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“…Writing complex history and politics is definitely not easy. Reading

several of Non Arkaraprasertkul’s publications both in English and Thai in the last
few years has proven that it is possible to make these topics both interesting and
informative. His latest book Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form is
not an exception.

His curiosity about places, peoples and cultures is extraordinary and

matched so well with his capacity to ‘map’ complexities of history, urban
geography, physicality and politics with a simple discourse that is easy to follow.
He convinces us to see multiple layers of local realities beyond the ‘western’
perspectives on the global city of Shanghai. He describes the making of this
cosmopolitan city can complete in a globalized economic context despite its
fragmented urban fabric. It has undergone significant crisis, through challenges
from semi-colonialism, socio-political collapse by war and lack of coordination in
the planning process. Interestingly, the author suggests that the selling point of
Shanghai’s tourism in the early twentieth century was the elegant image that
replicated ‘western’ neo-classical styles. However, he proposes that a new Chinese
identity can actually be enhanced through a mixture of diversified sub-cultures on
Shanghai’s streetscapes. This book clearly points out that the absence of human
scale in the city streetscapes can diminish contact, the sense of security and the
pedestrian energy level of the city. In general, it answers two simple questions: how
a ‘global metropolis’, in particular Shanghai, is defined and transformed, and what
is to be expected from its changing images or representations. It is therefore
worthwhile to read this book especially as a case study for those policymakers,
urban planners, urban designers, architects, academics and scholars who would be
keen to learn more about urbanism of the global cities through different lenses in
order to see hidden dimensions. The Chinese largest urban ‘global village’ of
Shanghai has more historical complexity and dynamic development than arguably
any other world city in this century. For those wishing to broaden their
perspectives on all these issues, I highly recommend this book.”

Dr Polladach Theerapappisit
Lecturer and Course Advisor, School of Social Sciences
The University of Western Sydney, Australia


“Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form offers a well-thought-out

perspective in understanding the amazing transformation of urban Shanghai.
Having been a short-term visitor to Shanghai and overwhelmed as most, the book
offered me a framework for understanding what I have experienced and a platform
for exploring contemporary city questions. The historic Bund – lively, and with
fear of being run over by the traffic – and the dull Pudong New Development –
offers an intriguing comparison and an effective way of summarizing the new
urban China. My stay was short, and my background is curiosity in how and
where people live in cities, but clearly city centers give the starting point, the image
and the tone of a city. But this understanding brings new questions and issues for

One wonders if the need for Shanghai to build a bigger Bund to herald its
arrival as a world city is a missed opportunity: it is a dynamic city of the present
but not a city of the future. The Bund was built before the internet, e-commerce,
and all the other technological wonders which question the need for a center as in
the past. Symbolic importance still remains in the more traditional sense, but the
need for proximity as a guiding principle is being increasingly questioned. The
time traveler today may see nothing particularly new in Shanghai, but perhaps
things that are only bigger and more grandiose. Shanghai had the opportunity to
demonstrate the future, instead of flaunting its newly acquired economic prowess
through a ‘the same but one better’ approach. The bigger high-rises, the more
advanced faster trains do not signal new concepts of city development.

One wonders if the current ‘tremendously dull atmosphere’ that confronted

the time traveler in Pudong is only a temporary state. As the traveler continues
onward in his journey, he may be confronted with a different Shanghai entirely. It
is unlikely that the city will stagnate, and new uses with new responses to urban
form most likely would take over – cities, as nature, abhor a vacuum. We read that
the Bund was built over a longer period which offered flexibility to respond to
changing circumstances and adjust to needs. Pudong is instant – it is a ‘one-shot’
effort, with little time to adjust while being developed – it is a belief in knowing
what is right and doing it. Could Shanghai be compared to a Disneyland with its
attempt at a better-than-real-life reproduction of reality?

One wonders if the same energy as seen in the center would have been
applied to housing. Housing represents the largest sector of a city, and has been
problematic historically as cities have growth rapidly from new economic realities.
Similar rapidly growing cities in history and today in the Third World exhibit vast
uncontrolled expanses of informal housing in accommodating growth – often as
squatters – which seems to have been avoided in Shanghai. One is so overwhelmed
by the center that the outer lying housing areas are forgotten, as the debate over the
spectacular center dominates.

One wonders if time is the critical factor – where we stand, and from what
time we observe offers only one perspective. We tend to look at things as a
‘snapshot’ as a key to understanding, and at great risk we look beyond as images of
the future. What would the future Pudong bring as it adjusts to real needs of the
city instead of symbolic imagery? As Shanghai matures, would the now dull and
often-unoccupied high-rise areas become vibrant with new energy and uses?
Would Shanghai fulfill its desire a vibrant model city?

Lastly, one wonders why Shanghai has chosen the European/North

American model for emulation, turning its back on its own rich culture. The need
to mimic and to do it bigger is more an element of insecurity than strength.

The book is an excellent foundation for exploring contemporary city-

building issues. Shanghai is unparalleled in growth and grandeur, and it is truly a
Global City, but of the past and not the future. It offers a clear lesson for
architects and urban planners: nothing is static, and the past, present and future
must be considered simultaneously when building cities. Flexibility with the
ability to adjust as circumstances change is the imperative. We cannot know the
future, but we should not be rigid as we embrace the present. The design challenge
is a city that responds and dominates the present, while allowing the unknowing
future with grace.”

Dr-Ing Reinhard Goethert

Director, Special Interest Group in Urban Settlement (SIGUS)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


“This book is a timely and intelligent examination of Shanghai’s recent

urban transformations. Shanghai is a city whose efforts to reintegrate itself into the
global economy have seen the use of built form as a form of cultural construction,
one that seems to represent the conspicuous consumption of global elite. Beginning
with the questioning of the very conception of a hybrid urban city, this
examination of Shanghai’s urban transformation asks how the politics of built form
can impact such a transformation. Integrating theoretical research, architectural
knowledge, and on-the-ground fieldwork, this insightful and thought-provoking
work seeks to understand the phenomenon of how the global market is being
utilized through the combination of an assimilated industrialized cityscape, as well
as through the startling industriousness of Chinese pragmatism. The book’s three
parts set out its research methodology before going on to examine the importance
of the politicization of the built form of the city. It ends with a reappraisal of the
research findings using the politics of built form as a framework. Any attempt to
understand the urbanism of Shanghai, or indeed any phenomenon in modern-day
China, is going to require an understanding of the Chinese language – this book
not only shows this, it even provides a helpful glossary of Chinese terms, something
that reflects the author’s own Thai-Chinese roots.”

Dr Gregory Bracken
Lecturer in Asian Urbanism, Delft School of Design
TU Delft Architecture Faculty, The Netherlands
C-editor of the Spring issue of the ‘Footprint’ E-Journal.


“…There is a lovely article that I would like to introduce here [the third
chapter of the book]. Non Arkaraprasertkul analyses the Pudong area in Shanghai.
From a distance the highrises blend together into a lively modern skyline,
Arkaraprasertkul writes. On the ground however the Pudong area is deserted. It is
lifeless. In the urban plan the central avenue (as wide as the Champs Elysee plus one
meter) is lined with lower buildings, pushing the skyscrapers backwards. In reality
though, the freestanding skyscrapers don’t line the road at all. Without a
programmed plinth the streets have emptied. This in contrast to the old city of
Shanghai, Arkaraprasertkul says, where the streets are livelier than ever. At the
beginning of the twentieth century skyscrapers were the result of a delirious city
life. With the skyscrapers of Shanghai the image of that vibrant city has been
recreated. The city itself however is absent. The new city can be best experienced
from a distance or from an airplane, Arkaraprasertkul concludes. Never try to walk

Michiel van Raaij

Eikongraphia IconographyBlog
For Victor Alexander Wong


This book is an attempt to integrate research, architectural knowledge, and

fieldwork to understand the phenomenon of the urban transformation in
Shanghai, one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Having once been a
lucrative treaty port city, Shanghai has re-embarked on the mission to become an
economic global city through a combination of assimilated industrialized cityscape
and the startling industriousness of Chinese pragmatism from 1980 onwards.
Driven by the momentum of free-market capitalism within the politics of a state-
controlled quasi-communist socialist entity, Shanghai’s built form and
environment have been conceived as a cultural construction of the conspicuous
consumption of global financial marketing and of ostentatious expenditure of the
elite. Nostalgic hearkening back to the glory days of foreign occupation does not
adequately explain the phenomenon that exists today. Central to the aim of this
thesis are the questions on how the global market was utilized, what internal and
external forces were at play, and the importance given to the perception of values.
By critically examining the history of the city’s planning process and the reality of
its urbanism, this book outlines the city’s pragmatic developments dominated
largely by its politics. The New Shanghai is a production of image, as it has always
been the façade of China by virtue of its strategic location for international trade.
The mediation between the representational built form, through politics, and the
internal social transformations, by means of its soft cultural infrastructure, has
created cosmopolitanism unlike anything else in the world.

Non Arkaraprasertkul, Associate AIA, is an architect and a Harvard-Yenching

Institute Fellow in Chinese Studies at the Oriental Institute, Oxford University.
He teaches architecture and urban design at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) where he received his training in architecture and urban design,
and was a Fulbright scholar and an Asian Cultural Council Fellow (Affiliate of
Rockefeller’s Brothers Fund) in History Theory Criticism of Architecture.

Foreword iv
Preface vii
Introduction xiii
Acknowledgements xix
Illustrations xxvii
Notes on Transliterations and Names xxxi
Glossary of Chinese Terms xxxii


1 Critical Questions 7
2 Postmodern Society: The Critical Hypothesis 8
3 Structure of the Book 10

4 The Opening: Pre-Colonial Shanghai 14
5 Treaty Port of the 1840s: The Semi-Colonial Shanghai 15
6 Late Nineteenth Century: The Bund 18
7 Shanghai in the 1930s: Rise and Fall of a Decadent City 20
8 Gateway to Modernization: Shanghai in the 1930s 23
9 Shanghai and China 28
10 Shanghai under the Sun: The Modernist Dream 30
11 Towards Twentieth-First Century Shanghai: From Mao to Deng 33
12 Open Door Policy: Shanghai as the Dragon’s Head 35
13 Shanghai 2000: Lujiazui 36
14 The Idealized Urban Form: The Making of Lujiazui 40

15 First Perspective: Urban Form 51
16 Second Perspective: Buildings and Urban Imagery 56
17 Third Perspective: Streetscapes 61
18 Fourth Perspective: Visualization of the Skylines 66
19 Summary: Means of Understanding 70

20 Shanghai Cosmopolitanism: The Cultural Infrastructure 75
21 The Politics of Built Form 77
22 Perceptions of Shanghai 80

Afterword 89
Appendix 95
Notes 117
Bibliography 145


It is fair to consider this book as concise, rather than “short” — and this despite
the wide-ranging concerns of the author. Yes, the subject is one city, Shanghai; but
there is a history of the physical development of the city, closer consideration of the
two periods of greatest development at the beginning and end of the twentieth
century; an argument on the close relations of those two periods; and insights on the
achievements and failures of current urban development.

Non Arkaraprasertkul is a bright and endlessly energetic young architect from

Thailand. His ethnicity is Chinese; this, together with his ambition, led Non to seize
the opportunity to study and visit Shanghai under the auspices of a design workshop
on Shanghai urbanism in the spring of 2007.

Coming anew to the study of Shanghai, and this within the short time
constraints of a Master’s degree program, Non’s work can only be a preliminary
reading. Each of his topics certainly requires further development. Yet his work offers
a bold, succinct, insightful view that provides an excellent introduction to the
architecture and urbanism of Shanghai — and the lessons it offers.

Shanghai is a distinctive city within China — a small village that rose to

international renown due to the global commerce that was thrust upon it by Western
powers. The new surge of development at the end of the last century is also owing to,
and reflects, global commerce, though this time programmed by the Chinese
government. Thus, despite the evident physical difference of the Bund and Lujiazui,
both can be seen as the creation of image in the service of political and economic
forces. Arkaraprasertkul characterizes how the qualities of urban life are not well
supported in the pursuit if image. But this does not deny the continuing fascination of
this inherently cosmopolitan city.

Stanford Anderson, PhD

Professor of History and Architecture
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts


Cities are the product of myriad forces and uncountable individual choices
large and small combining over a long period of time with unpredictable consequences
for the form and operation of our built environments. The sheer complexity of
phenomena converging on and constituting modern cities poses significant challenges
to those of us endeavoring to “read” and “write” the city. The complexity of cities is
not unlike the complexity of history itself: the clarity of outcomes tends to cloak the
complex weave of contingency, individual choices, and random “acts of god.” The
impending sense of multiple possibilities as we approach key moments fades quickly as
the singularity of actual outcomes—verdicts rendered, wars won, elections called—
becomes fixed and frozen in the historic record. It is a common human inclination to
see a preordained destiny in the unfolding of events. The more subtle and insidious
form of this tendency is when events are interpreted as being “natural” outcomes of
forces too scattered and incremental to be usefully accounted for in detail. The work
of history is to offer a sufficiently detailed account of outcomes to push back the tide
of “historical inevitability” that accumulates on the armature of events with the
passage of time. Historians of the city are doubly challenged by the gravitational pull
of deterministic interpretations due to the spatially and temporally dispersed pattern
of choices that collectively constitute the form and operation of cities. Granting
contingency to urban forces would appear to be constricted further under the
influence of material determinisms after Marx and the methodologies of structuralism
in general. Culture, variously defined, has proven a key counterforce to overly
simplistic histories. To the challenge of reading the forces imprinted in the fabric of
cities, cultural considerations have been at the core of a powerful set of methodologies
driving the best work on cities in the recent decades.

Kevin Lynch’s contributions remain foundational in their capacity to account

for a wide range of the complex forces operating in, on and through the physical
arrangements of cities. In his ground-breaking Image of the City (1961), Lynch focuses
on the physical attributes “identity” and “structure” of urban elements, postponing
the much more complex operation of “meaning.” In his Theory of Good City Form two
decades later, “meaning” takes on the central place through his “performance
standards” that are articulated in explicitly cultural terms. In his three “normative
cities,” Lynch identifies the genius of cities throughout history for exhibiting the
attributes of human agency despite the absence of any singular human agent. In the
place of any identifiable king, shaman, dictator, planner, etc. Lynch positions the tacit
authority of collectively shared values and associated norms operating over time. Even
his “city as an organism” accounts for the appearance of chaos by describing the

operation of discrete rules operating at scales difficult to observe except in aggregate.
Urban historians, sociologists, geographers and a dozen other disciplines joining the
“spatial turn” in the social sciences have developed and deployed these interpretive
methods in the decades since their first articulation as a powerful set of tools offering
reliable alternatives to the pulls of historical inevitability and material determinism.

This book emerges out of the scholarship of “cultural construction” as a

significant contribution to the ongoing work of Chinese and foreign authors exploring
the fertile territories presented by the remarkable recent history of Chinese urban
formation and transformation. Whether it is historically appropriate to grant a certain
“natural” quality to Shanghai’s pre-eighteenth century growth or the product of a
sketchy historical record, both factors disappear with the appearance of the British.
According to Amitav Ghosh’s recent historical novel, the Opium War that led to the
founding of modern Shanghai was the opening salvo in an era of resource wars up to
and including the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. 1 Mr. Arkaraprasertkul deftly gives
credit to the entrepreneurial zeal that seems to be in Shanghai’s water supply while
avoiding a sense of inevitability to its rise to twenty-first century prominence. The
Bund’s picturesque visual history features coolies bustling along crowded quays,
presented here as not just the exuberant mercantile dynamism of local entrepreneurs
but also as the indentured cogs in the machinery of global economic power hierarchies
photographed against a carefully staged backdrop of the Bund. Lujiazui is similarly
conceived as the “natural” habitat for China’s newly minted white-collar/pantyhose
entrepreneur-consumer class, internet savvy and considering the purchase of their

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).
family’s first car. Despite representing a tiny fraction of the population, this portrayal
of sharp-eyed youth, western costume, and hyper-modern stage set, together stand as
the iconic imagery of twenty-first century China. Separated by the eerie silence of
Mao’s anti-urban policies, the two golden ages of Shanghai appear simultaneously
different in origin and uncannily similar in affect and intent to position Shanghai on
the global stage.

Of particular interest here is the spatial analysis of the Lujiazui financial district
of Pudong. Arkaraprasertkul’s analysis of the urban design competition and
subsequent hybrid proposal for Lujiazui, along with the design processes associated
with each of the major towers, stand as powerful case studies of urban and
architectural form in service to iconographic projections of power for domestic and
international consumption. The Chinese pragmatism exemplified in Shanghai is less
the small-scale pragmatism of the merchant on a bicycle, than it is the state-sponsored
and globally financed pragmatism of the urban megaproject with precedents in
London, Singapore, and emulated in Dubai. It is a build-it-and-they-will-come-
approach guaranteed to succeed by international trade agreements. The regime out of
which Lujiazui rises is smaller and more flexible but still tied to the state socialism it
devolved from.

As portrayed here, the “urban form propaganda” of Lujiazui operates in the

background, and over time. The imagery of towers across the Huangpu works its way
into the minds eye while we sleep. Before long, a habitual smile of recognition greets
the once-dreaded sight of the “the Pearl” as if it was ever so. The Bund was a powerful

manifestation of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century globalization,
preserved in all its glory by the shock of the Japanese invasion and benign Mao-era
neglect. Borrowing the literary device of Arkaraprasertkul’s “time traveler,” we can’t
help but ask: Will Lujiazui fare as well in the twenty-second century?

Robert Cowherd, PhD

Associate Professor of Architecture
Wentworth Institute of Technology
Boston, Massachusetts


The first time I came to Shanghai more than twenty years ago, one could look
from the Bund across the water to Pudong to see rice fields. Now that view is blocked
by a sky clogged with towers and the rice fields have disappeared. The story of
rampant expansion is the same in China’s other major cities. Not so long ago there
were only two ring roads in Beijing. Now there are six.

I have been working and teaching in China for twenty years and each time I
return I am always shocked and disoriented. Each time, more neighborhoods have
been destroyed, more highways paved, and more distasteful high-rises built. The rate
of change in China’s cities in this time has never been seen before in any country in
recent history. The changes that have taken place in these cities in twenty years are
equal to the changes in American cities over one hundred years.

It is difficult to comprehend the complexities of these changes; however, it is easy to
see the impact of physical, economic, and social transformations on the environment.
Cities like Beijing and Shanghai have become almost unrecognizable. Citizens have
been relocated into high-rise buildings, often destroying their social connections.
Large groups of “floating populations” (workers relocated from the countryside) have
moved from villages to find work in the city as laborers to building high-rises. This
has radically changed family dynamics in the villages and contributed to cluttered
skylines, producing a visual chaos.

Of course, it is fortunate that the economy of China has improved, at least for
citizens in the cities – but these changes have been far from positive for all. The
countryside villages are still economically depressed, partly due to young citizens
leaving for the cities seeking better economic conditions. The villages are suffering
from this migration, both socially and economically.

In both Beijing and Shanghai the physical environment has become a stark,
lonely place almost devoid of human life. The “spaces between” buildings (what I refer
to as the texture and life of a city) are windswept, vacant, full of highways, supporting
little or no human interaction. The hundreds of high-rise towers in Beijing and
Shanghai have become monuments to economic progress, but they do not really
represent human advancement. They do not represent the high point of a civilization
so rich in cultural history, but just the opposite, a step backward in human terms.
Each tower is shouting to be seen, trying to be more fashionable than its neighbor,
higher, with more glitter, but rarely recognizing the first credo of architecture, that I

believe is important – to provide a “place of harmony” (what I refer to as places for a
healthy life) for the citizens.

Of course, this is not the first time we have witnessed this kind of
transformation. In the United States during the time of Urban Renewal and interstate
highway construction, neighborhoods were destroyed, citizens uprooted and the fabric
of many cities was damaged. In the United States it took a decade of public protest to
turn this development in a more human direction, with the leadership of writers,
activists, and urban design leaders such as Jane Jacobs and Kevin Lynch who helped to
catalyze this movement. But, even in the United States, after fifty years the negative
effects from this period of rampant growth are still felt very strongly, and cities are still
struggling to correct the damage.

