (1,614 feet). In 2014, Gensler’s Shanghai Tower will rise to a height of 632 meters (2,073 feet).

China Prophesy is an excellent show, not simply because it tallies up the building heights. It doesn’t feed the stereotypical image of Shanghai. Instead, the exhibition is thorough, incredibly well researched, and surprisingly balanced. I say “surprising,” because for an exhibition on Shanghai skyscrapers, there’s an awful lot of consideration given to the historic development of the city by the British and the French in its colonial era, and to the sweeping governmental policy changes in the 1980s and ‘90s that have brought about these colossal corporate and civic monuments. That’s the right way to do it, and is also what makes this exhibition—small in size but not in stature—a truly exceptional study of Shanghai as it relates to the world landscape.

Willis presents a few practical but essential visuals, including two wall-sized aerial views of Manhattan and Shanghai, images that face each other and offer a basis for understanding the cities’ respective geographies. Other well-placed gems include a glimpse of the now-discarded masterplan by Richard Rogers for the Pudong area, and American architect Ben Wood’s transcendent question, scribbled in his plan for Xintiandi, “What is Chinese?”

Pudong’s trio of towers, including KPF’s Shanghai World Financial Center (right), completed last year. Gensler’s Shanghai Tower (left) will rise to 2,073 feet, dwarfing SOM’s Jinmao tower (center).

Courtesy Skyscraper Museum

What a treat to see Shanghai juxtaposed against New York, because the comparisons are spot-on. Even if you weren’t a New Yorker living in Shanghai as I am, New York has always been the standard for a classic skyscraper city, and the city to which many cities already compare themselves. My favorite moments of the show include a scale model of John Portman’s Deathstar-esque Tomorrow Square shown with a charcoal Hugh Ferriss etching in the background, or KPF’s mixed-use Jing An Kerry Centre with another charcoal etching of Rockefeller Center in the background. History and lineage are paramount here.

Knowingly or unknowingly, these references have always lurked in the background of Shanghai’s urban development. After all, many of the prominent buildings on the 1930s Bund were built in the same stylistic language of 1930s New York. If all the architects working in the city today shared Willis’ mastery of both history and contemporary design, Shanghai would indeed represent a more complex and layered vision of the future.