Part of this chaotic environment is the responsibility of architects and planners,

who are the only professions that directly relate to the physical environment. The
larger question posed is what is the role of the architect and the planner today? Are we
merely technicians that follow the directions of developers, governments, and
economic trends? Or can we provide a new kind of leadership based on being “care
takers” (what I believe should be a credo of architects and planners) of the physical

Architects of the future need to be more than “exterior decorators,” making

buildings for form’s sake, following the latest fashions in magazines without
consideration for the people using the spaces we design. We need to be careful

listeners to the “messages” of the built world (a mirror of society and sometimes look
through the mirror) and propose creative directions for the future of physical
environments based on human values for a better life. This is our task and
responsibility to all citizens of the world. And this is crucial if we are to preserve land,
cultural values, and be the voice for the citizens who are being affected.

For many years I have been working with students from MIT to provide
alternatives to present trends in development that prioritize human values over
economic ones. I first met Non Arkaraprasertkul, as a student in the MIT/Tsinghua
University Design Workshop where we were studying and designing alternatives to
the rapid rate of development occurring in Beijing. Later he was my teaching assistant
for a Design Studio studying urban villages in China. Since that time he has taught
with me in China and Thailand. I saw in Non an outstanding designer with great
sensitivity for human development and a unique ability to articulate the forces that are
changing our built world.

Non Arkaraprasertkul has written an excellent account of the transformation

that has occurred in China’s cities by using Shanghai as a case study, and analyzing
physical, social and cultural conditions. He has a keen eye for understanding the
changes of China and his work will undoubtedly become a valuable reference for
others to understand in the future.

Non represents a new generation of architects who have the potential to
become creative leaders of a new future in design. This book is an important step
towards that future.

Jan Wampler FAIA

Professor of Architecture
Department of Architecture
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts


Like everyone who is excited by China’s speed of economic growth, my interest

in Shanghai finds form in the skyline of China’s economic powerhouse. The new
skyline Shanghai is Lujiazui, the Central Business District (CBD) of Pudong located
across the river from the Old Shanghai, consisting of a series of skyscrapers, reflective
high-rise towers, and monumental urban boulevards. This new image is impressive. I
cannot avoid asking many questions about the economic underpinnings of the city.
Considering the newness of Lujiazui, the scale of the development is too huge to
believe that it was only the capitalist market demand that has created this city of
skyscrapers. If it was not just the economics, then what was it? If it was not just the
need for space for service industries and financial sectors, just like any Western
metropolis, the question that remains is what was the stimulation for this new city? To
assert that this wild growth was generated by its favorable global financial position and
facilitated by the ease of financing would be simplistic. Something greater had to

induce the building of a new city on vacant land across the river from the existing
settlement. So, my assumption is that there are forces that underlie this unforeseen
consequence of urbanism. It seems like architecture and urban form are, and will
continue to be, utilized as tangible representations of the city’s expected growth – the
physical articulations of the perceptions of global progress. This paper will identify the
rationale for this phenomenon and point out the conditions that not only underlie the
making of Shanghai urbanism, but also characterize the reality of the city. In this
study, I seek to examine the role of architecture and urbanism as instruments in the
transformation process of the city to the metropolis as a result of cultural, political,
and economic perspectives, all of which hopefully uncover new potential, rather than
discussing fait accompli.

This research began when I was in China as a graduate student from America
taking part in the celebrated Massachusetts Institute Technology (MIT)-Tsinghua’s
Beijing Urban Design Studio in the summer of 2006. Before the studio, I had no
particular interest in Shanghai or China. I even deliberately avoided being involved in
the discourse due to my lack of interest in any of the ‘trendy topics.’ Everybody in the
school seemed to be attracted to China. These faddish topics, to me, tend to die out
after the excitement dies down. Thus, the initial decision to take this China study was
merely about my interest in urban design, not China. I arrived in Shanghai for a few
days before the Studio and traveled in the city with keen curiosity and eyes wide open.
Like someone who was born a hundred year ago, frozen in a time capsule, and one day
awakened to face reality; I was amazed by basically everything I saw. The urban

symbolism made the city difficult to read. I felt like I was in a dreamland where
everything is embellished for visual pleasure.

At the time, I was not aware that the deep structure of Shanghai’s urbanism is
more than just what we see on the façade of spectacular buildings. Shanghai was not
love at first sight. I was not immediately interested in Shanghai, but my interest in the
city grew the deeper I probed. It was not until I went back for the second time in the
Winter of 2007 for MIT Professor Stanford Anderson’s workshop on the city’s
morphology that I decided to work on the topic, which continued to bring me back to
Shanghai for a couple more times in less than six months of my first visit. For some
reason – and, of course, a good reason – I went to Shanghai four times that year and
continued to question whether the façade of Shanghai was real. When I was young, I
lived with a Chinese family and was told that when we have guests over, no matter
how hard, we have to slap our face to make it look red – as a red face is considered a
healthy and wealthy face for Chinese. We would be poised to do it in order to show
the guests that we are in good shape. It occurred to me that perhaps Shanghai was a
Chinese self face-slapping.

Along the process of writing this book, I have been helped, inspired, and
mentored by people, perhaps unknown to some of them, whose interests lie in the
mutual understanding of culture. First of all, to my History teachers: Professors
Stanford Anderson, John W. Dower, and Robert Cowherd.

Architects and historians who care about constructive criticism owe a great debt
to Stanford Anderson, perhaps the most globally influential History Theory and
Criticism teacher. Stan taught me not only how to think and critique as a process, but
also how to write methodologically. His profound clarity and simplicity at points of
complexity has been the model for my literary development. Whatever I have learned
about architectural history and whatever I believe about architecture as a socio-cultural
practice will be rooted in his teachings. John W. Dower has been instrumental in
teaching me the excitement of history, and moreover, the enjoyment of writing
history. I was extremely fortunate to have been mentored by him during my final
semester at MIT. His enthusiasm for Shanghai motivated me to dig deeper with depth
and intensity. I have learned from him the writing that exhibits clarity must start with
planning, resulting in historical narratives that are direct, simple, and elegant. Robert
Cowherd’s strong faith in my capability was the catalyst of my deep curiosity in East
Asian urbanization, which was the incentive to write this book. His seminar, Cultural
Construction of Asian Cities, enticed me to be interested in the way architecture works
in the urban context – not only in a physical sense, but also in a spiritual, emotional,
and psychological one. Bob’s constant support, intellectual guidance, and rigorous
criticism have been invaluable. He also deserves thanks for his continuous belief in
this book and the introduction to this book.

Along the way, I was fortunate to know Professor Jan Wampler. Under his
tutelage, I went to China three times and was given an opportunity to go to Beijing
for one extra time to conduct the fieldwork for this book. As a student and colleague,
I was grateful to have been taught by a great professor who is not only superb in

teaching techniques, but also is an anthropologist architect who understands the
nature of architecture vis-à-vis nature. Teachers will try to emulate him and all will fail
– Jan educates from the heart. Mention must be made of Professor Reinhard Goethert
for his energetic support and constant encouragement. At the darkest moment of my
time in Cambridge, it was he who gave invaluable guidance and hopes for me to carry
on till the time when the clouds were gone and the sky was, again, open: Reinhard
Goethert is my mentor.

I would like to thank Professors Yung Ho Chang, Mark Jarzombek, Peter G.

Rowe, Shigeru Miyagawa, and Douglas Webster for their sincere and direct advice,
especially concerning the issues of applications of ‘Chinese pragmatism.’ Dr Saipin
Suputtamongkol, Anne Warr, and Dr Gregory Bracken are owed my thanks for
reading the entire manuscript and making professional suggestions for improvement.
Ben Matteson and Andy Gulbrandson provided a vital sounding board for ideas about
the global-local relationship, the practice of an urbanist, and especially the critique in
writing about history and theory.

It is my great pleasure to mention my colleagues to whom, in various capacities,

I owe my thanks. First, I could not have produced the set of writing tools to tackle the
issues of this thesis without the timely assistance of Reilly Paul Rabitaille, who also
proved to me that there is indeed, an architect who knows how to write about
complexity with great clarity. Reilly is my friend extraordinaire. I thank Melissa Ming-
Wei Lo whose sensibility and intensity in writing are totally admirable: I am indebted
to her for assistance in many ways throughout my writing of this book. I would not

have been able to write this thesis without consistent help, moral support, and
inspiration from the writing consultants and editors of the MIT’s Writing Center:
Jane Dunphy, Patricia Brennecke, Dr Robert Irwin, Marilyn Levin, Bob Doherty, and
Dr Steve Strang. Many ideas came from formative conversations with friends, and
colleagues from China, who taught me to believe that architecture is a social activity.
So I thank Winnie Wong, Jimmy Chen, Wenjun Ge, Yan Lin, Ruan Hao, Sun
Penghui, Wang Jue, Laing Sisi, Liu Jun, Yan Lin, Jiang Yang, Huang Jianxiang, Li
Hou, Har Ye Kan, Lin Jin Ann, Lin Yingtzu, Feng Jie, Chen Shouheng, Dr Zuo Yan,
Dr Shao Lei, Dr Lin Peng, and Dr Li Xiangning.

Closer to my home in Thailand, I have also had the benefit of advice and
encouragement from several colleagues and fellows who share my interest in Asian
cities including Dr Polladach Theerapappisit from the Universities of Melbourne and
Western Sydney in Australia, and Dr Chuthatip Maneepong from Arizona State
University. Dr Vimolsiddhi Horanyangkura, Dr Peeradorn Kaewlai and Dr Supreedee
Rittironk, especially, have taught me the value of self-criticism and planning, helping
me to stay on the right track and to put my self-motivation to work. I would not have
courage to do what I did without their encouragement in many ways; I thank them
for being my great intellectual brothers.

This book would not be possible without generous funding and research grants
from the United States Department of the State’s Fulbright Fellowship Program, the
Thailand-United States Educational Foundation, the Institute of International
Education (IIE), and the Asian Cultural Council (Affiliate of Rockefeller’s Brothers

Fund). Starr Foundation Research Fellowship in History and Cultural Studies
awarded a grant to support my fieldwork in Asia. Research for this study was also
substantially supported by Harvard-Yenching Institute Fellowship, MIT’s Graduate
Student Council Research-Travel Fellowship, the Avalon Travel Fellowships, and the
Merit-Based Research Grant from Thammasat University.

It all started ten years ago when I was an exchange student in Oklahoma City,
where I was sent to the home of Victor Alexander Wong, my first intellectual teacher.
In every respect, my comprehension has been shaped by his sharp, succinct and logical
advice. His fingerprints appear on many of my arguments and writing. I thank Victor
for teaching me how to think with a critical mind, how to listen with critical ears, and
how to see with critical eyes. His inspiration brought me back to America. He always
wanted me to go to MIT, so I went to MIT. His moral support continues to give me
strength and his thorough understanding of both Chinese and American cultures
serves as a constructive sounding board. I am grateful to always have his wonderful
support. This book is dedicated to him.

There is no one I am more grateful towards for everything in life than my

parents, Kongkiat and Arunee Arkaraprasertkul. They always believe in me, in my
capability to achieve, and in my comprehension of the world at large. Finally, I extend
my warmest thanks to Supawai Wongkovit who is always by my side.

As a second thought, perhaps, it must be something in my Chinese roots that

caught my interest in Shanghai. I grew up in a family of Chinese immigrants in the

northeast of Thailand. My grandparents were born in the south of China not so far
from Shanghai, and moved to Thailand during the late Qing Dynasty turmoil. As a
second generation Thai-born Chinese son raised by the first generation, I was
acquainted with Chinese pragmatism, in which one relies on the tangible value and
the permanence of things as opposed to investing in ideas. It was not the calculation
or abstract numbers that counted, but the physicality – as a clear tangible return – that
should satisfy the mind of the business owner.

When I saw Shanghai for the first time, I thought of this concept of Chinese
pragmatism, which is embedded in my mentality. It is the perhaps for this reason that
I can understand myself through cultural construction. The ancient Chinese built the
Great Wall of China to keep out foreign invasion. The modern Chinese built the
Great Façade of Shanghai to lure them back. Both are monumental, permanent and

Non Arkaraprasertkul
Harris Manchester College
Oxford, UK


1 A Bird eye view photograph of Shanghai’s Lujiazui 25

Courtesy Shanghai Municipality

2 A photograph of the Bund at dawn in the International 17

Settlement in the1880s
Courtesy Virtual Shanghai, Editor: Christian Henriot (IAO - Lyon
2 University)

3 The British Land Regulation Map of 1930s 20

Courtesy Virtual Shanghai, Editor: Christian Henriot (IAO - Lyon
2 University)

4 A photograph of the Bund in the 1930s, viewed from the 21

French settlement
Courtesy Virtual Shanghai, Editor: Christian Henriot (IAO - Lyon
2 University)

5 A photograph of Paris waterfront in the 1900s 26
Courtesy anonymous photographer

6 Photographs of skylines of Manhattan waterfront, and the 27

Bund in the early 1990s
Courtesy Virtual Shanghai, Editor: Christian Henriot (IAO - Lyon
2 University)

7 A perspective rendering of 1929 Dong Dayou’s plan for 29

Shanghai Civic Center
Courtesy Shanghai Archive

8 A plan, perspective rendering, and detailed perspective 32

rendering of The 1942 Kunio Maekawa’s plan for Pudong
Courtesy Shanghai Archive

9 A photograph of the model of Richard Rogers and 43

Partners’ plan for Lujiazui in Pudong Pudong
Courtesy Shanghai Planning Museum

10 A photograph of the model of Dominique Perraults’ plan 44

for Lujiazui in Pudong
Courtesy Shanghai Planning Museum

11 A photograph of the model of Shanghai Urban Planning 46

Institute’s plan for Lujiazui in Pudong
Courtesy Shanghai Planning Museum

12 A Bird eye view of Shanghai in 1937 52

Courtesy Virtual Shanghai, Editor: Christian Henriot (IAO - Lyon
2 University)

13 A perspective rendering of the proposed Century Avenue 54
by Arte, Jean Marie Charpentier et Associés
Courtesy Shanghai Municipality

14 A photograph of the Century Avenue, looking toward the 55

Central Park in the East
Courtesy Peter G. Rowe

15 Photographs of Jin Mao Building and Kaifang Pagoda 59

Courtesy Wang Xuyuan

16 A photograph of the model of the original World 60

Financial Center, and a perspective rendering of the
revised World Financial Center with its top redesigned
Courtesy Kohn Pedersen Fox

17 A photograph of the Century Avenue 62

Courtesy Shanghai Municipality

18 A photograph of the model of the proposed Century 63

Avenue by Arte, Jean Marie Charpentier et Associés
Courtesy Shanghai Municipality

19 Photographs of the International Settlement in 1920s, and 65

London’s Fleet Street in 1906s
Courtesy Virtual Shanghai, Editor: Christian Henriot (IAO - Lyon
2 University)

20 A photograph of Shanghai’s street scenes in 1900s 65

Courtesy Virtual Shanghai, Editor: Christian Henriot (IAO - Lyon
2 University)

21 A photograph of the Century Avenue’s sidewalk 66
© Author

22 A Bird eye view photograph of Lujiazui’s Central Park 68

Courtesy Peter G. Rowe

23 A photograph of the famous Pudong skyline 69

Courtesy Shanghai Municipality

24,25 Photographs of Puxi high-rises scape, and loose cityscape 72

of Pudong
© Peter Morgan

26 A photograph displaying the panorama of Shanghai’s two 82

© Sun Penghui

27 Model of Shanghai showing the mixing of high-rise 98

buildings and low-rise lilong neighborhoods
© Author


In this book, I use standard Pinyin system of transliterating Chinese words. It is

today’s most commonly used Romanization system for Standard Mandarin, which
might not be fully accurate when it comes to pronunciation. For instance, “Xiaoping”
in “Deng Xiaoping” is pronounced “Shiao-ping.” Therefore, readers who want to
pronounce the name with full accuracy may consult a modern Chinese language
pronunciation guide. In Pinyin system, most letters resemble their English
pronunciation. And for names, since a Chinese name is written with the family name
(surname or last name) first and the given name next, which often causes confusion
among those from cultures where the family name usually comes last; therefore Deng
Xiaoping’s surname was Deng, and his first name is Xiaoping.


Shanghai 上海 kaifang (pagoda) 开封(祐国寺塔)

Beijing 北京 lilong 里弄
Canton 广东 Lujiazui 陆家嘴
Century Avenue 世纪大道 Zhu Rongji 朱镕基
Revolution 文化大革命 Mao Zedong 毛泽东
danwei 单位 Nanjing 南京
Deng Xioping 邓小平 Open Door Policy 门户开放政策
Dong Dayou 董大酉 Pudong 浦东
Great Leap
Forward 大跃进 Puxi 浦西
Huangpu River 黄浦江 Suzhou Creek 苏州河
Jiang Zemin 江泽民 The Bund 外滩
Kaifang 开封 Tiananmen Square 天安门广场



If a Shanghai man who lived seventy years ago traveled through time and
arrived at Shanghai today, he would not have any idea that he had arrived in
the city of his birth. He would be astonished by what he saw, despite the fact
that Shanghai in the early twentieth century contained stylistically and
stereotypically sophisticated urban elements, such as The Bund and the neo-
classic buildings in the French Concession. First, he would find that The
Bund, the famous commercial corridor constructed in the early twentieth
century running north-south along the West bank of the Huangpu River,
was no longer the city's primary image – no longer constituted his familiar
identification of the city. Shanghai was now dominated by the bigger,
bolder, and more hyperbolized Lujiazui, the new skyline across the river.
While the old skyline might remind him of the city's colonial past, this
present visage epitomizes an otherwise unimaginable future.

Introducing Shanghai

Moreover, he might find that not only was the appearance of the city
changed, but also its urban pattern. Surrounded by the incredibly tall, big,
wide, and long structures of Lujiazui, he might have lost his sense of scale
and security. Shanghai, he felt, had become unfriendly to pedestrians. He
could no longer bike or walk freely across the neighborhood. The "land of
swamps" of the time from which he came has now been turned into a high-
tech financial district - something that exceeded his wildest imagination.
The first challenge that confronts him is to figure out how to survive in this
tremendously dull atmosphere. This adaptation is so dramatic that he would
feel nostalgic for his old hometown. This is not unlike many Shanghainese
who experienced first-hand the drama of the delirious change of Chinese
commercial and cosmopolitan culture. It would be difficult to associate
himself with either the surface level of what he saw, or the deep structure of
the new city's conception.

Shanghai – China’s largest city – is strategically situated along the banks of

the Yangtze River. Once serving as a major Treaty Port, Shanghai represents
China’s colonial legacy as well as the point of origin for the country’s recent
phenomenal economic growth. Its relatively short urban history had its genesis in
the late 19th century with the arrival of European and American investors and their
enormous influx of capital and expertise. After 1949, Shanghai was transformed by
the Communist government into a centrally-planned industrial powerhouse. It was
not until 1978 that the Open Door Policy stimulated Shanghai’s potential as a
gateway to wealth and modernity. Today, this topographically flat city
accommodates some 15 million people (which continues to float) within an area of

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

two thousand square miles. Shanghai’s gross domestic income is higher than that of
Beijing, and its growth rate is higher than China’s national average. The Pudong
New Development Zone, where the Lujiazui CBD is located, opened for business
in 1992. This area is the portrait of a modern China for the rest of the world,
appearing in mainstream media, most notably in 2006’s Mission Impossible 3. As a
city with unabashed global ambitions, Shanghai has been among the fastest
growing cities in the world, especially during the last decade of the 20th century.
Recently, according to a research conducted by Mastercard Worldwide, Shanghai
moved up swiftly into the top 25 from #32 in 2007 to secure its place among
leading global cities. Its economic stability, legal and political framework, and an
increased quality of life; and China’s booming economy have been Shanghai’s
major advantages demonstrating its importance not only to Asian economies but
also to the world at large as a sustainer of global growth according to United
Nation’s World Urbanization Prospects 2007 Revision. Although Shanghai’s
population growth has slowed considerably since 2000, the city is still expanding,
chasing Bangkok as the consumer-driven cosmopolis of Asia.

Shanghai’s rapid population growth, driven primarily by immigration from

other (more rural) parts of China and made possible by a relaxation of the hukou
system has allowed massive domestic migration, usually to where employment is
plentiful. The hukou system, in particular, is a registration system that afforded
residents access to local government benefits like education, health care, and
welfare, but restricted in-country migration as these benefits were only available in
the locale where a citizen was registered (e.g. if you were a resident of Beijing, you
could not move to Shanghai and receive government benefits nor easily gain
employment, and vice versa). As China has modernised and opened its borders per

Introducing Shanghai

se, the hukou system is fading into obscurity, allowing massive in-country
migration, usually to where employment is plentiful. This has created unforeseen
consequences on urbanism and urban form. In addition to China’s de facto leader
Deng Xioping’s economic and political modernisation, the progressive politics of
Shanghai’s local government furthered to strengthen these consequences. The term
“Open Door” does not mean that China will open itself to the world but that the
world will be brought into China’s entrepreneurial and economic sphere of
influence in order to modernize the economic system under the authoritarian rule
of the Communist Party.

The unique sensibility of the Chinese, nurtured by the pragmatism of its

integration of socialist nationalistic marketing principles, further enabled change to
take place. Yet, Shanghai’s Pudong area ultimately owes its existence to the soft
cultural infrastructure of Shanghai’s cosmopolitanism and its facilitation of the
city’s heterogeneous nature. It seems like architecture and urban form are, and will
continue to be, utilised as tangible representations of the city’s anticipated growth
– the physical articulations of the perceptions of global progress. This book aims to
present a series of observations identifying its rationale, pointing out the conditions
that not only underlie the making of this urban complexity, but also to characterise
the reality of the city. From an urbanistic point-of-view, Shanghai is a city where
two distinctive urban characteristics, the contemporary post-Mao high-rise and the
pre-Mao traditional low-rise buildings, create a paradoxical pattern of unevenly
developed urban fabric. This pattern continually raises tremendous concerns not
only on a macro-structural level of the city, e.g. urban land-use and expansion, but
also street life and the living environment. It is understandable that high-rise
development is unavoidable due to the massive demand and exorbitant land value.

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

We, however, have learned and experienced from the unsuccessful precedents in
the West and the extensive literature that criticizes the impact of a city without
diversity. Although high-rise development might logically and efficiently solve the
problem of accommodating large numbers of people, it has concomitant long-term
problems such as a diminished sense of community.


Shanghai’s urbanism is not conventional; and it never has been. Never so

quickly has a settlement transformed from a simple mud village into a metropolis
famous for its spectacular foreign architectural and urban cultures. Some call this
urban phenomenon “hybrid urbanism”1signifying the unique heterogeneity of
urban form. Urbanism of Shanghai began with Puxi on the west side of the
Huangpu River to be followed by Pudong on the east. If the attempt to build Puxi
in the 1930s was to resemble a historic and romanticized Paris,2 it was obviously
Manhattan that is the model for the planning of Pudong. 3

As urbanization complicates every scale of the city’s physical and cultural

restructuring, Shanghai today is not only Chinese, but also the world’s “Fast City,”
capable of accommodating a massive entrepreneurial economy, cosmopolitan
culture, and an attractive aesthetic designed to entice a creative workforce to
sustain economic growth.4 Shanghai’s built form and environment are not merely
expressing the logic of inhabitation; instead, they also purposely embrace a certain
set of global forces, shaping urban form and experience in space and time.

Introducing Shanghai

Figure 1: Shanghai’s Lujiazui, photograph taken from the old part of Shanghai.

For the operation of this plastic surgery of cultural urbanism to function,

political agents are notably conscious of the consequential action and impact given
by the new appearance. They must also take into account the cultural system of the
“receivers” in order to be flexible to dramatic change; otherwise, this operation
would fail. Shanghai, however, works economically. That is to say, Shanghai, since
its opening to the world as a Treaty Port in the 1840s (arguably a “semi-
colonization”), has been a city with soft cultural infrastructure. This organizational
structure allows the diverse architectural cultures to represent different cultural
norms while still maintaining their representational integrity by means of its

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

architectural and urban orderings. The vast diversity of symbolism and

iconography in the appearance of Western built forms has complicated the social
and cultural milieu of the city, leading to an active amalgamation of architectural
and urban form. Shanghai’s city form has never been truly traditional; instead,
growth and expansion has always been dictated by the distinctive patchworks of
forms representative of the myriad urban influences brought to the city over time.


Taking into account the representational form of Shanghai’s cityscape as

impacted by its internal economic and political systems, this book seeks to deliver
pragmatic answers to two conceptual questions. The first involves the conception
of the hybrid urban city, by examining the transformation of the cityscape.5 The
second analyzes how the politics of built form impact the transformation of the city.
These queries will unravel the course of urban phenomenon, clarifying the working
impetuses that affect practice and production of architecture in this particular
context. “Politics” in this sense, however, is not confined to the governance of
China, or the authoritarian rule of a communist state. Rather, the term seeks to
identify the architectural means of power and status, and the position of society in
a global system – specifically, in the architectural and urban planning of Shanghai.
For such a city of abrupt transitions,6 the impact of the changing environment can
be understood as a part of the larger political dialogue between East and West.7

Urban Theorist Mario Gandelsonas points out that the radical restructuring
of Shanghai’s infrastructure and urban fabric represents China’s search for an
alternative modernity, “a modernity tailored to meet the contemporary forms of
Introducing Shanghai

cultural, political and economic conditions.”8 The product of this purposeful

departure from the traditional past to the culturally construed future, and the
resulting representation of the built form and environment is the focus area of
investigation. For instance, as Richard Marshall observes:
Lujiazui presents an uncompromising vision of the future of [the] Chinese
city…[presenting the fact that] China is now seeking to capture a larger role
in world affairs [and] Lujiazui is one of the primary instrumentalities to
propel this emergence.9

Using Gandelsonas’ term in this context, it can be understood that this

transformation is the condition of a Chinese modernity, which gives birth to the
inexplicable development phenomenon in Shanghai. In the same way, as the
history of the Bund cannot be thought of as the result of a particular pattern of
urbanism separated from that of the foreign concessions’ district; the making of
Lujiazui cannot be thought of as an expression from within.10 Using this as the
basis for studying the contextualized relationship between Shanghai’s architecture
and urban orders beyond the surface façade of fancy buildings and embellished
urbanism, it is possible to see and discover the architectural and urban history of
Shanghai from the beginning of the twenty-first century through the lenses of
history, theory, and criticism.


The culture of a consumption society, the desire to have a venue to the

international market economy (and socialist economy), and an ideology mimicking

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

a capitalist society are the main forces that are altering the physicality of the city.11
As urban culture cannot be detached from this physical environment, the
phenomenon of “Postmodern China” might best be characterized as the terrain of
diversely rendered cultural norms. The emergence of spatial plurality, hybridity,
and inclusiveness are strategies of survival for the international preeminence of
China in response to a new globalized environment.12 The making of urban
architecture is influenced by political independence, or “pragmatic nationalism,”
which is the act of liberating China from others by means of economic superiority
after Deng Xiaoping’s reform in the 1970s.

In Shanghai, contemporary architecture has become a bold symbol of

development – a signifier of progress in the discourse of urban semiotics. The
changing of Shanghai’s “postcard scenery” from the colonial-style of the Bund on
Puxi side to the New Commercial Development District on Pudong side,
particularly the Oriental Pearl telecommunication tower and the Jin Mao Tower,
within less than a decade is an absolutely astonishing urban phenomenon. The fact
that this phenomenon is not unexpected, but has been carefully planned and
ambitiously encouraged is the impetus for this search. Because the built form and
environment are mediated by its populace understanding the political agendas or
programs of Shanghai’s ethnically diverse inhabitants and, the relationship between
them is crucial to the understanding of its urban culture and physicality. While
researching Shanghai’s past, it is tempting, like our previously mentioned time
traveler, to make expected recommendations for Shanghai to maintain its urban
heritage as a significant component. More important than dwelling on such an
expectation is to concentrate on the key transformations that offer critical views
that will serve as a springboard for the future design and development of the city.

Introducing Shanghai

This research will contribute to the theory of the conception and experience of the
architecture and urbanism of every hybridized city in a practical manner from the
perspectives of both the pedestrian and architect-planner, which is critical to the
understanding of Shanghai and similar cities.

My book is an attempt to integrate research, architectural knowledge, and

fieldwork to understand complex phenomenon of the recent urban transformation
of Shanghai, one of the world’s fastest growing cities. By using a multi-disciplinary
approach, the goal of this research is to inform a practical relevant practice of
architecture in various empirical dimensions – believed by me to be the core of
History, Theory, and Criticism as opposed to the obsolete criticism of the past or
an ideal recommendation that ignores reality. That is, my criticism by no means
seeks to dichotomize the past and the present of Shanghai through the justification
of social value; rather, it tries to draw attention to the intrinsic relationships and
trends of development, revealing a potential direction for further investigation. I
believe that the potential of the simultaneity of practice and theory can be rendered
through the definitive findings of a constructive research program.


This book consists of four chapters; which together form a coherent analysis
answering the queries posed above. This introduction gives a brief rationale of the
research, presenting the methodology of the research and discussing the critical
hypotheses. The two following chapters state the important points on the
politicization of built form and environment of the city, leading to the third
chapter which cross-examines findings from the previous two using the politics of

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

built form as a framework. The second chapter, “History, Power and Modern
Shanghai,” begins with a historical account for understanding Shanghai as a city of
spontaneous growth. It sketches Shanghai’s urban timeframe. In this chapter, I
critically assess the long-standing hybrid condition of Shanghai’s urbanism. In the
third chapter, “Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism,” I present a
set of observations on the expression of politicized urban form, and contemporary
architecture as a means of urban iconography. In the fourth chapter, “The Politics
of Built Form,” after a brief summary of the findings of the previous chapters, I
reflect upon a number of issues brought up by the previous chapters concerning
both physical and economic consequences of Shanghai’s urban form. I will show
that the context of Shanghai Contemporary is an internally ordered system of built
form and environment that balances the singularity of architectural image and the
plurality of urban image as influenced by politics.

Introducing Shanghai


“We know that Rome was not built in one day; but sometimes I think
Shanghai could be re-built in one night,” said a Shanghai historian whom
our time traveler ran into and discussed his interest in the new city’s image
while looking across the river to the hyperbolic skyline of Pudong. She was
looking at the new World Financial Center, which will become one of the
world’s tallest skyscrapers in less than a year. Her words strike our time
traveler as contemporary version of Shanghai’s outlook in the flavor of H.J.
Lethbridge’s classic introduction to the best-selling 1934 All about Shanghai
and Environs: a Standard Guidebook: “Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan city
in the world, and the fishing village on a mudflat, which almost literally
overnight became a great metropolis.”1

Of course, she was being ironic about the rapid transformation of her
birthplace, which has occurred during the last twenty years of her life as a
History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

Shanghainese. Being a typical visitor to the “new Shanghai” – like our time
traveler – one would be overwhelmed by the image of elegant Western style
buildings, and would not have any idea that the history of Shanghai de facto
dates back to more than a thousand years ago, which is a “reasonable
misunderstanding” given the conspicuous absence of a visible traditional
Chinese architectural heritage in Shanghai.

This chapter presents the history of the growth of the city and the urban
phenomenon of the Bund and Lujiazui and their relationship to both the national
and the global.2 The objective of this chapter is to analyze how Shanghai came to
be what it is today through a study of its history.


Although Shanghai is old, its urban history is recent. Written records of

Shanghai prior to the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) were limited because it was
commonly thought of as a relatively “small rural fishing village.” This commonly-
held view of Shanghai, however, appears to be just a myth. Recent research shows
substantial evidence that Shanghai was, in fact, a medium-size market town.2 Its
strategic location as a coastal port was self-evident. Since the early years of Yuan
Dynasty (1279-1368), Shanghai had become the capital of the coastal county. Its
close connection to the Huangpu River3 and network of waterways such as Suzhou
Creek give clues as to how this small city might have had a strategic location.
Shanghai’s favorable economic positioning slowly established it as an
administrative city of the coast.4 As a result, urban infrastructure including roads,

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

local ports, and commercial hubs were built, and people from other parts of China
traveled to this city searching for economic opportunity.

Until the seventeenth century (late Ming Dynasty), there existed no record
of maps of Shanghai. This seems to support the assumption that Shanghai had not
expanded much during the course of four hundred years. Numbers of people from
outside were not large enough to alter the city from being a medium-sized self-
contained market town enclosed by a wall, typical of traditional Chinese cities. A
major intervention, however, took place around the mid-nineteenth century
through the coerced opening of the city to the outside during the Opium War. In
1842 – the signing of Treaty of Nanjing legitimized the foreign interventions in
China for the first time. The first party of English traders arrived in Shanghai on
November 17, 1843, followed by the French. The city was subsequently divided
into spatial territories. There were 3 foreign land parcels to start with; British,
French and American. The American and British sectors combined later to for the
International Settlement. Shanghai was gradually re-built and transformed under
foreign rulers with superior weaponry. It is astounding that absolute dominance of
the extraterritoriality was seized forcibly from the Chinese in their own city.


What Shanghai had to offer to those foreign powers was access to ports.
Foreign investors gravitated toward an extensive waterfront that gave access
to Suzhou Creek, a strategic transportation route to other parts of China.6
The Puxi area on the west bank of the Huangpu was transformed from
agricultural land into the international port city of the Far East.7 The
History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

concessions brought about by foreign treaties did not colonize Shanghai in

the traditional sense. As historian Leo Lee asserts, “[a]lthough Shanghai did
not face the same colonial situation as in colonial India [,]…the
discrepancies between the privileged and the rest of the city, levying on the
Chinese, could be worse than the strict colony.”8

Not only did foreigners build, but they also dwelt in and developed the city using
particular architectural and urban forms derived from their diverse origins. The
overall structure of the city was planned to satisfy not just living accommodations,
but also commercial, industrial, and recreational demands. The domination of
foreign planning was absolute. The internal social formation of the locals was
powerless to resist the planning culture. A local workforce needed to sustain the
infrastructure caused the most salient planning feature foreign developers
introduced to the city. This was the “lilong,” a low-rise row house adapted from
the Western-style to accommodate the families of workers, mostly villagers fleeing
the rebellion in the countryside, who preferred to work for the foreign industries,
and to insure “the rule of law and the safety of the foreigners’ enclaves.”9

In terms of planning, the gridiron structure of the city’s urban blocks was
then defined by the geometry of this modern housing – straight lines and
perpendicular angles were convenient for the division of the land, for the laying of
plumbing infrastructure, and for electric tramway and bus traffic. Not so long after
the first building stage in the 1870s, more than 200,000 lilong dwelling units were
built and became the dominating morphological characteristic of Shanghai’s urban
fabric. This structure constituted the urban form of Shanghai which became the
model for the spatial organization for other parts of the city.10

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Figure 2: View of the Bund at dawn, International Settlement part of Shanghai in

the 1880s.

Westerners also introduced modern facilities to the Chinese who readily

accepted these concessions, including gaslight, electricity, running water.
Automobiles, another Western intrusion, were mostly limited to only the
concessions area. The lines between different concessions, and between them and
Chinese lands were clearly delineated by physical barriers such as roads and
waterways. Such an abrupt leap from rural to urban was unparalleled in China, and
as such, loosened the characteristics of Shanghai from the rigid confines of
tradition. The first decade of the boom brought prostitution, gambling, and drug
smuggling, which would become the major face of Shanghai until the Communists
took over in the mid-twentieth century. Stella Dong, dysphemistically describes:

History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

Shanghai at the time ranked as “the most pleasure-mad, rapacious, corrupt,

strife-driven, licentious, squalid, and decadent city in the world.11

A decade after the turn of the twentieth century, foreign wherewithal and the
flowering of treaty port business gave Shanghai a dual structure of
“cosmopolitanism and entrepreneurialism.”12 Advantages that Shanghai had over
other Far Eastern metropolises included foreign technology, proximity to raw
materials (especially cotton-growing lands), cheap electricity, reliable financial
institutions for “handling increasingly sophisticated transactions, and an extensive
and already-skilled labor force.13 Moreover, the accelerating financial circulation in
Shanghai at the time had disconnected the city culturally from the rest of China,
accentuating the confrontation between modernized Shanghai and the rest of the
traditional country.14 Several iterations of urban development were part of the
process of making Shanghai the regional business center of the Far East. The
necessity for an access point for the port caused foreign investors to choose a linear
waterfront on the riverbank in the British settlement, which was eventually become
known as the Bund.15


By the end of the nineteenth century, Shanghai had become the center of
construction technology in the Far East. Composite, reinforced concrete,
and steel structures were brought into use, leading to the emergence of high-
rise buildings. By 1949, there were 38 buildings of more than ten floors in
Shanghai – more than any other city in Asia.16

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

The muddy tow-path of fifty years ago which has magically become one of
the most striking and beautiful civic portals in the world, faced from the
West by an impressive rampart of modern buildings and bounded on the
East by the [Haungpu] River.17

With the “Land Regulations” of 1849, the Bund was subdivided into British
and French concessions for commercial investment.18 The Bund was not originally
planned to be an iconic skyline. It was a utilitarian waterfront, a point of reception
for trade. The emergence of the treaty port was a major factor that stimulated all
large-scale developments in Shanghai. This included foreign trade and commercial
production for export, established the groundwork for Western-style higher
educational institutions, as well as steered the city toward modern banking

The first important building on the Bund was the British Consulate, built in
1873. In this period, Shanghai’s dynamism started to attract large numbers of
people from around the world. This was the first time that Shanghai surpassed
Canton in the seaport business – both in numbers and in entrepreneurial
atmosphere.20 The Bund was not only a point of physical transactions, but also a
point of “visual reception” by virtue of its emerging skyline. Twenty buildings
formed the Bund’s skyline beginning with Edward VII Avenue (Yan'an Road) in
the south, and ending with the Garden Bridge (Waibaidu Bridge) on Suzhou

History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

Figure 3: Land Regulation Map showing the proposed Urban Structure of Puxi.

Buildings on the Bund were perceived as proclamations of business prestige

and prosperity. Thus, the Bund was quickly filled with monumental Western-style
buildings and became a truly representative image of business to the outside world.


Marginalized by its internationality and lack of historical bond to the rest of

China, Shanghai was an autonomous business entity operating under a massively
diverse population of both rural migrants and foreigners. The composition of
private economic joint-ventures by both Chinese and foreign corporate groups and

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

political society, which was systematically established during the course of roughly
fifty years since the end of the Opium War, was the impetus for the development
of the city in every respect, prompting it to take its place on the global economic
stage. Yet, the city became “heaven built on top of a hell”22 as the aggregation of
crime, violence, guns, gangsters, drug trafficking, and prostitution reached its peak
in 1933. Shanghai at the time was as elegant as Paris, as booming as Manhattan,
and as rowdy and pugnacious as Chicago.

Figure 4: The Bund in the 1930s.

The population of Shanghai in the 1930s consisted not of the indigenous

Shanghainese, but of the foreign “Shanghailanders” and the Chinese immigrants
who recognized the business value of the port city established by treaty. 23From the

History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

outset of this period, the outsiders had determined Shanghai’s urban history.
Marie-Claire Bergère observes that Shanghai was the “Other China.”24 The
contradictory urban scenes were brought about by the abrupt change of the city
from rural to urban.

While one might initially imagine a romantic cityscape not unlike Paris
when seeing Western style shops and glamorous foreigners in British-style suits,
this romanticized Westernized scene would be rudely interrupted by the crowds of
shirtless beggars and poor rickshaw pullers in the background. It was the first time
that the population of Shanghai was close to other large cities – the population was
more than three million, about 60,000 of whom were foreigners.

The city’s zoning was more defined than it had ever been. The residential
districts occupied the inner part toward the western side of the Bund. There was a
single elected municipal council that administered Shanghai’s public infrastructural
investment, collected revenue, and acted as the main juridical authority. Although
the council was meant to represent the de jure rights of the Chinese in regard to
the extraterritoriality of the foreigners, it actually reinforced the ruthless
suppression of the Chinese in their own enclave. That is to say, from the beginning
of the treaty port, the entire built environment of Shanghai was controlled by the
foreigners – either Western-style or hybrid, but with no traditional-style Chinese

The majority of people were not native, but Chinese immigrants and
refugees. As a result, the city was a place of cultural amalgamation, where people
from all over China came to seek opportunities to cultivate modern life and be

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

entertained by what was perceived as the Western version of the cultural norm.
While there were a large number of Chinese, ranging from those who were at the
bottom of the economic system to the bourgeoisie, small groups of foreigners held
the key not only to political but also juridical and cultural powers, dominating over
the class struggles and the “complexity of social distribution”25 in modern China.
Poverty, in contradistinction to the foreign elitism, was the dominant characteristic
of the city that abruptly leapt from rural to urban. Although there were many
wealthy Chinese, Most of the Chinese in Shanghai were poor, but some succeeded
in becoming part of the foreign society and their cultural enterprises elevated
themselves to a so-called “bourgeoisie,” living a relatively comfortable life.26


During this time, the waterfront area was considered a jewel for any kind of
business. From the 1920s up until the early 1940s when the Japanese attacked the
British base on Huangpu River, the Bund was indisputably the iconic façade of
Shanghai. Often rhetorically contrasted to the “fishing village” myth, the grand
appearance of the cityscape was an investment and tourism magnet; every wealthy
man wanted to see the city that was “built in a day.” Originally no more than a
shoreline for common access to international trading, the Bund was beautified to
become a riverfront boulevard, due to the greater emphasis on finance in service of
trade. Consequently, buildings in the Bund quickly came to represent the prestige
of Shanghai business to the outside world.

The subdivided strip was made available to business owners to build their
offices and headquarters. It continued to grow along the shoreline – to the old city
History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

wall in the south and the bank of Suzhou Creek in the north. Foreigners had
Chinese working in their firms, and there were firms run by Chinese architects on
the design of individual buildings in the Bund area. International Beaux-arts style
buildings soon dominated Shanghai’s mile-long commercial corridor. Buildings
such as the Bank of China (1940s), the Sassoon House (1929), the Hong Kong
and Shanghai Bank (1923), and Russell & Co. (1881) constituted the pictorial
gesture of the Bund, and consequently the image of Shanghai dans l'ensemble. When
ships stopped a mile offshore, the Bund, the charismatic skyline seen from afar, was
effective in transmitting the image of a modern city.27 And as visual scale altered
and intensified with proximity it became clear that the distant image of the city
had everything to do with the built form. In other words, the Bund was the
inhabitable representation of the new commercial city.

Shanghai’s cutting-edge technological advancement also “sharpened the

confrontation between China and the West and created a deep dualism.”28 The
formal establishments of the foreign settlements reflected a rigid division of social
classes and a basic “served-servant” relationship.29 There was, of course, a certain
psychological tension underlining the colonial situation in Shanghai. There was a
pre-conceived cultural supposition that the foreigners were privileged, which was
seen in the minimal resistance of the Chinese themselves who were economically
dependent on the foreigners. It was the foreigners who actually created a lucrative,
self-sufficient city. The foreigners, at first, urbanized the city through early
capitalism, and were fond of being known as the authoritative creators of the city,
rather than the inhabitants. It was also the popular perception that the foreigners
were the creators of the city.

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Interaction between foreigners and the Chinese only happened through the
necessity of business, diplomatic meetings, and ethically-mixed gatherings of the
elite. Historian Jonathan Spence observes:
Many wealthy Chinese businessmen lived in comfortable homes with
gardens…[and] had social contact with the foreigners and shared their
business interests, which was to make sure that a reliable source of labor was
available to work in their factories and on the docks, and that the social
amenities revolving around their lavish clubs and the racecourse were not

Quantitatively, contrary to the claim by Sinologist Marie-Claire Bergère, Shanghai

as a Treaty Port was used to extract profits for foreign trades; primarily those of the
British. The Bund at the time was, perhaps, the only intentional linear waterfront
skyline in the world. Its dazzling image successfully imitated and was favorably
compared with Manhattan’s skyline and it definitely trumped the image of Paris in
the same period.

History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

Figure 5: Paris Waterfront in the 1900s.

The Bund skyline exemplified the prevailing condition of Shanghai’s

identity, which was not made up of the original inhabitants, but by outsiders, who
asserted their superiority. The “key” to modern China, Shanghai accommodated
city dwellers that were proud of calling themselves “Shanghainese” regardless of
their original birthplaces.31

Although the building of the Bund was only partly planned, several
buildings were also hastily added to the corridor after the success of the previous
buildings. These necessarily hasty additions tended to erode the “sense of a whole.”
The image of Shanghai embraced people’s understanding of their own identity as

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

supported by hybrid cultural infrastructure mediated through built form. In other

words, the cultural resistance was mitigated by the idea of Shanghai as a “melting
pot.” Shanghai’s built cultural infrastructure represented different cultural norms
favoring strategies that would enhance the image of a world metropolis. To a
degree, the use of architecture in the city as a collective picturesque “billboard” that
attracted global attention emphasizes the fact that Shanghai had never fully been a
Chinese city.

The unprecedented economic progress gave birth to such things as the

“Chinese bourgeoisie” which was, alas, short-lived. It did not lead to an industrial
revolution; otherwise, Shanghai today might be different.32 The Bund was a
historic record of the semi-colonial period in China and “the architectural
interaction between the Eastern and Western cultures.”33

Figure 6: Above Skyline of Manhattan Waterfront in the early 1900s, compared to

Below The Bund Skyline in the same period. Photograph: Shanghai Archives &
Visual Shanghai

History, Power, and Modern Shanghai


After the Qing were overthrown by the military force of Sun Yat Sen and
succeeded by the Republic of China in 1912, China’s politics went into turmoil.34
Sun Yat Sen resided in Shanghai for six years from 1918 to 1924 to secure the city,
which, as his financial base was crucial to his provisional government and the
newly established Kuomintang (KMT) party. In 1927, the committee appointed
by Chinese City Powers (not to be confused with the Shanghai Municipal Council
run by the foreigners in the International settlement) produced a semi-official plan
for the city, which focused on the urban development of the northeast district as an
extension of the existing urbanized international concessions.35 The proposal forced
the population of the downtown Puxi area to be dispersed onto the west bank of
the Huangpu in order to avoid the overcongestion of the business center and the
collapse of the city’s outdated infrastructure.36 This “Metropolitan Plan for
Shanghai,” however, remained on paper due to the war against Japan.

In 1929, the Nationalist government decided that it wanted to reconsider

the idea of a master plan for Shanghai – a plan that would create a modern
industry and “diminish the power and the presence of foreign enclaves.”37 The idea
was not new; rather, it revisited Sun Yat Sen’s Metropolitan Plan for Shanghai,
which extended toward the north of Shanghai, on west bank of Huangpu River –
the area remained untouched by any development.38 The primary objective of this
extension was to “build a metropolis that would be large and modern, both in its
structure and function, to reestablish Shanghai as the Great Port of the East.”39
Dong Dayou, a Chinese architect trained in a prevailing Beaux-Art style
architecture, was recruited by the KMT government to accomplish this task. Dong

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

proved to be the perfect man for the job, not only through his extensive neo-
classical architectural projects in Shanghai but also his bonded connection with
prominent influential architectural firms which gave him essential access to the
political core.

Figure 7: Dong Dayou’s Plan for Shanghai Civic Center, 1929.

The dominant trends, derived from the educational institutions from which
the first generation of modern Chinese architects graduated from abroad, did not
have any competing choices.40 Assimilation had already dictated the trend of neo-
classical style with its advanced construction technology. While a northern city
like Beijing was partial to the so-called “adaptive architecture” of American
architect Henry Murphy, Shanghai and the southern cities still favored eclecticism,
a foreign style, which had become “intrinsically” traditional for urban Shanghai in
the 1930s. The KMT leaders’ ambition to expand the city to Pudong,
notwithstanding the massive cost resulted in a constraint on the project by the
financial instability of the Nationalists. Dong, now working for Chiang, relied on

History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

the civic design of Puxi’s already constructed infrastructure as he proposed the

northern axial expansion.

Dong’s plan embraces several “city beautiful elements,” such as symmetrical

axial planning, grand boulevards, open green spaces, an obelisk monument in the
center, and classical buildings of a uniform height. However, it represented a shift
in the way the “city” was perceived, from being a portrait of commercial power,
like Manhattan, to institutional power, like Washington D.C. That is, while the
Bund was maintained as a commercial corridor in the south, the new governmental
district would be located in the north. Despite the fact that the civic plan for
Shanghai was completed, it was not implemented due to the course of the second
Sino-Japanese War, resulting in the Japanese occupation from 1937-45.

There were two other important events that substantially impacted the
development of the city after the glorified period of the 1930s: World War II and
the founding of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.). While World War II
introduced Japanese control into the hybridized cosmopolitan and equation, the
founding of the P.R.C. and the subsequent strict control of the Communist party
delayed the re-organization of the city’s economic system. The concessions had
been handed back to the Chinese during the war.


The subsequent Japanese occupation during 1937-1945 brought about one

of the most ambitious plans for Pudong. This was to turn Shanghai into the East
Axis’ capitol, resembling the ambition Adolph Hitler had for Berlin.41 The

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Nationalist government crumbled under Japan’s threat of military invasion, as did

their political holds over the city. Under Japanese control, Shanghai was used not
only as an instrument of the imperial army, but also as an economic engine of
“strategic importance”: the goal for anyone wishing to take control of Shanghai.42
Despite its constant “secret” support for both the KMT and the Communist
armies, Shanghai continued to operate under absolute Japanese occupation,
making considerable profit for their new regime under the Japanese’s business
monopoly.43 Japanese architects and planners quickly developed several plans for
Shanghai. The most provocative of these plans was by Kunio Maekawa, a Japanese
Modernist who had worked in Le Corbusier’s atelier. Pudong was conceived by
Maekawa as an ideal venue for the extension of a continuous Modernist super grid
extending from Puxi.

Not only would Maekawa’s East-West monumental axis wipe out the
existing lilong fabric, but it would also create a continuous linear plaza,
unprecedented in its scale, across Huangpu connecting the two shores. In this plan,
every building on the Bund in the path of this Modernist ceremonial mall would
be removed to make way for the continuation of the dominating axis Maekawa
drew from Nanjing Road. The connection between the two shores was articulated
through the vast and monumental scale of the waterfront landscapes. “The plan is
immediately reminiscent of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City,” Alan
Balfour observes.44 In actuality, had this been built, the unparalleled scale of this
public space would have surpassed Tiananmen Square by at least threefold.

History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

Figure 8: Kunio Maekawa’ Plan for Pudong, 1942.

Across the river on the Pudong side, Maekawa placed a colossal pyramid at
the center of a public park to serve multiple recreational, civic, and ceremonial
purposes. For Maekawa, as it was for other Modernists, only unprecedented
monumentality could resurrect the city from the Chinese and colonial past, which
was to be forgotten and replaced by the new Japanese future. Maekawa’s plan for
Shanghai was the eradication of its past history, particularly though the demolition
of the Bund.

The dropping of the atomic bombs in August 1945 ended the Modernist
dream of the Japanese. The surrender of Japan in August 1945 brought World
War II to a close, and freed China from the tyranny of the Japanese Empire. The
KMT returned to power again for only a few years before Mao Zedong and his

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Communist Party of the north marched down to Shanghai and overthrew the
KMT government in 1949. In 1946, after World War II, Shanghai was handed
back to a single Chinese government under the KMT. The liberation of this semi-
colonial city involved merging the French concession and the international
settlements. The foreigners and their extraterritoriality status were expurgated from



As the city came to life in response to the challenge of Deng Xiaoping in the
late 1980s, the inspiration was Manhattan…[Deng, by ways of central
government and local authority,] carefully cultivated propaganda by the
authorities, preparing the people for a spectacular transformation – a
mission for the modern city. 45

Shanghai under Mao was a period of transition. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap
Forward and Cultural Revolution both greatly constrained the way in which the
socialism developed during this time.46 The so-called “adaptive Marxist-Leninist
socialist economy,” whose aim to achieve social equality operated through the
absolute control of labor and products, brought about the most negative change in
the social structure of Shanghai. Similar to other socialist cities, the differentiation
between social classes was reduced by leveling of consumption patterns and lifestyle
imposed by the socialist government. The number of agricultural enterprises was
minimized and Shanghai became a true “industrial powerhouse.” Spurred on by
Mao’s famous quote, “I want to see smokestacks everywhere,” heavy manufacturing
History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

industry dominated production in the Maoist era. The shift from a free-market
capitalist economy to a socialist economy brought about the decline of Shanghai.

After the Communists took over the city under the founding of the PRC,
Mao announced that Shanghai would be “central to the socialist economy”47; in a
sense modifying Shanghai to become the model of the appropriate socially
economic Chinese city, despite the well-established capitalist economy typical to
most treaty port cities at the time. Action had to be taken against moral decay, such
as prostitution and mob violence, as moralization was mandatory to the socialist
economic system. The Communist Party was embarrassed by the thriving trades,
which went against everything it stood for.

The new socialist economy re-structured the entire business circuit in the
city, transferring control from private to public hands. The collective work unit
system or danwei (literally means “working commune”) was introduced and
Shanghai’s industrial status became synonymous with many cities in China – “with
thousands of smoke stacks.” Mao’s view of Shanghai revolved around the issue of
consumption and colonialism as “evil and corrupting,” and thus in need of
redirection towards “city of production.”48 The direct outcome of this reformist
ambition was the 1953 Soviet-influenced master plan, which focused
predominantly on workers’ housing, railway planning, and the basic form of
administration centers. These were the basic elements of the new “socialist city.”
China under Mao’s direction, aimed for economic self-reliance in light of its
substantial human resources. Mao’s reform required a dramatic redeployment of
resources which had significant consequences for Shanghai. This included the
centralization of political power in Beijing; insuring the government’s policy of

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

economic dependence; and establishing China’s diplomatic isolation vis-à-vis the

West and relative closure to foreign trade; and shutting out significant investment
in Shanghai.49

Buildings on the Bund were thus allowed to deteriorate; but no more than
any other buildings in the city. In fact, the Bund buildings were used as
government offices, including the Mayor’s office. After the victory of Chinese
Communism, “foreigners and wealthy Chinese fled, the drug trade and nightlife
vanished, and the Paris of the East became a depressed industrial city forgotten by
the world.”50 Though the city itself did not produce much profit, the newly
nationalized industries created an unprecedented financial flow within the Chinese
orbit. Despite rigid Communist control, Shanghai still contributed the largest
revenue in the country to the central government. Mao’s socialist views focused on
social structuring through the diminishing of class conflict, making the physical
planning of the city secondary. There was, however, a plan to make a part of
Pudong a riverside park.51 This plan, however, died with Mao in 1976 and the
passing of the control of China to Deng Xiaoping, who would play a critical role in
the development of Shanghai in his own right.


Deng Xiaoping’s era-defining “Open Door Policy” of the 1980s is pivotal to

the birth of the new Shanghai.52 The shift from self-reliance, which had been
China’s policy for thousands of years, to the “new” policy that did not restrict the
admission of foreign imports was the manifestation of the leap towards capitalism –
global capitalism to be precise – boosting the long-struggling process of Chinese
History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

modernization from the end of the Opium Wars.53 The policy’s key strategy was
the establishment of special development zones, which originally did not include
Shanghai. In 1984, however, through a long and intricate process of lobbying
among the country’s top leaders, Shanghai was given special status as part of the
fourteen coastal cities designated to encourage capital flow through business
transactions.54 The quantitative success of the early days of the Open Door Policy
produced enormous profits for China, making it possible for Shanghai to become a
bastion for both industrial and service-sector business. Massive amounts of funding
for both short- and long-term infrastructural improvements were given to Shanghai
from the early 1990s onward. According to Richard Marshall, “Shanghai invested
three times more in its urban infrastructure [over the] last five years than the total
invested in the previous forty.”55 The “1984 Master plan,” initiated by Former
Mayor Jiang Zemin, compellingly set comprehensive guidelines for both the
redevelopment of the central city, and the establishment of satellite towns. Yet the
plan did not immediately receive the substantial support from the central
government essential to its implementation. The plan was delayed for six years
before receiving significant attention from the President himself.


The return of foreign investment in the opening of this jewel of the Far East
was quickly matched and surpassed its old days. The Bund, although not
reclaiming its past status, had been partially revived and used as headquarters for
foreign financial institutions in order to set up their new business base in the East.
Neo-classical buildings on The Bund were revitalized to support service-sector
business. The demand for space, however, had increased drastically and become
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

extremely expensive by the mid 1980s increasing several fold beyond the capacity
of this poorly maintained commercial corridor, and thus requiring either a
significant upgrade or else an expansion of Shanghai’s financial district.
Econometricist Gregory Chow remarks on the growth in the GDP of China,
which has been extraordinary from the outset of the reform:
What accounts for China’s success is the way in which the Chinese
government adopted institutions and policies that enable the resourceful
Chinese people and foreign “friends” to unleash their energy to develop the
Chinese economy…the secret of success of China’s economic reform is that
it allows the non-state sectors to develop in the setting of a market

Around the end of the 1980s, the dream of extending Shanghai across the river to
Lujiazui was again brought to public awareness by the Shanghai Urban Planning
and Design Institute.57 It was not yet seriously considered, however, because of the
institute’s lack of political clout. Central to the materialization of the plan was
Deng’s visit to Shanghai in 1990. Not only did he urge the municipal government
to consider the expansion of the city in order to accommodate the anticipated
demand for space due to the increasing population, but he also encouraged the
authority to “commodify” the empty land across from the Huangpu. His speech
following his visit is especially revealing:
Shanghai was China’s financial center where people freely engaged in
business. It should continue to serve as the center in order to attain an
international seat in banking. [As] finance is the heart of modern [Chinese]
economy; Shanghai will be the most important city to win for [China’s]
world position in the [economic] field. China must rely on Shanghai58

History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

Answering Deng’s call was Zhu Rongji, nicknamed the “Smashing Mayor” for his
uncompromising efforts to establish worthy collaborations.59 Risking his political
creditability in pursuit of his ultimate goal of attaining position as China’s Premier,
Zhu looked to François Mitterrand’s Grand Projets as a model for the new
Shanghai. The French influence comes not only from the pre-existing cultural
influence dating back to the Golden Age period, but also the good political
relationships, and the successful demonstration of power through architecture and
urban form of France’s capital city.60 Zhu, however, envisioned a plan that was
beyond Mitterrand’s imagination: to build the “New Shanghai” on the opposite
shore of the Huangpu River. He organized an international competition for the
Pudong area’s master plan in 1993, his final year in office. Due in large part to his
popularity gained from the “Pudong phenomenon,” Zhu later succeeded in
achieving his political ambition and became the Premier of China.61

The strategy Zhu employed is a classic example of global-city formation and

the infusion of foreign investment. He took advantage of Shanghai’s strategic
position from previous treaties and its location, felicitously known to the Chinese,
as the dragon’s head. Shanghai took out substantial foreign loans to invest in
massive infrastructure projects as a way to attract foreign speculation – providing
an international platform for financial exchange. This was expected to feed money
back into the system by fast business turnover. The formation of Pudong slowed
down the demolition of Shanghai’s architectural heritage which was in progress
since the opening of the country to the global market.

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

At the core of the Open Door Policy was the attraction of foreign
investment. The city’s new mandate would be to bring back the foreigners who left
Shanghai during the turmoil around the founding of the People’s Republic of
China. The appearance of Lujiazui, for Zhu, was biased towards emulating
Western cities, especially in the presence of high-rise towers and monumental
boulevards. With financial deals prepared for by the former Mayor Jiang, Zhu
promulgated his design for the city to be “a metropolis equal to New York and
London,” taking the city to its Golden Age. This included prodigious
infrastructure construction such as new traffic networks, sources of energy, urban
water facilities, and telecommunication projects.62 He forcefully put forward the
city’s development plan under the specific agenda: to be the “Oriental
Manhattan…to become an international metropolis of the twenty-first century.”63
In 1994, setting the stage for the unprecedented development of Shanghai, the
government-sponsored international conference on the strategic planning of
Pudong highlighted six ambitious objectives as outlined in “Shanghai, Towards the
Twentieth-First Century: A Research Report on Economic and Special
Development Strategy”:
To utilize the 6,300 square kilometer of multi-function megalopolis; to
achieve a GDP of RMB150,000 per capita with the expected growth rate of
11.4%; to transform Pudong into a tertiary-oriented economy with an
emphasis on finance, trade, and the service sector, to achieve the population
of 14 million; to restructure urban land use with a five square kilometer
Lujiazui and; to astronomically develop the new infrastructure for Pudong,
including the new airport and extensive highways.64

History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

As observed in the early development of the Bund, the nature of assimilating

skylines of Western metropolises was already embedded in the tradition of
Shanghai from its early days.

In order to make sense of Shanghai’s urban form, we must understand

urbanism of the city from both ideological and physical perspectives. In the
ideological perspective, the next section explores the controversy over the
international competition for Lujiazui in the 1990s, demythisizes the politics, and
reveals the pre-conceived ideas that underlie “pragmatic nationalism.”


Underlying the selection of Lujiazui’s master plan, the politics of the

conceived urban form became the reality of Shanghai today. The sense of
nationalism embedded in the political interventions sparked a dramatic dialogue
between the reality of the situation and the fabricated dream of the authority.65
The planning of Lujiazui offers a dramaturgy of Chinese nationalism in response to
changes in the country’s international circumstances.66 While patriotism is
mandatory to regain esteem from several decades of decay, the connection to the
rest of the world via cultural transactions and foreign policy is a complex weave.
The tension between nationalism and “globalization,” is a path which Shanghai
must negotiate.67 The distancing of Shanghai’s image from being China through
the making of new urban forms was a bold national strategy and an international
maneuver. Globalization is a reciprocal product of this particular kind of
nationalism. In contrast to Shanghai in the 1930s, which was prosperity-driven,

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

the integration of Shanghai into the true international community and the world
system of economy became an approach to modernizing China as a whole.

In the early 1990s, Zhu Rongji, the Mayor of Shanghai, began his quest for
the new Shanghai by seeking consultation from the Institut d'Aménagement et
d'Urbanisme de la Région d'Ile de France in Paris. The result was the international
competition for Lujiazui in 1993. Taking into account an uncommonly loose
program, roughly calling for the development of four million square meters of
commercial space of the “twenty-first century city,” the assumption that this was
just an “ideas competition” is persuasive. The given “aim” was simply inclusive and
To develop Pudong as a modern district with a rational development
structure, an efficient public transportation system, comprehensive urban
infrastructure, a rapid telecommunication system and a sustainable natural

The only given existing condition was the Oriental Pearl TV Tower at the tip of
the shore, and the planned International airport at the southwest corner of Pudong
district. Among the top architectural firms that Zhu invited to compete, Richard
Rogers, Toyo Ito, Massimiliano Fuksas, and Dominique Perrault were the four
teams that actually submitted proposals. Rogers’ radial compact-city plan stood out
as the easiest to comprehend because of its forceful formalistic architectural quality,
which “can be appreciated as a singular object,” Marshall comments.69

Notwithstanding the arresting gesture, the scheme represented Rogers’s

considerable attention to the neighborhood-scale urban quality, not just the

History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

monumentality of the high-rise city. The connection to the Bund as the relevant
precedent for envisioning Pudong was explicit. Roger wrote: “while the historic
Bund gave Shanghai a world famous skyline…it is on a nineteenth century scale.
Lujiazui will relate to it, but will be larger, on a scale appropriate to a city of the
twenty-first century.”70 The quality of urban form in Roger’s plan is phenomenal.
Roger’s conceptualized the urbanism of Shanghai through architectural-urbanist
lenses. The plan proposed a series of compound high-rise buildings, mixed with the
low-rise multi-function buildings clustered around a central open space. The
vehicular loop that spans in a circle across the project, serving as a “tube”
circulating people from a street level to the building level, connects the cluster to
the larger public space outside the center business district, and to the international
airport. Through a series of functional vertical arrangements of the large
infrastructural platform, Rogers’s plan separated people and automobile, making
the central business district an ideal car-free environment. The central open space
recalls Manhattan’s Central Park, as a significant recreational ground.

While the plan received enormous praise for its sensible planning creativity,
it was unavoidable that it would be criticized for its difficult implementation. Kris
Olds wrote: “[it] was pure paper architecture; an ideal city expressive of the
modernist ecotopia…No master plan of such complexity and technological
sophistication could ever be implemented in the messy and frenzied context of
Shanghai…[,that is,] the plan was pure theory.”71 Olds makes an interesting
observation. However, given Shanghai’s politics in the 1990s, the claim that
Roger’s scheme was too expensive is secondary. The subsequent history of
Lujiazui’s demonstrate an ambition to generate the global billboard by virtue of
architectural-urban expression that trumped economic rationality. To a degree, I

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

agree with Olds, especially considering the extreme confinement of formalistic

urban form, which might fail to accommodate the flexibility of Chinese cultural
dynamism. The urban form of Puxi consists of both planned and ad hoc urban
development; the integrity and identity of urban form has grown naturally out of
cultural and utilitarian responses to the physical form of the city. Rogers’ plan
imposes a rigidity that deviates such adaptive development over time.

Figure 9: Richard Rogers and Partner’s plan for Pudong, 1993.

Although Rogers’ plan was widely complimented, the competition judges

favored Perrault’s scheme, which encompasses a series of high-rise buildings along
the north and south sides of the shore, creating perpendicular corridors of
heterogeneous skyscrapers. One could easily relate the expression of this wall of
high-rise building along the waterfront corridor to the Bund. Despite the fact that
Ito’s and Fuksas’s plans were challenging and avant-garde in their emphasis on
History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

programming urban form and blurring the boundary between object and space, the
abstraction and conceptual gestures of both plans failed to draw the attention of
the judges and were not discussed as much as Rogers’ and Perrault’s.

Figure 10: Dominique Perrault’s Plan for Lujiazui, 1993.

In the end, the juries made an anomalous decision. They picked the
“Chinese team’s” plan – the least complicated plan proposed by the Shanghai
Urban Planning and Design Institute. The de jure reason for the selection was, as
Marshall wrote:
Because the Chinese team presented the superior understanding of the local
environment…the scheme was deemed to be politically more acceptable and
it was technically easier to implement quickly72

Olds adds: “[t]he Shanghai team is familiar with the site, the program, the means
to implement the proposal. The proposal provides the image of a city ambitiously

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

conceived along a central axis which feeds the district while ensuring a large
amount of flexibility for future construction.”73 Not only does the plan fully
neglect public participation, but it also embraces a series of successful urban icons
borrowed from notable cities in the West.

The so-called “optimized plan” of the Chinese team encompasses the

desired elements taken individually from all four plans, idealizing roughly around
Roger’s and Perrault’s schemes, but, according to Rowe, using “functionalist
concepts popular in the west in the 1960s and 70s, with a general spatial
configuration that incorporated ring and radial roads serving clusters of relatively
intense development, with open-space preserves and greenbelts in between.”74The
central park and the waterfront promenade are highlighted as two major open
spaces, claimed by the designers as “the provision for good urbanism,” surrounded
and anchored by a series of high-rise buildings. The apparent element that is not
drawn from the proposals is the Century Avenue, proposed to appease the
government’s aspiration to have a civic element in the “manner of Paris,” referring
to the eighteenth century Champs Elysees, or specifically the program for its
extension “Mission Grand Axe” in 1991.75 The avenue was outsourced to be
designed, appropriately, by a French architect Jean-Marie Charpentier. In his
master plan, building’s heights are not uniformly fixed; thus, high-rise buildings are
to be located arbitrarily across the shore with an emphasis on the two sides of
Century Avenue.

History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

Figure 11: The Proposal by Shanghai Urban Planning Institute.

This seemed like Shanghai government hosted a world-class design

competition just to use the design of its own designer. If that was the case, why did
Zhu Rongji invite the élite architects to participate in this setup in the first place?
One answer lies in the mentality of Chinese business. The priority for a project is
usually given to the instant delivering of the conspicuous product. “[Because]
Shanghai's soul is in its openness to change, its tolerance and its absolute
pragmatism,” says Architect Ma Qingyun.76 In other words, tangibility, short-term
investment, secured turnover, and practicality are the identification of success,
especially in the context of Shanghai’s dynamic growth.77 Chow comments: “In

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

their own environment of economic institutions, Shanghai people seem to know

and are accustomed to their own rules, which have proven to be reliable based on
their wealth and success in the last ten years.”78

Zhu, a mastermind of China’s global economy, expected Shanghai to gain

instantaneous global attention from this “rigged” contest, and intended to immerse
Chinese architects in the planning practice internationally in order to broaden their
professional horizon.79 Resonating Fulong Wu’s argument on the influence of
globalization on Shanghai’s urban development, the competition created an
expected “catalytic effect,” which helped to break the ice for the new milieu of
contemporary built form and environment.80 That is, Zhu substantially succeeded
in both ways – no competition in the world was more noted than the Lujiazui in
the early 1990s, and truly, the Shanghai Urban Planning Institute had learned a
valuable lesson, which they used as a model, and professionally exploited
throughout the remaining years of the twentieth century.

As Shanghai’s new financial center, Lujiazui is located at the tip of the

Pudong shore with a strong visual connection to the old Puxi. The dialogue
between the two shores is not just the interaction between “now and then,” but the
encounter between the two faces of the city built in two different ways. While the
Bund had been eclectically built to become a symbolic façade of Shanghai, Lujiazui
was pre-conceived and erected to emulate the impression made from a series of
skyscrapers laid across the vast landscape. The expressiveness of urban form lies in
its “boldness.” American architect Benjamin Wood critically asserts: “Pudong is all
about show – it’s designed to create plots of land for monuments to corporate
power, the global economy.”81 What is considered as an urbanist strategy does not

History, Power, and Modern Shanghai

seem to fit the purpose of showing the authority of Shanghai in the contemporary
time. Both the Bund and Pudong are case studies of how complicated uses of
architecture as visuals in a city re-construct meaning vis-à-vis a global narrative.

Despite the fact that the new development of Pudong was given a green
light from Beijing, the authorities had not seriously discussed the project for a
decade due to the investment risk. This was the case until the era of the Zhu
Rongji.82 Mayor Zhu ambitiously pushed the development of the plan, advocating
its accordance with the establishment of the municipal finance and trade company.
The new mega-infrastructure has been assigned to the west side of the city in
several master plans of Shanghai to support the establishment of Pudong, including
the extended subway lines, roads, highways, high-speed trains, and a new
international airport. As meticulously studied by Kris Olds, Richard Marshall and
Peter G. Rowe, the politics of the building of Lujiazui necessitates a replication of
the image of the great Western metropolises. This politics is a direct response to
the “pragmatic nationalism,” which is evidently immense in the making of new
urban space and architectural form.83

Whether the reinforcement the pragmatic nationalism using built form and
environment fail or succeed what we have learned is a series of ambitious attempts
to communicate certain messages of power to the world at large using visual
cultural symbols. The importance of the juxtaposing skylines of the Bund and
Pudong is not to be debated, but to be accepted. To understand Shanghai today,
given its relationship to its history, the next section will delve further into the city,
the heart of the New Shanghai – Lujiazui.


Despite the complete change of the Bund’s shoreline, the Bund has
remained remarkably intact stylistically. Yet, the time traveler felt the
dynamism of diverse modernities at work. The time traveler then made a
trip to the Planning museum, where he could see the whole city from a
bird’s-eye view. He was so shocked when he saw urban form of his city in
the “Great Model.” The planning staff came to him and gave him two
information pamphlets. First reads:

“Shanghai is better and better. The twenty-first century is full of promise. In

the new century, we will build Shanghai into the largest economic shipping
center in China, placing it in the first rank of historical cultural cities.
Furthermore, we will gradually build the city into one of the international
Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism

central cities of economy, finance and trade: “the global metropolis of the
twenty-first century.” We firmly believe that with all the efforts that are
currently being made by the municipal government and the people of
Shanghai, we will be able to carry out our plans and bring all our goals to

It is first useful to understand the goals of the city as underpinning the

specific “cause” that transforms its physicality. Can Shanghai really be the global
metropolis for the 21st century? The answer to this question lies in how “global
metropolis” is defined and what is to be expected from it. According to Sociologist
Saskia Sassen, a global city is:
An urban space with new economic and political potentialities, which
formulates the transnational identity and communicates … connecting sites
that are not geographically proximate yet are intensely connected to each
By this measure, even without advanced technologies, Shanghai has always been a
global city.

The definition of a “global 21st-century” city, however, is ambiguous,

although it can be thought of as a future of free-market competition. In this sense
the extensive Chinese workforce can also be added to the equation.3 In order to
achieve the goal in a theoretical sense, the development of Shanghai’s urbanism
corresponds to the parameters of a compact urban place that provides the soft
cultural infrastructure, the organizational structure that allows diverse architectural
cultures to represent different cultural norms while still maintaining their
representational integrity by means of architectural and urban orderings. The
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

integrity of “form,” or urban identity, is required to establish a tangible perception

to which everyone can relate. The result of this process is the making of a
cosmopolitan city that can compete in a globalised economic context.

This chapter discusses the ways Shanghai might be understood through its
urbanism. The purpose is to realistically check the actuality of built environment in
relation to its history and political presence through first-hand primary sources,
which is to fill unanticipated voids that surfaced in the understanding of Shanghai
in a physical sense. This can be done from four following perspectives – urban
form, individual buildings and urban imagery, visualization of the skylines, and
streetscape. Using the city as a primary source, this chapter presents specific
information derived from my observations needed to authenticate the research.
That is, whereas the history is a cursory look of the city, this chapter presents
analytically microcosmic views of the city.


An aerial view of Puxi, which faces Pudong across the river to the west,
reveals a series of high-rise commercial towers and highways that are superimposed
on the old fabric of lilong, low-rise row houses adapted from the Western tradition
to accommodate the families of Chinese workers.4 The stark contrast between low-
rise lilong houses and corporate high-rises is primarily a result of lax (and/or absent)
zoning practices and height restrictions at the beginning of Deng’s economic
reform. As polar opposites of urban form – old low-rise fabric and the new high-
rise buildings – the current fabric creates a problematic discourse between old
forms of inhabitation and the new corporate culture. Whereas the gridiron
Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism

structure and the fabric of existing lilong houses could have been used by
contemporary developers as cultural elements upon which to expand, they were
instead considered as obsolete and, as such, prime targets for demolition.

Figure 12: Bird's-eye view of Shanghai in 1937.

What epitomizes this perspective is Charpentier’s Century Avenue,

Lujiazui’s main spine. The false premise of the avenue begins with the determina-
tion of its width to be exactly ‘one meter wider than the Champs Élysées’ in order to
denote the triumph of the making of this physically significant urban element. Its
penetration through the diagonal super block of parallel housing in Pudong creates
irregular plot shapes. The programming and anticipated use of the space in Pudong
has never been made clear. Although the Municipal Planning Bureau has

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

developed comprehensive zoning regulations and infrastructure plans, the District

Authority Control’s process of refining those plans with respect to the particular
district’s details, i.e. Floor Area Ratio and coverage, results in a changing of urban
form. Moreover, when the plan comes down to the Controlled Detailed Planning
Section, whose job it is to execute decisions, grant permission for buildings, and
regulate the formal quality of each plot, a series of performative rules and
regulations re-define the final form of the physical design without taking into
consideration any of the original planning attempts. In other words, there is no
central organization that gives a comprehensive overview of planning for the three
planning units, working independently from above.4

So, if we compare the proposed Avenue to its built reality, the continuous
platform of buildings along its length is absent. Charpentier designed Century
Boulevard to be the primary component that gives an appropriate scale to the
streets in order to facilitate interaction at the base of the buildings before getting
into the super high-rise buildings. If the plan had been faithfully executed, it could
have created a reasonably strong urban characteristic. In Lujiazui, however, not
only is the ground that mediates the perpendicular change missing, but the
arbitrary execution of its open space is also disruptive to any sense of coherence,
conjuring instead a monotonous experience in urban space.5

Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism

Figure 13: Century Avenue, as originally designed by Arte, Jean Marie

Charpentier et Associés.

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Figure 14: Century Avenue in reality.

Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism

This monotony of the urban space is the result of a lack of development at

the pedestrian scale, which might have something to do with the attempt to make
Lujiazui into another Manhattan. Yet, while downtown Manhattan’s dense
skyscrapers are absorbed within the grid, and its lively street life directed by the
hyper-dense environment of a financial-scape, Pudong’s skyscrapers stand out as
scattered markers of individual buildings. The substantial distances between the
buildings, between the building and the open space, and between the building and
the pavement creates a lifeless street scene, almost depriving the city of its
exuberant life. While these actions have served to order the amalgamation of the
city’s urban form, in practice they have overlooked a more important concern
about the social stratification of a newly developed urban place.


Confronted by a jungle of glittering high-rises reminiscent of a science-

fiction movie, visitors to Shanghai might easily come to the conclusion that it is a
very rich city. Although there was, perhaps, one stage these buildings probably were
occupied; yet, since 2007, they are far from being fully occupied, and thus from
this perspective, the tall buildings in Lujiazui become purely symbolic. The
decision to position a handful of iconic skyscrapers side by side as a means of visual
competition with other dense cities in the West is telling. The original master plan
called for some skyscrapers to be grouped together in the heart of the CBD, while
other high-rise buildings were to be scattered randomly on both the eastern and
western sides of Century Boulevard. Such a distribution would have accentuated
the role of the towers as signifiers explicitly reinforcing an instant identity. These
skyscrapers do for Shanghai what the Eiffel Tower does for Paris. As Roland
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Barthes puts it, not only does built form generate meanings that constitute the
conception of the city, but the impact of the materialization of ideas also prompts
the creation of a new civic realm.6 The idea of making a great cityscape consisting
of high-rise buildings and monumental elements is essential in the making of
Lujiazui. Yet, this district’s tall buildings were not built to satisfy the need for
vertical expansion due to any lack of horizontal space, rather they were built for the
purpose of generating monumental symbolic value.7 The monumentality of these
urban elements are the unsubtle evidence of the actions taken by municipal
government, and fulfilled by the developer and designer, in the making of the
particular ‘form’ that recalls the patriotic past of China. It is not surprising that
their pragmatism would lead to the easiest way of establishing a level economic
playing field, if not a superior economic playing field, by building the highest
skyscrapers: the players being Shanghai’s competitors seeking global-city status.

This is evident from the attempt by Shanghai’s authority, and its

development partner, to make the Jin Mao Tower and the World Financial Centre
the tallest buildings in the world, and to be located in the Lujiazui master plan.
Both designs come from elite American architectural firms, and are programmed to
be mixed-use developments, consisting of office space, hotel rooms, conference
halls, observation decks, with shopping complexes on their ground floors. For the
Jin Mao Tower, the upper part of its trunk is simply an ultra-high atrium
surrounded by the corridors of hotel rooms, wrapped by a curtain-wall skin. The
elevation of the building to that extreme height is an obvious manifestation of
monumentality. Considering that labor in China is inexpensive, the construction
of both these buildings does not require as much financial investment as would
have been the case if they were to be erected in America or Europe.8

Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism

The semiotic quality of both buildings is obviously intended in yet another

manner: the local expressive references and the deliberate acquisition of visible
symbols of progress.9 It is as if their building is concrete proof of the ability to
match Western architecture style in height and grandeur, while simultaneously
leaving a unique indelible mark. The 88-story high Jin Mao Tower was designed to
resemble the ancient Kaifang pagoda (the legendary 11th-century Chinese brick
pagoda in Henan province) to instill a sense of nationalism in the local population.
The design of the 460-meter tall World Financial Centre has been the object of
debate over the abstract connotations of the circular void on the top of the
building. This, by chance, hit on a sensitive issue between China and Japan. The
New York Times journalist Howard French comments:
The representative of Mr. Minoru Mori [one of Japan’s foremost real estate
developers who funded the building of the World Financial Centre] gamely
protested that the circle with the sky ride was based on a traditional Chinese
symbol – the moon gate – but in the end they quietly backed down,
replacing the hole with a squarish slot.10

Also, even after the design had been finalized, some ten to twenty
additional floors were added to the building. This is because the clients demanded
that the building be not only a World Financial Centre, but also the world’s tallest
building.11 The confidence of modern Chinese capitalism was confirmed in the
making of ‘form’ – the envelope that uses the marvel of engineering technology.12

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Figure 15: Left Kaifang Pagoda, and Right Jin Mao Building.

Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism

Figure 16: Left Model of the World Financial Center as original designed.
Right A Rendering of the building after the circular opening on the top was
replaced by the rectangle.

What this perspective evokes is not the uniqueness of urban semiotics in

Shanghai, but the certain way in which high-rise buildings are pre-conceptualized
with a simple inference of power manifestation at work.

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form


The skyline iconography makes one wonder how people on the street
experience it. Leaving aside the issue of mimicking Manhattan, since we cannot
assume the planner of Lujiazui had in mind the necessity of socialization at the
pavement level, one can conclude that the streets in Lujiazui are not efficiently used
given their excessive width. Century Boulevard has eight traffic lanes, one traffic
island, four bicycle lanes (two each way), and two pavements that are as wide as the
traffic lanes, all comprising a total width of more than 330 feet. All the streets that
branch off the Boulevard are half this width. The district is not dense; hence, the
public activity encouraged by urban theorists such as Jane Jacobs does not exist.13
This problem has been observed by the Shanghai municipality, which has since
retrofitted the pavements by embedding them with a series of pocket landscape
parks in order to humanize their size.

Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism

Figure 17: Century Avenue and its oversized sidewalk. Seen from this photograph
is a series of linear pocket parks retrofitted into the deserted sidewalk.

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Figure 18: Model of the proposed Century Avenue by Charpentier, showing the
relationship between the sidewalk to the high-rise buildings along the avenue, and
from the buildings to the low-rise residential fabric as one moves further away from
the avenue.

Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism

Despite the fact that Lujiazui is deserted at first glance, what might shed
light on the situation is a comparison between the condition of streets in Lujiazui
and “pre-Lujiazui” Shanghai. Street life is fostered by human-scale elements (both
planned and ad hoc) corresponding to the nature of the dwellers’ norms of
inhabitation. This observation takes the methods by which the street was
functionally and culturally conceived in pre-Lujiazui Shanghai as a point of
reference. Prior to the development of Pudong in the early 1990s, Pudong was
basically an undeveloped territory with warehousing and industry in the early
twentieth century and ship building in the latter half of the century. To understand
the interaction between architecture and the urban form in terms of how its people
perceive their city, it is essential also to look at how streets in Puxi have historically
formed and performed over time.

In 1930’s Puxi, the main interactions between the building and the street
were business transactions. Pavements served as the mediation. Beyond the
mediating pavement, however, labor activities, as well as various modes of
transport, were taking place. There were always Chinese laborers loading and
unloading cargo from ships, pulling rickshaws and, waiting for customers, walking
along the street hoping to get itinerant employment. The Bund was usually
crowded, but it was never over-crowded, since the major public and commercial
spaces were located in the inner parts of the city, in the foreign settlements. One of
the most fashionable vistas was from the top of a building on the West Bund,
looking down to a street that curves to the east. Here, the Custom House and the
Bank of China were the monumental landmarks. Five modes of transportation
were used on the Bund, according to the status of the passengers: foot, bicycle,
rickshaw, tram, and car. In contrast to the streets of the Bund, the streets of
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Lujiazui are confined to a single narrative. While the Bund embraced energetic
street dynamism by its functioning as a reception point and travel corridor,
Lujiazui streets are usually empty and deserted, illustrating the complete failure to
relate the scale of the building to the scale of the pavement. The size of streets in
Pudong is not defined by prevailing modes of transportation or commercial
requirements; instead, it is demarcated by a political agenda: to convey
monumentality that helps to reinforce a sense of nationalism.14

Figure 19: Left International Settlement in the 1920s , and Right St. Pauls and
Ludgate Hill from Fleet Street, London, in1906

Figure 20: Street scene in Shanghai in 1900s. Photograph: Virtual Shanghai

Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism

Figure 21: Empty sidewalk of Century Avenue during rush hours.


Both skylines, facing each other across the river, are important icons of this
former Treaty Port city. The similarity between the two is that the images of both
are meant to display the expectant future of this urban place. For the Bund, it was
the commercial value of individual business on the Treaty Port’s shore, which the
appearance of a Western environment could reinforce. The making of the Bund
skyline comes from an internal need: the need for visual representation using built
form was necessitated by the establishment of the various external cultures that
existed in Shanghai from the opening of the Treaty Port. In contrast, the visual

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

representation of Pudong is a result of an external push. As the Bund is a linear

corridor, the appearance of the building is vividly experienced as a panorama – the
height of a building is not as important as the degree to which it can be seen from
afar; a building can be clearly perceived no matter where the viewers are. But for
Pudong, with a setting that spans the large urban space, the height and size of
buildings are essential, which is why the planning of Pudong favours high-rise
buildings. Though specifically designed for effect, their effect is weaker than that of
the ad hoc Bund.

In Kevin Lynch’s terms, this understanding resonates with the “pre-

conceived imagery – something to which the observer can relate by virtue of its
spatial relations to the observer.”16 The Bund is a skyline that allows both visual
and physical interactions between the city and its people, for the image one sees
and the physical interactions with the buildings are firmly reinforced by its
inhabitable quality. Pudong’s skyline, however, is relatively abstract. Not only is
the composition of the Pudong skyline too complex to be perceived
comprehensively (only outlines and gestures are expressed through visuals), but the
human scale is also lost in the overwhelmingly vast and pedestrian-unfriendly
planning of its public space. For instance, Century Avenue is too wide given the
height of the surrounding buildings, and its lack of public functions. Considering
the vastness of the space unrelated to Everyman’s sense of scale, it is difficult to
imagine how a person would be able to coherently conceive and remember the
physical space by its urban characteristics. Yet, Pudong is not without living beings.
Coming up from a subway station, visitors encounter the lack of directional
indicators; they might not even have any clue that they have arrived in Pudong.
Despite the clarity of Pudong’s high-rise buildings when viewed from the Puxi

Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism

shore, they do not help to orient people because they are placed arbitrarily in the
vast concrete landscape of Lujiazui, which does not enable visitors to relate
themselves to anything familiar. Then, as they start to walk from the Oriental Pearl
Tower, at the north-western end of Century Avenue, to Lujiazui Park, the area’s
central park, it takes fifteen minutes. The distance between these vertical and
horizontal icons of the city is more than enough for the impression of the
monumentality of the vertical to disappear and to be replaced by the flatness of the
horizon without a single remnant of the mental image of the city. The size of the
Avenue and the location of the buildings do fulfill the intended political posturing,
but the overwhelming scale fragments any visual effect.

Figure 22: Lujiazui’s Central Park, located in the center of the CBD surrounded
by rows of high-rises and scattered buildings with no supporting density.

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Figure 23: The famous postcard scenery of Pudong’s skyline

The much-celebrated image of Pudong is apparent only when viewed from a

distance. Regarding its principal connotation of progress by means of built form,
Pudong needs the entire environment. While the Bund does not need a major
iconic building to define its symbolic significance, the image of Pudong is
dominated by the unorthodox appearance of the “Pearl,” the pagoda-shaped
skyscraper, and the series of modern reflective-skin buildings. The inevitable
emergence of modern and contemporary building typologies disturbs the cultural
identity and the way in which people conceive their meanings. Both the Bund and
Pudong are case studies of how complicated uses of architecture as visuals in a city
construct meaning vis-à-vis global narrative. Notwithstanding the tradition of
naively mimicking skylines, because “Manhattan has many skyscrapers,” the fact
that they are really “assembling” it without a thorough understanding of their own

Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism

need is critical. This causes new cities to look like one another. A fact re-asserted by
The Economist:
No wonder that swathes of Seoul look like swathes of Shanghai. Even the
most ambitious buildings, many designed by trophy architects who flit from
one country to the next, often seem alien to their environs.17

Whether they fail or not, it is certain that they are trying to convey to the world
their own messages of monumentality in service to a larger agenda of the identities
of power. Observed by Jennie Chen: “It [Shanghai] has been torn asunder by
colonialism, war, political exhaustion, economic ebbs and flows, and social
implosions. Yet look at it now; it is spectacular by all visual standards.”18


The selling point of Shanghai’s tourism in the early twentieth century was
the elegant image that replicated Western neo-classical styles. The insistent focus
on the monumental, iconic representation of Shanghai consistently obscured its
human scale, especially the sense of inhabitation of the city. Historically, the Bund
was on the tourist map because of its iconographic nature. Its accommodation of
many intruding cultures did not succeed in mediating between tradition and
modernity, but rather inclined toward abrupt representations of external cultural
norms. Also apparent in a microcosmic perspective, the inherent contradiction
between local and foreign notions of open space – observed from the street scenes –
represented the other notion of a modern Chinese city, particularized by the
tension between the leap towards Western modernity and finding a new Chinese
identity through a mixture of diversified cultures.
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

What the observations in this paper suggest is a fourfold conclusion. Firstly, that
there was a lack of coordination in the planning process, which resulted in a
fragmented urban fabric. Secondly, the overwhelming reliance on the
monumentality of urban elements, such as high-rise buildings, without any
concern for their utilitarian role in the city, is not conducive to a felicitous
distribution of density in Shanghai’s current urban environment. Thirdly, there is
an absence of the human scale in the streetscape that diminishes contact, the sense
of security, and the pedestrian energy level of the city. And fourthly, the
production of the city as an image creates, as suggested by the first conclusion, a
fragmented urban form and urban spatial organization. This is the reality of

Whether or not pedestrians saw the monumental buildings along the Bund
as urban icons of which they should be proud, or as a mimicry of the Western
metropolis that eroded their Chinese identity, is important to the holistic
understanding of Shanghai, which has to be contextualized and understood from
every possible angle. Knowing how and from where we view the history of
Shanghai enables us to see beyond the veneer of the magnificent scenery of the
Bund and approach the fuller “reality” of Shanghai.

Politicization and the Rhetoric of Shanghai Urbanism

Figure 24, 25: Above Hyper dense high-risescape of Puxi – the “Old Shanghai,”
and Below Sparse cityscape of Lujiazui.


Eventually, our time traveler’s reactions went from surprise to fascination.

He then took a walk from the Bund toward the West side on Nanjing Road,
expecting to find the Racecourse; he instead found the People’s Square.
After wrestling with the automatic ticketing machine, which he surprisingly
liked, he took Shanghai Subway line three – which was now comfortable for
him – to Lujiazui. Coming out at the new landscape of Century Avenue, he
was totally disoriented and lost. The scale of the road was too big. The
imaginary landscape of coherent built forms, which had excited him when
viewing it from the other side of the river, decomposed into the vast and
gigantic fragments upon arriving in Lujiazui’s district.

Not wanting to be influenced by nostalgia nor be branded as a conservative

“old Shanghainese,” he asked the question: “how can I understand this place
for its contemporary value?”
The Politics of Built Form

Fundamental to the argument of this book is the undeniable presence of the

“New Shanghai” – the term that evokes an image of a city enmeshed in capitalism,
high-tech infrastructure, and contemporary architecture. It is the fabrication of a
so-called “instant urbanity”1 that responds to the culture of a capitalist-oriented
market economy. The ascendancy of the new skyline of Lujiazui is the outcome of
the move toward “Open Door” modernization (as opposed to the earlier
modernization during the treaty port era). The Open Door policy in the late 1980s
made the development of Lujiazui unprecedented in speed of construction,
approach to marketability, and urban form. The new spatial organization is viewed
from a different angle as a result of the shift in market strategy. Fulong Wu
“..[U]rban growth…[in Shanghai]…is a result of a profound shift from
‘developmental’ state to the ‘entrepreneurial’ city, which takes its place [in
this case, Lujiazui] as a spatial commodity.”2

Shanghai can be understood not only as a city of physical expression, but also as a
breeding ground of cultural modernizations compelled by the onslaught of
commercialization from the 1840s onward. For instance, the Treaty Port, the
regional center for commerce and industry, and the focal point of China’s
economy can only be operational where the arbitrariness of cultural resistance
persists through an ethnically diversified environment. The urgent needs of the
new urban identity pushed incrementally by the so-called “socialist market
economy” resulted in obviously exorbitant urban experimentation. Shanghai is
always a natural choice for the experiment because, as commented by Zheng
Shiling, throughout the history, “Shanghai has always been an open city.”3

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form


The making of Shanghai can be accounted for largely by considering the

political-economic force operating within the city. As the growth of the city has been
predominantly the result of its advantageous position as a port, Shanghai’s
economy has always been prosperous, but under the control of internal politics.4
From the beginning of the colonial period, through the age of “Oriental Paris (and
Manhattan),” to the present, a series of political interventions has forcefully
changed the city’s built environment. The underlying factor that makes the
intensity and the level of physical transformation of Shanghai different from other
cities in China is its cosmopolitan society, and its short urban history. The cultural
infrastructure of the city has been gradually softened by the intrusion of foreign
values, represented through all possible forms of environment. Because there has
never been a significant resistance from the Shangahinese themselves, the
perception of the city has consistently been dominated by the “Shanghailanders,”
especially during the Golden Age.

Heterogeneity, as brought about by hybridization became the internal

culture of Shanghai. So, as many scholars point out, Shanghai’s urban culture has
been created, manipulated, and contextualized by the foreign models. By the
1930’s, so deeply rooted was the amalgamation of external cultures that it was
dubbed “the Other China,” to use Marie-Claire Bergère’s term.5 Prior to the
present, Shanghai had never been considered a focal point for cultural
development, but rather a melting pot of everything that was possible to encourage
the growth of the city as China’s economic engine. Shanghai was “the Emperor’s

The Politics of Built Form

ugly daughter”: she may be ugly, but she wields the power. This power enabled
Shanghai to freely ignore or embrace all precedents in order to modify the city’s
attractive image, in accordance with the whims of whomever was in authority at
the time. The common perception is that Shanghai was, has been, and will
continue to be the “goose” that lays golden eggs for China’s leap towards economic
modernization. Serving the city’s economic role, hybrid culture is fundamental to
Open Door capitalism. Not only does it welcome foreign cash flow for circulation
in China, but it also fosters business transactions from every possible channel,
themselves loosened by the pre-conceived “Shanghai as a goose” mentality. So, by
nature, the culture of Shanghai is the culture of hybridity. Moreover, the idea of
expanding the city across the river to Pudong is by no means new – the Japanese
vision of Pudong in the 1940s is closest to what we see today. Chinese Celebrity
Architect Ma Quinyun comments:
[The hybridity] is indeed the true [Shanghai’s] Chineseness. Everything is in
constant mutation; nothing is set as fixity. We [the Shanghainese] don't
follow any spatial models. We don't care about the look of the building, so
much so everybody still lives in Shanghai in ugly buildings. We care about
how convenient life is.6

The existence of Lujiazui, however, was not solely economic, but the inevitable
result of several factors. It was initiated by spatial necessity as Shanghai required
physical expansion in order to accommodate its floating population. It was driven
by the Open Door modernization concept, and pushed by the progressive politics
of Shanghai’s government. It was also enabled by Chinese pragmatism. Yet,
Lujiazui ultimately owes its existence to the soft cultural infrastructure of Shanghai
cosmopolitanism and its facilitation of the city’s heterogeneous nature.
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form


By constructing new but false images of Shanghai that does not exist,
planners and architects are “manipulating history” by manipulating
geography, resting the city’s future on an edge between the pain of historical
reality and the futile hopes of a city that yearns for the reshaping of history.7

The issue of politics is essential to the understanding of Shanghai not as an

ordinary Chinese city, but a city that China desires to exploit. I have been building
my argument on Rhoads Murphey’s and Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s analytical notions
of “Shanghai exceptionalism.”8 Politics in this sense is confined to the
understanding of “individual or collective choices” driven by aspirations to greater
status and power that inform the design of this particular built form and
environment. The establishment of a “Shanghai special economic” zone in 1984 is
one such choice yielding both a political statement and a physical form,
demonstrating the aim to make Shanghai an economic powerhouse of international
trade. Again, as implied in Bergère’s accounts on the breakneck pace of Shanghai’s
urban development, Shanghai was a southeastern city along with other cities in the
Pearl River Delta that was chosen in the 1990s to operate as the “head of the
dragon.”9 This imagery was deployed by Deng in the confrontation with the so-
called “conservative bureaucracy in Beijing”10 in the Post-Mao era. In keeping with
William Skinner’s 1964 model of China’s political cognitive geography, the
Beijing-centric view of the regime’s power in the 1980s would have required
keeping the capital city a mere symbolic city, shielded from any intervention which
might disturb alignments of Chinese cosmology and power recognized by the
Chinese from the ancient time.11 In other words, Deng realized that Beijing had to
The Politics of Built Form

remain conservative, and anonymous economically, but he knew he could do

whatever he wanted with Shanghai. In order to enlarge the available space to
support massive expansions of the Open Door’s economy, the idea of moving
across the river to Pudong was introduced. The timing was right to gain national
prestige and power on the global stage; this finally justified the overwhelming
expense of the required infrastructure investments.

Although there was no official study on the development plan, the

approximate cost of expansion across the north-south axis of Puxi, which were
mostly farmlands, could also be as considerable as building up a new business town
in Pudong. The uneconomical investment in infrastructure, which had prevented
similar attempts in the city’s short urban history, became less unimportant
compared to the far more critical resurrection of the entire country’s economic

By moving away from the pre-conceived image of Shanghai and other

Chinese cities, the Shanghai government and the central power together were
strongly convinced that they could manifest liberal economic progress by direct
confrontation and competition. Lujiazui’s skyline is not meant to replicate the
skyline of Manhattan, but to succeed and replace it – beating Manhattan in its own
game – ambitiously proclaiming a new era of world economic power and the
shifting of the global financial center from the West to the East. The result is an
absolute control in the draconian exploitation of urban elements, putting
democracy – the making of urban form in a sociological aspect – in a subsidiary
position. The idea in itself might sound unreasonably bold, but the fact that the

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

way in which the Chinese central authority idolizes progress should not be

The Bund might have declined a great deal from the Communist take-over,
but the reason that it could not be used for the ambitious program of the “New
Shanghai” was that the space requirements for the new city were beyond its
capacity. This was the reason for the re-assessment of Pudong as the new
development entity. The first job of the new business center was to reinforce the
new urban identity to promulgate its prominence in the global economy. The
emphasis on the proposals of the international competition of Lujiazui was not
accepted on innovation, creativity, or sustainability, but rather on the feasibility,
the ease of implementation, and the desired image of the city. This resulted in a
series of incomprehensible urban elements, including the arbitrarily distributed
urban plan that accommodates an over-sized boulevard, deserted central park,
gargantuan high-rises, and neglected waterfront. What is seen as an urbanist
strategy to design a better city out of the tabula rasa of Pudong was not taken
seriously by the authorities who were fixated on constructing a simulacrum of a
Western metropolis built elsewhere collectively over the course of the previous two

While international architects espoused a model for a new urban place

drawn from the lessons of failed modern cities, the interplay of politics had already
dictated a particular form. The existence of tall skyscrapers in a place that is a vast
landscape is an anti-thesis to the “form follows finance” theory of the skyscraper.12
Michael Masterson writes: “Shanghai itself is so over the top…[y]ou wander about
slack-jawed and dumbfounded, staring up at the gargantuan buildings and

The Politics of Built Form

wondering who built them, who occupies them, and who pays the rent? (Four
hundred skyscrapers at, say, two hundred million dollars apiece - what does that
come to and how can it be justified?)”13 The final plan of Lujiazui reflects the
politics of built form through the “international presence in response to a new
globalized environment,” which, according to Zhang Xudong – or even Fredric
Jameson – is postmodern to the core.14 Peter Rowe reflects on this as a “missing of
the middle ground.”14

Taking away the political interventions and mobilizations that have created
it, Shanghai would either decline, as many scholars have hypothesized, due to its
moral decay (the support from working class, and intellectuals would no longer be
there to sustain the presence of liberality) or, at the other extreme, it would
“organically grow” and, at the same time, heal itself from the mortal wounds to
become a Western metropolis like Manhattan or Chicago. Lujiazui would still be
built, but in a less aggressive way since there would be no need to oppose the
established skyline. Its job would be to support the demand for the reallocation of
the financial sector, providing an opportunity for the short-sighted rationalized
economy of scale, rather than the steroidal “economy of speed.”


So, how should we perceive Shanghai, considering its condition of hybridity

and the abrupt leap from rural to urban and from urban to “hyper-urban” as a
result of the government’s desire to make an instant image for the city? The
answers are twofold. The first comes from a historical angle. The development of
Pudong as a whole is an “inflation” of Shanghai’s urban development. Despite the
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

great difference in scale, the gradual building of the Bund was no less provocative
than the instant “making” of the Pudong New Financial District today. In fact, in
a socio-economic perspective, the Bund waterfront created a larger impact on the
urban realm, considering the “bleakness” and the lack of urban experience of the
city at the turn of the nineteenth century. The building of the Bund was a cultural
explosion since it was built on top of a fishing village. In addition, taking into
account the proximity of the building to the waterfront, the monumentality of the
Bund was unparalleled even by Western standards. The prime location of the
waterfront of the new financial city became its identity to global traders. It indeed
put Shanghai on the map of global finance during the period of “Rising Shanghai.”
If we take the building of the Bund as a precedent for the subsequent urban
development, the making of Lujiazui is nothing new. Ackbar Abbas comments:
“Shanghai today is… also something more subtle and historically allusive: the city
as a remake…”16 The purpose of Lujiazui is to create an impact similar to the one
made by the Bund in the 1930s. The detachment of the superficial planning
process from corresponding functions of townscape fails to grasp the sophistication
of the image of the Bund. A city of a vast non-programmed landscape,
environment unfriendly to pedestrians, and high-rise jungles, although successful
in attracting lucrative investments, falls short in attracting people. I am talking
about a population representative of Shanghai.

The Politics of Built Form

Figure 26: Panorama of Shanghai’s skyline showing the juxtaposition of two

skylines: the Old colonial and the new modern skyscrapers.

Lujiazui will continually attract foreign flows of capital and provide massive
job opportunities for the citizens of Shanghai – but in what sense? Shanghai in the
1930s consisted of foreigners and immigrants; the city’s culture was a responsive
mechanism to the influx of the “otherness,” creating a so-called “Shanghai culture.”
Built form and environment were not pre-designed to cope with the change, but
were continually added in order to accommodate the exciting commercial
initiatives and the need for the image. The opposite is true of Pudong where
everything needed for an anticipated future was chosen for maximum impact. In a
similar vein, if Lujiazui is not to follow the same footsteps but to move beyond
what Puxi achieved in both qualitative and quantitative senses – money and
identity – it will have to deal with the “contemporariness” of Shanghai in the same
way Puxi did in the 1930s. Lujiazui may or may not have to deal with the same
factors. These include foreign investors and foreigners seeking their fortunes in a
vibrant and dynamic insulated business atmosphere.

The second answer comes from an architectural-urban point of view. The

perception of Shanghai to some extent hinges on the understanding of hybrid
urbanism. It is useful to return to our earlier query: Is the urbanism of Shanghai

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

hybrid? Has the urbanism of Shanghai ever been hybrid? The answer is neither just
yes or no; but this perception should be secondary to the understanding of the city
as a physical expression of the collective visions of its planners. Most important
modern cities have evolved with changing technologies and global commerce.
However, Shanghai took a quantum leap from a feudal past to the modern age.
Hybrid urbanism in itself does not alter justifications of the different faces of the
city. Instead of trying to search for the identity of Chinese urban culture, it may be
just that hybridity is indeed the intrinsic characteristic of Shanghai urbanism. The
abrupt leap from rural to urban after the Treaty of Nanjing in the shadow of the
Opium War represents the domination of foreign planning and the erosion of
domestic culture. As Shanghai had never been an urban place prior to the opening
of the Treaty port, external forces brought about the urbanism of Shanghai from
the start. Puxi developed as a western city positioned in old China – a condition
that was inherently hybrid.

In this sense, if we use the meaning of hybridity as a “mixing of two cultural

confluences,” the emergence of the modern Treaty port and the city of
Shanghai was solely an outcome of one political ideology, which then
influenced the making of the city. There is no “native Shanghainese.” Either
the original inhabitants moved out of the city during the settlement period
or were dominated by the foreign culture to become “colonial Shanghai”
urbanites. The native presence has never been sufficiently strong to persist
under the intrusion of foreign dominance. The city was re-composed by
divergent cultural forces.

The Politics of Built Form

From the city scale, Shanghai enjoyed the coexistence and incorporation of
different planning elements, including the super block, central public recreational
space, commercial boulevards, and the lilong. Thanks to the massive immigration
of the foreigners who had made the city a cosmopolitan urban place, the
unprecedented Westernized plans of the city were accepted by the citizenry who
were not attached to the old Shanghai. Lujiazui’s existence does not hybridize
Shanghai. As a financial center “out there” to serve a particular purpose of the
government, this “Chinese City for the Twenty-First Century” is autonomous by
nature. Apart from the fact that it was built out of a field of swamps across the river
from the Bund where there was no cultural significance, its programs and functions
were solidly defined by the planning bureau to be separated from those of Puxi. Its
unique infrastructure was ambitiously put forth toward becoming the “Other
Shanghai.” Its purpose was to attract global flows of capital through its financial
service sector.15 The city image of Lujiazui was expected in the same way to
displace the image of the existing Shanghai, the Bund.

To pursue this argument further, Shanghai has always been the economic
engine of China; therefore the fabrication and construction of the new global
economic culture are logically rationalized by the way in which the city extends this
perception. If there was genius loci at any given time of urbanized Shanghai, it
would be the being “Non-Chinese China,” or the hybrid culture of cosmopolitan


The making of both The Bund and Lujiazui can be conceived as a

production of image, supported by the demand for economic advantage. The
purposes of the making of both skylines are confined to a single keyword,
“foreigners.” But in a different way: foreigners built the Bund for themselves, while
Lujiazui was created by the Chinese to attract foreign flows of capital. Setting aside
an issue of urban heritage versus the new high-tech urban elements across the river,
it is obvious that the planning of Lujiazui is less concerned with the tastes of the

Although the making of the Bund skyline during the early twentieth century
was superficial to the extent that the chosen forms of the “design templates” were
derived from the Western precedents to replicate particular images, the abstract
quality of urban space imbedded in the spatial organization of the Bund waterfront
facilitated its acceptance by the society as discussed earlier in this book. This

mediated the different internal social factor in social structure between the
foreigners and the Chinese who lived in Shanghai. This is not the case for Lujiazui.
Notwithstanding the fact that a particular “form” was pre-determined by the
authority, several famous architects were invited to submit their design proposals in
order to provide some fresh ideas, which were to be judged for their “formal”
quality rather than the quality of the plan conceived in the manner of
contemporary urban design.

The politics behind the rejection of the favored plan by Richard Rogers
reinforces the argument that the idea of the building of the “new image” was
already pre-conceived. There is no attempt to implement any urbanistic elements
proposed by Rogers. Reading through the physical urban form of Lujiazui, it is
difficult to find the relationship between forms of buildings and the urban
structure as far as their integrity of urban expression. The abrupt changes in the
scale of the building to the streets disturb the urban morphology. The lofty
political ideals opted for superlative image, the “tallest skyscrapers,” the “longest
bridge,” the “largest boulevard.”

In this book, I have sought to understand the nature of the driving global
forces that are propelling the production of Shanghai’s Lujiazui today in
relationship to its semi-colonial past represented by the Bund in the 1930s, and to
call attention to the emergence of Shanghai in the world through its intrinsic
potential, setting aside the issue of its diminishing “historical authenticity.” By
tracing the history and politics of Shanghai, this thesis shows the set of conditions
that have forged Shanghai. “The man who lived seventy years ago,” provides a one-
sided reflection on the radical change of urbanism essential to the examination of

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

the history of this resurrected city. While our man would not be expected to
explore areas outside the cityscape, his standing in front of the Oriental Pearl TV
Tower enables him to gain a pedestrian’s perception of the holistic function of
built form and environment. The situation and social context of the time he came
from is different from today. The difficulty of doing justice to the architecture and
urbanism of Shanghai lies in the historical context of both The Bund and Lujiazui,
for which the time traveler story provides a framework.

Shanghai will not be able to escape its nature of being a hyper-competitive

competitor in the track of global economy – truly, it has always been.

Nevertheless, although the opportunities are seized, the cons of the rivalry
need to be seriously taken into consideration. The national goal to put Shanghai on
the map of global finance is equally as important as the rights of local citizens to
comprehend and cherish their urban realms. Attention must be paid to the process
of “urban retrofitting” to fulfill the needs of the city. That is, the market economy,
which has been responsible for putting a market town on an international standing
with other great metropolises of commerce, must continue to operate on the
premise of making Shanghai a city of cultural diversity. It took Puxi more than a
century to be loved and cherished by its dwellers. This process was brought about
by virtue of the gradual construction of its own urban culture – the culture of
cosmopolitanism – eventually overcoming the fact that the city was no more than a
cash cow for the foreigners.

Shanghai must be understood in terms of how two urban orders are

balanced: Human interventions, as the mechanisms of physical manipulation and


construction, and internal social transformations, as the cultural value “from within”
that are subject to the way the city works beyond the gaze of the artificiality of the
built environment. This book suggests no balance exists between these two orders
due to the impossibility of judgment on this qualitative (conceptual) consideration,
but rather outlines the sets of social and cultural conditions by which the city has
been transformed throughout its short but complicated history dominated by its
politics while represented by its urban form.

Our time traveler never liked the “Ugly Pearl” – neither did I – but he could
not avoid seeing it. Its overwhelming scale and the notorious form
distinguished it from the rest of Shanghai’s cityscape. It was everywhere, in
the postcards, magazine, advertisements, and billboards. He started to realize
that this was propaganda using the entire environment to promote a
particular point of view!

The hyper-modern environment can be captured and remembered not only

by the lens of the camera, but also by the lenses of every visitor’s eyes. Before
he realized it, he started to embrace its impressive silhouette, as it gradually
replaced his initial perception of Shanghai. It was a déjà vu – the Bund was
not likable when it was first built but later became the symbol of the Old
Shanghai. After looking beyond the ostentatious appearance of the New
Shanghai, by virtue of its politicized history, the Pearl stands as a true
symbol of its “own task,” making sense of the city’s new identity as Shanghai

That is to say, he began to like Contemporary Shanghai – so do I.


It is my honor to write an afterword for my former exchange student from

Thailand. When Non Arkaraprasertkul first arrived in Oklahoma, USA, the only
thing I knew about Thailand was that it was an exotic Asian country. A young boy
arrived at my home with black hair, Asian eyes and the slimness typically associated
with Asians. Other than the physical characteristics which were similar to mine,
there was very little with which I could make a connection. Although my own
parents were immigrants from China, the cultural difference was still dramatic.
Non was understandably shy and struggling with a language and culture vastly
different from his.

An early sign of his excellent artistic talent was an original drawing of my

house. I noticed his intense concentration and his rapid paint strokes. It seemed
that he preferred his artistic communication to verbal communication. By
November, sparks started to shine from his previously hidden personality. He

made friends rapidly after that and even organized the other exchange students
with activities. He designed a T-shirt for everyone which further cemented their
friendship. Non became a true ambassador of Thailand to his friends and to me.
His adeptness at finding friendships has been an asset in his career. He has been
able to make contacts with brilliant people. His tremendous artist talent shows up
not only in his drawing and architectural renderings, but also in his ability to
recognize great artists and great architecture. This combination of conviviality and
master artisanship cannot but lead him to the most exciting architectural
happenings in the world in a short time.

Had Non confined himself to an architectural career in Thailand, it would

have been a loss to the rest of the world. His first bold step was to apply and be
accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As noted in his dissertation, he almost missed the opportunity to study

Shanghai and its fascinating architectural history. This study has particular
significance because Shanghai is a city that, as the economic center of China, has
particular influence in global economics.

I suspect that it is rare for students of Asian countries that have not had a
close association with a western country to venture into Western academics. For
Non to understand higher level thinking in English is not just the mere translation
of Thai to English. The thinking process is very different. Non is able to give his
eastern creativity to a Western world.

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

It has not been easy. When Non translates perfectly logical and meaningful
sentences from Thai to English on a word-for-word basis, it becomes unintelligible.
I was taught Chinese and did not speak English until I entered public school. I
have regrettably lost Chinese, but remember enough to know that the thinking
process is very different. Chinese is usually monosyllabic and words contain the
essences of what they mean. Placing these essences together forms other essences.
To a westerner, Chinese poetry sounds trite and childish. But westerners are
putting words together, whereas Chinese are putting essences together to create
powerfully new essences. To string many essences together becomes awesomely
beautiful. I remember a term from mahjong. The players have to make certain
combinations to go out and win. Once a player is ready to go out, the last tile can
be drawn from the pile or taken from the discard of another player. If a player
draws the last card available from the pile and it is his winning tile, it an extremely
unlikely happening and given maximum points. Americans would say something
like one-in-a-million odds. Our family said it was “water under touch moon.”
This beautiful saying was four monosyllables, roughly “shooi duhii moh yert” (in

Cantonese, which is “shui zhong lao yue” or “水中捞月” in Mandarin). The

meaning is very poetic. It means that someone has reached under the reflection of
the moon in a body of water and actually touched the moon. Of course, that is
impossible, but it gives a poetic meaning to impossible odds.

Western culture builds on the material. Eastern culture builds on energy.

Western culture validates what can be seen and taken apart. Eastern culture does
not find a need to take everything apart because it would disrupt its wholeness.


The road that Non has taken is fraught with many perils because of the great
differences in language and culture. Non’s perception is formed from the best in
Thailand. These perceptions particularly on Shanghai are invaluable to the
knowledge of the world. He can study this without the biased view of any of the
world’s great powers. He has taken a giant step which will lead to even greater
accomplishments in the future. I am proud to say that he was my exchange student
son for a year and remains a son.

My own personal road was also fraught with many perils not so much
because of language, but of culture. Both of my parents emigrated from Canton
China. My father, as a matter of fact, was refused entry because of the Chinese
Exclusion Act. The Chinese were the first group upon which immigration was
refused or limited. My father and his accompanying band of Chinese were forced
to go to Mexico. It wasn’t until 8 years later that his efforts were successful to enter
the United States of America. My mother’s history was dramatically different. Her
father was an American citizen who was sent back to China specifically to preserve
the Chinese heritage. Since most of the Chinese immigrants of that time were male
who had come to work on the railroads, there were very few female Chinese. My
grandfather sired 7 children of which 4 were female and 3 were male. All three
males married non-Chinese and all four females married into influential Chinese
families. My mother’s family had lived in Denver, Colorado long enough to
witness their homes burned to the ground by anti-Chinese crowds spurred on by
miners who feared that the Chinese would take their jobs. The fear and distrust of
whites was passed on to me, but nothing was ever said about the raids. This
prompted our family to remain in the background, to attract no attention. This

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

did not stop the desire to excel. All of my grandfather’s children lived successful
lives and had children who integrated successfully into the American fabric.

Most important of the Chinese culture is the notion of saving face. The
public image was to be maintained even with deception, if necessary. If disgraced,
suicide was often the only course of action. This concept may illuminate many of
the actions that China chooses in its interaction with foreign powers. The Shanghai
façade has become China’s business face to the world. No more is this concept of
face more clearly demonstrated than in China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics.
Despite internal difficulties, China presented the most spectacular display of
wealth, optimism, and health to the world. This notion of saving face also has a lot
to do with pragmatism. Whatever will expedite the possibility of saving face is
more important than internal consequences. In other words, if outsiders see
everything as going well, it is more important than if everything is going well to
insiders. This reasoning also creates a culture of secrecy. This secrecy is playfully
used in the United States by the phrase, “Whatever happens in……., stays
in……..” This is a good philosophy as long as it does not give license to immoral
or illegal pursuits.

This culture fears criticism from outside sources. When studying China, it
can be seen that this extends to the nation in its dealing with foreigners. Its many
attempts to shield itself has met with varying successes. The concession made to the
British and French in the opening of Shanghai is remarkable, but it can be said that
it was most practical means to preserve the rest of China. Actually, it was brilliant
to cede a very small part of China to protect the rest of the vast country. Did the
Chinese consider that opening a small hole in the economic dike would eventually


open a flood of foreign economic invasion? Paradoxically, it did open a flood of

foreign economic business, but it was the Chinese that did the invading. Can this
be seen a foresight or is it merely the Chinese taking advantage of everything in the
most practical way?

China has become a major player in the economic crisis that faces the world
today. The country has survived when other civilizations have toppled. Perhaps
there is a lesson to be studied and learned.

Victor Alexander Wong

Oklahoma City, USA
December 2008




If one is to define the dominant characteristic of urban pattern in the hyper-

growth city of Shanghai, apart from the contemporary high-rise buildings of the sterile
development in the past two decades, it is the lilong, the low-rise neighborhood
housing crisscrossing large urban blocks. Shanghai is a city where two distinctive
urban characteristics – the contemporary high-rise and the traditional low-rise buildings
– create a paradoxical pattern of unevenly developed urban fabric. This pattern
continually raises tremendous concerns not only on a macro-structural level of the
city, e.g. urban land-use and expansion, but also street life and the living environment.
It is understandable that high-rise development is unavoidable due to the massive
demand and exorbitant land value.1 We have learned and experienced from the

unsuccessful precedents in the West and the extensive literature that criticizes the
impact of a city without diversity.2 In other words, although high-rise development
might logically and efficiently solve the problem of accommodating large numbers of
people,3 it will cause problems such as a diminished sense of community. I agree that
the traditional lilong house is no longer the most appropriate urban housing for
Shanghai. However, I propose that a viable solution is low-/medium-rise high-density,
multi-functional, community-oriented urban housing that will preserve the unique
nature of individual vibrant neighborhoods. Shanghai’s lilong is chosen as a
typological precedent for this study not only because it reflects a clever overarching
housing and landuse economy, but also because it provides the linkage to an urban
setting and public realm (accessibility and connectibility); the consolidation of the
sense of security (in other words, neighborhood watch); interior openness; diverse
dwelling environment; and perhaps the most salient quality, “lanes” living style.
Lilong’s uniqueness lies in the combination of these vibrant qualities, and the “order
and efficiency,” which are the principles of modern housing.

I will exemplify both the traditional and the modern aspects of lilong
neighborhood housing, aiming to re-define the abstract concept of the lilong, arguing
for its potential to be re-thought as a typology of high density housing today. In
particular, this essay seeks to deliver a practical answer to a conceptual question: how
does lilong provide the dwelling identity of Shanghai, taking into account its form,
meaning, and culture? The emergence of both lilong and Western modern housing is
rooted in a crisis of space and the economic drive of modern cities. Lilong architecture
was a convincing housing development strategy in modern Shanghai. I seek to
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

examine in what way the lilong is a “mediating agency” between Chinese locality and
Western modernity? My hypothesis is that the architecture of lilong does not confine
itself to certain forms or physical configurations; instead it is an “abstract concept” of
an urban neighborhood. This dynamic concept addresses the spatial organization, the
architectural practicality, the casual formation of semi-private space, and the
community lane-life. I am convinced that we must understand this concept and use it
as a point of departure for the design of urban housing today.

This essay embraces four main parts concerning the critical understanding of
lilong vis-à-vis opportunities to develop the new Low and Medium Rise High Density
(LMRHD) housing in Shanghai. The first part is the analysis of lilong’s modernity, its
representational issues with an emphasis on how the modern housing programs are
adapted for the lilong and how the lilong – its users and its condition – respond to
those programs. The second part concerns lilong history, from which I seek to clarify
the developmental process of lilong from its emergence to its demise, emphasizing the
pattern of growth, the factors that had caused the shift in style and orientation, and
the causes of decline: drawing upon some exhaustive accounts on the history of lilong
that are written in English, this part will succinctly paint the picture of its historical
lineage, placing lilong in the context of capitalist Shanghai. Then in the third part, I
will re-define the abstract concept of lilong; in other words, what makes lilong a
physical mediating agency between the form of Western modern housing and
traditional Chinese dwelling culture. Broadly speaking, the hypothesis is that the
success of the lilong as a Chinese modern culture is not so much because of its
physical style but because of its idea of “neighborhood,” which is grounded on local

and traditional building practices. The re-definition of lilong as a conceptual idea will
serve as a point of departure for the last part: a discussion of the possibility to develop
this housing strategy for contemporary application, in which I will also present my
preliminary proposal for The New Lilong.

Figure 27: Model of Shanghai showing the mixing of high-rise buildings and low-rise
lilong neighborhoods – paradoxical pattern of unevenly developed urban fabric.

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form


Minimal maintenance and maximum use of the land were the two
considerations of the foreign developers when lilong were originally built. Like many
other modern housing precedents in Europe and America, lilong has a systematic
structure conforming to the programmatic, functional, and economical needs of a city.
Shanghai’s abrupt leap from “rural” to “urban” was expeditious because of the rapid
increase of foreign investment. The emergence of this particular type of housing is
analogous to that of the West: mainly, the need for collective housing for the masses.
It was the condition of modernity4 – the change from an agricultural to an industrial
society under capitalist impulses – that gave birth to this housing type. The normative
program for living was then shifted from an aim to sustain a communal life –
represented in the clustered inward opening style of the traditional Chinese courtyard
house – to an individual life, an economical life of a modern worker whose need was
an adequate living space, and convenience to work. This was, at the time,
unprecedented in China, a country known for its abundant land resources. To a
degree, the designing of lilong can be seen as no more than just an assimilation of a
typical European row house building type. Notable common aspects are single-family
houses with party walls, private entrances, and the system of spatial hierarchy from
public to private. Moreover, it is also in the extreme efficiency and functionality of
lilong that modernity is reflected. The unit plan had become smaller over time,
according to Zhao, “from clan/family-based courtyard-centered living to the
community-based alley-centered [lane-centered] living, from a self-conditioned
traditional living style towards a more open, more independent modern urban living

style, reflecting a shift from a metaphoric to a more functional layout.”5 The layout of
the lilong neighborhood was by all means the most efficient layout for the highest
density, the main lane running all the way or half way across the block as well as
branch lanes connected perpendicularly to the main lane.6 Dwellers had basically been
forced to spend more time outside because of the tightness and less sanitary conditions
of the interior space, resulting from the condensation of the unit for economic
purpose. Relating to the traditional Chinese house, floor plans were systematically
compromised: at the entrance was a courtyard, then the living room, and finally a
kitchen and a bath room in the back of the house (back-to-back in order to share wet-
walls), all the private areas such as bed rooms were on the second floor. Similarly, the
stylistic representation of the house diminished due to the increased emphasis on
efficiency: a plainer and cleaner façade became typical in the later generations of
lilong.7 Nevertheless, with a certain cultural resistance, abstraction never moved to the
truly modern, such as that of the famous Weissenhofsiedlung.8 The modernity of lilong
was also compromised by the users who were able to adjust the newly built
environment to fit their own long-held traditions of cherishing their living space.

However, situating lilong in the Shanghai context, the important factor of its
success was also the unique “Chinese dwelling culture,” which, from within, re-
defined the meaning of the modern elements borrowed from the west by the
understanding of space and its possible usage. It had not only vitalized the dullness of
the repetitiveness, but had also actively expanded the possibility of activating space
within the given constraints. For instance, common activities that were taking place in
the lanes – initially designed for people and vehicular circulation – transformed this
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

internal road to a dynamic communal space for dwellers, recalling the internal space in
the traditional Chinese courtyard. Furthermore, lanes also provide for the sense of
“open space,” as Chinese prefer a small space with shading for activities. Lanes
perfectly serve that purpose and soon became imbedded in the dwellers’ way of life.
That is to say, the emergence of lilong and its success lie in two factors: Its
programmatic flexibility, and the plasticity of local culture. The morphological
structure of lilong varies little from site to site, but rather transforms over time. The
structure validates a physical agency that processes the transition from traditional
towards modernity resulting in the diverse urban social life. Each neighborhood is able
to utilize and incorporate own cultural norms.

To give a précis, several recent studies on lilong demonstrate that scholars now
pay more attention to its preservation and present possible strategies to revitalize and
re-use lilong in order to counteract the one-sided growth of high-rise urban housing
and commercial complexes that are gradually and monotonously engulfing Shanghai.
Nevertheless, there are also other issues that concern both Chinese and international
scholars, the nostalgia for an emotional beauty of the lilong – the beauty that lies in the
memory and reminiscences of people who have lived in lilong. It is the economy that
celebrates the sustainable and communal life of the working class. What was once seen
as truly modern has become a traditional heritage. Today, due to the profusion of the
population in Shanghai resulting from industrialization and urbanization, the demand
for housing has become one of the city’s great planning issues. The plan focuses on
maximizing density and financial return because of the potential for increasing land
value. The decision that has been made by the local government is basically no less

than the idea of razing the less viable lilong to the ground and building high-rise
apartments, which could result in a negative social impact. Despite a truly modern
aspect that was widely discussed in the West, I am convinced that the factor that
makes lilong successful in Shanghai is the flexibility of Chinese dwelling culture. It
was the dwellers who saw the constraints more as a challenge to be met than as a
problem, and thus they were not bothered by the given structure of the neighborhood.
However, the situation today is more complicated than in the past. The survival of the
low and medium-rise cannot solely rely on the users, but also on how much the
developer can compromise to meet the explosive demand of the market.


The history of urban housing in Shanghai is not complicated. Urban housing is

the most significant component of Shanghai’s modernization, industrialization, and
urbanization which had not begun until the late nineteenth century with the opening
of the Treaty Port and the various foreign settlements.9 The consequence of the
process of becoming a port was the proliferation of commercial activity, leading to
dramatic population growth – exponential increase of the workforce (and also
refugees).10 Urban housing was initially built to house foreign industry workers and
their families frugally and economically. Shanghai’s “modern urban housing,” lilong,
was the solution the foreign factories and enterprises used for economical real-estate
development.11 Thus, the initial idea was no more than the economy of construction:
“buildings that can be constructed with wooden boards, built in row like army camps,

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

accessed by some internal paths joined with one general path that connected to the
public street.”12 Although lilong was initially meant to be built with wood, the
municipal government’s larger concern about the safety issues in the late nineteenth
century led to new housing regulations, including the prohibition of wood frame
structure. The major materials were those that could be supplied locally: brick bearing
walls and wood beams. Lilong was modeled after Western row houses with the
Chinese characteristic “lanes and courtyards.” According to Zhang Shouyi and Tan
Ying, houses are clustered to resemble the basic traditional Chinese houses, allowing
many families to live together in the same compound.13 Although I was not
completely convinced that these characteristics were seriously taken into account by
the developers – since the distinctive notion of internal semi-private space in lilong
can be just ad-hoc – it is compelling to see how the Chinese users naturally adapted
their life-style to the constraint of space and the structure of the neighborhood. It was
around 1870s that the first lilong was introduced and it was also the first time the
“facilities” such as shared bathroom and kitchen were added to Chinese dwelling
culture. Xing Ruan says that lilong is more a “middle ground” between the English
terrace house, and the southern Chinese courtyard house.14 I agree with Ruan
architecturally and stylistically but not as concerns planning – lilong is tightly
structured to service the needs of people in Shanghai. 15

The authentic Shikumen Lilong,16 named after the “eye-catching” decorated

gateway to the neighborhood, was built during this period and became the most
popular lilong for the first decade of the twentieth century. Built to host members of a
working-class family, the size and organization of a Shikumen lilong house was

adequate. A courtyard was the highlight of this lilong, providing not only good
ventilation, southern exposure to sunlight, and communal space, but also a distinctive
solid-v oid fabric that systematically constructed a viable form of urban neighborhood.
There was also extensive use of foreign motifs: traditional European, Western classical,
Russian, or even Japanese styles of decoration was added to the façade of the house to
reflect the splendor of the community. In addition, integration of commercial and
residential components was the distinctive characteristic of the Shikumen style because
it did not only vitalize the neighborhood, but it also financially sustained the
community by feeding back the profit from the commercial component to the overall
system. The New Shikumen Lilong was later introduced as a result of the first stage of
Shanghai’s population growth – the first stage of an over-congested urban population.
The three-bay unit of the Shikumen was reduced to one with a smaller courtyard –
arguably just a small space to symbolize courtyard. Also, the spatial emphasis was
shifted from the interior (house) to the exterior (lane) – lanes were widened to
accommodate vehicles, resulting in a more spacious community space outside the

The New Style lilong came in the late 1910s due to the critical need for higher
density housing. Thus, the courtyard was defeated by the need for interior space; it
was significantly reduced, if not completely filled. The New Style was the compact
version of the Shikumen: the floor height and building width were decreased to the
minimum, the number of floors increased, and the interior space of each unit was
clearly partitioned for different activities.18 This New Style was preferred by the
developers as more economical than the Shikumen. Occasionally, during the same
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

time, the Garden Lilong, a semi-detached house with a garden in the front, was built
for a purpose that was totally different from other types of lilong; it served the elegant
taste of the rich community.

Then, the development of lilong ended around the mid-twentieth century

when the economy took complete control with the Apartment Lilong, a five to seven-
story concrete frame structure, a Western-style apartment with shared-facilities. With
this birth of this soon become general high-rise apartment-type housing, the name
“lilong” no longer resonated with the celebration of Chinese communal life on the
ground. After the Apartment Lilong, developers shifted their interest to the notion of
an extremely efficient housing type, rather than the community-based housing type.
Thus, at the termination of lilong, there was the beginning of the development of the
slab block and modern high-rise tower.

To sum up, a series of lilong were constructed in the inner part of the city as
neighborhood units fitted into a city block. Changes include the use of material (from
wood to brick, and from brick to concrete), and the typology of the basic unit (smaller
and more defined over time). The success of the first series contributed to the demand
for the next, and thus, not so long after the first building stage, within less than a
hundred years, more than 200,000 lilong dwelling units (of approximately 60 – 150
square meters per unit19) became the dominating characteristic of Shanghai’s urban
fabric. The major change emerged from the inflexible control of the district housing
bureaus, as the central government guaranteed housing for every worker and limited


the right of citizens to own property. Developers then had to make the existing and
the continually built lilong houses economically feasible. The notion of affordability –
it was rental affordability – was emphasized, as it was one of the socialist tenets. Each
row house was often leased by one family and then subleased to many.20 The result
was the change of the social structure both in the single unit and the neighborhood–
each unit was sub-divided to house more families, and commercial activity was widely
decreased due to the demand for residential programs.

In the situation of urban housing in Shanghai today, lilong no longer provide

enough density to be economically self-sustained. The change of life-style and the
inadequate maintenance resulted in deterioration of many of them. In addition, since
lilong were built as housing for workers, it was not initially built to be permanent.
Most of them, particularly those that were built in the early twentieth century are in
severe need of total upgrading, which is very unprofitable from the point of view of a
developer, who prefers to demolish and rebuild with, at least, ten times higher density.
The preservation of the lilong in Shanghai is doomed in light of the decay of existing
structures and the fact that modern standard high-rise can accommodate more people.


[For lilong,] the physical condition of the house was secondary. It was the
uniformity in neighborhood structure that constitutes the embryo of lilong.21

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Literally, the meaning of lilong is “neighborhood lanes” as li is for

neighborhood and long is for lane – an abstract concept of space making use of public
realm to reinforce the sense of the community.22 Properly, lilong is not a noun, but an
adjective; thus, “lilong housing” is a form of dwelling in a lane-structured
neighborhood – to the extent that neighborhood means more than just an area, but a
community where members interact with each other on a regular basis.23 It is this
distinctive concept of formation of locality that is prominently imbedded in many
Asian cultures. One can recognize similarities to lilong in the cho of Toyko,24 the
hanok of Seoul, the hutong of Beijing, and the soi of Bangkok,25 to name a few. These
concepts of East Asian neighborhood influence the everyday life of inhabitants. These
concepts appeal to local government for the neighborhood and its culture as a
collective force, and serve individuals in providing for their safety and amenity as a

For lilong in particular, the distinctive style of spatial occupation comes out of
the constraints of space. Every living function is condensed in a small and compact
box-shaped row house for the Shikumen Style, and a narrow strip for the New Style.
Because each unit does not have much living space, and the lilong rows are laid out
parallel to each other in a close proximity, lanes are used by lilong inhabitants as a
living space, which is common to the Chinese who see outdoor activities as prominent
to communal life. These activities that take place in the lanes range from exercises –
particularly Tai-Chi – to commercial activities, hawker business, barbers; to


recreational activities as well as service, mahjong, cooking, laundry drying, outdoor

eating, sewing, food preparation.27 The main lane is utilized predominantly for
circulation and delivery (Huang categorized it as a semi-public area as the roads that
surround the lilong block are public28) and the branch lanes are for individual
activities. The entire ground floor is only semi-private space. Although there is the
division of plan, separating the living space from the kitchen and bathroom, both
functions always associate with activities that take place in the lanes. For instance,
people usually cook their food outside their houses to accommodate the smoke; so,
the lane at the back of the house naturally becomes an outdoor kitchen. And since
cooking is usually a communal activity, it draws people from houses nearby to come,
exchange, and discuss everyday life’s news and so on, forming a small neighborhood
forum. Also, because each house has a small courtyard as a transitional space between
the house and the lane, the dwellers tend to expand their usage to the lane, sharing
their private space to the public realms. In other words, they interiorize the lane and
exteriorize their private space, disguising the distinction between public/private space,
interiority/exteriority, and most importantly, private/communal life. Therefore, not
only the lanes themselves become public realm, but also the entire ground floor of the
lilong neighborhood. Qian Guan presumes:

…[B]y allocating at least one courtyard and a portion of usable open space for
each family, and by allowing a spatial fluidity through them, the daily
communication can be conducted while doing housework, and socializing
pleasure can take place in an elastic way everywhere and enjoyed by all.29

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

According to interviews conducted by Morris, he claims: “lilong provides an intimate

environment where one is not alone”30 – the human scale and the arrangement of the
several row houses in the lilong block allow people to both physically interact with
each other, at the same time, provide a “neighborhood watch” sense of security that is
conducive to the development of social networks. All of which was not the intention
of lilong; it is a result of their intensive use, as Louisa Lim narrates: “the warren of
alleys and the layout of traditional houses – with their communal kitchens – all
created a unique sense of community.”31

Furthermore, this sense of security is reinforced by the protective wall of shop

houses that are located around the block: access by the gateways to the internal part of
the block is taken care of by at least one shop house on each side. Assuming that
everyone in the neighborhood knows each other, it is nearly impossible for strangers
to go into the area without being noticed. Nevertheless this does not necessitate the
notion of a complete gated community, the porosity given by the typical linear
arrangement of row houses permits lanes to be partially seen from the outside, which
visually links the interior of the neighborhood to pedestrians and the exterior streets.
This porosity gives “a sense of a whole” to the entire lilong district. Zhao considers
“lane-living style” the essence of lilong dwelling. 32 From informal neighborhood
cohesion, the form of community organization develops further to formal
organizations such as residents committee, neighborhood co-op, community
awareness team, and so on.33 Although these organizations do not have power to
negotiate with the municipal government, they support the sustainable growth of the


community. They respond to dwellers’ needs to solve common problems and address
common goals in their local lanes.34

A redefinition of lilong would not be confined to its physical aspect but to the
notion of “neighborhood life.” This paves the way to deal with urban housing
development today – since it recognizes a condition that is not achieved on any other
of today’s housing types. The term lilong, although associated with the row house that
constitutes the primary living space in Shanghai, entails – in a deeper sense –the
“abstract concept of space” that provides close proximity to the dwellers with mixed-
use programs and transparency of public and private realms. This proximity
encourages dwellers to communicate with each other dynamically, connecting them to
the outside and the urban environment. The notion of urban dwelling form lies in the
strength of the bonded community. It is not the physicality of building that is the
meaning of housing to the dwellers; instead, it is the intangible notion of “belonging,”
the public space is as important as one’s own house; to use an old Chinese saying – the
sense of belonging possesses inherent qualities of lilong.35 It is this “neighborhood life”
that makes lilong a physical mediating agency between the form of Western modern
housing and traditional Chinese dwelling culture. This social-support community is
what I think Kevin Lynch means by:

[A] legitimate feature of good settlements, within which one can organize
politically when the need for control arises…apart from that, the fact of being
in an identifiable settlement which has quiet, safe internal lanes, easily
accessible daily services and vital street-life in close proximity, has made the

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

living so pleasurable. Every one is aware of the diversity around him or her, and is
in visual contact with other ways of life.36

For Lynch, this is visually the quality of a “good city form.”


As pointed out in the beginning, I seek to derive a way to rethink LMRHD

housing in Shanghai through the concept of neighborhood – the essence of lilong
housing. Although the concept is not being seriously taken into consideration by the
residential developers, it has been proven to have potential by the successful Xintaindi
(2001), a series of renovated original Shikumen lilong houses that is now a bustling
retail-shopping district. The architect Ben Wood took nostalgia for the traditional
Shanghainese lilong house as the selling point and re-designed it for a sole commercial
purpose.37 Xintiandi’s developer and the designer spurred us along with the example
of the creative approach to reuse the form of lilong neighborhood, showing us the way
to rethink the real estate economy of the low-rise.38 Greg Yager and Scott Kilbourn
attest to its success:

It works because it has a design that is geared to the appropriate human scale
and texture. The master plan responds to the context of Shanghai’s streets,
providing open space in additional streetscape. The district as a whole is
dynamic and well landscaped, and well managed – all elements of good


Xintaindi’s take on the concept of lilong’s “neighborhood life” and the structure of
lilong that gives close proximity and coziness of the entire area, are what constitutes
the project’s astronomical success – they are the qualities, the “fine grain” of the old
lilong pedestrian neighborhood that fulfill the need of the people of Shanghai. There
have been some experimental projects to renovate old – particularly the Shikumen and
the New Shikumen types – lilong neighborhoods for residential purposes such as Lane
252 and Futian Terrace. The result of both projects does not demonstrate a
convincing potential for the renovation to be a strategy to revitalize lilong. In
particular, both projects fail to generate enough funding to subsidize the houses’ rent.
The unfortunate result is the inclination toward less-affordable housing. The
constraint of renovating lilong is that the structure and orientation of the existing
lilong houses in Shanghai are not supportive to either horizontal or vertical expansion,
thus the only renovation that can be made is the condition improvement, which gives
no profit to the current development since it will not increase the density.

Therefore, for the new LMRHD, we must return to the very basic concept of
neighborhood life and take it as a point of departure. I, nonetheless, argue for the
viability of the “spine and ribs” structure of lilong neighborhood since it gives strong
social control to the area and helps maintain the system of neighborhood organization.
It is defensible because this structure has proven to be conducive to the urban life of
the Shanghainese for more than one century. However, it needs to be adjusted in
order to accommodate higher density and better sanitary condition. I propose to re-
orient it by changing the row orientation from having the front of the rows facing the
back of the previous row, to having their backs facing each other so that dwellers can
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

share their service areas. In this case, not only will this organization optimize the
service area of the entire site, but it will make the sanitary control less problematic.
This service corridor will still be a communal space for people, at the same time
providing an easier control of garbage, plumbing system, fire escape, as well as safety.
Moreover, this corridor will serve as a light well that provides southern exposure to the
internal units. Density can be increased by a greater number of floors. Since,
structurally we can reduce the depth of beams with modern construction technique
and material, the building then can accommodate more floors with the same or
slightly greater height. It may be possible to increase the height to four or five stories.
Also, the front of each row house – living area – will then face each other, making the
entire lanes a living area for the neighborhood. Since a small courtyard in the front of
the house (for instance, that of the Shikumen) is not used for individual purposes but
is utilized as another semi-public space, this will then minimize unnecessary individual
open space, and maximize space for public activity, encouraging a community sense.
This structure also allows areas along the main internal spines, along the main external
road, and the lower floor of the mixed-use building to be used for commercial
activities like the traditional lilong. This will provide adequate employment
opportunities to the members of the community, balance incomes/revenues, initiate
long-term investment plan, encourage entrepreneurship, and strategically plan a
community-based – domestic— tourism.

For the unit type, it is a top-priority need for a self-contained – studio type –
unit due to the change of life-style during the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Therefore, lilong’s single-family housing unit then has to be modified to a smaller unit

with individual facilities, which must also be modularly flexible for prospective
modifications. However, it is reasonable to acknowledge some needs of the single-
family housing, so types of housing should still be mixed. A single-family house might
occupy the unit on the ground level and other self-contained unit can stack on top of
it. I suggest “elevated corridors” on each floor providing an access to each unit, to
which open spaces – small garden, common area – can be attached, serving not only as
a community area, but also a transition space from public (corridor) to private (room)
so that moving from public to private area will not be too sudden. Also, to efficiently
make use of the space on the upper levels, each unit can still share an exterior wall in a
row-house style. As long as there is open space attached to at least one side of the
shared wall, natural lighting and ventilation are accessible. In addition, to reinforce
residents’ community sense and liveliness, building blocks must be de-solidified; in
other words, made porous. Porosity of the rows allows natural lighting and ventilation
into the dense block. This will give residences a semi-enclosed sense allowing them to
visually interact with activities and services conducted at the other side of the lanes, as
well as give them a sense of security by the neighborhood watch.

To sum up, I am convinced there are physical aspects of lilong that are still
valid for today’s housing situation in Shanghai derived from the understanding of the
most basic concept of this form of settlements, “neighborhood sense.” More than a
hundred years of lilong history has made it a culture of “modern Shanghai.” My
proposal to rethink this modern urban housing lies in the neighborhood concept as
well as the functionality based on requirements of the modern life-style. Lilong houses
have to be rethought in order to cope with the demand of an individual life, at the
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

same time provide the dynamic communal life. The balance of commercial and
residential programs can sustain the economy of the New Lilong.

Although I have never lived there, I have been to one of the original Shikumen
lilong neighborhoods, in which I enthusiastically felt the sense of dynamic
community. Everyone knows and cares about each other. I thought it was my
imagination that I felt I heard constant greetings in Chinese when I walked through
that neighborhood. I am aware that this research might not completely fill the
noticeable void in contemporary thinking on architecture and urban housing in
Shanghai, but it will serve to denote the existence of that void, and thus make a
contribution to the development of a theory of urban housing in China, which I hope
will revitalize the lilong houses by which I am enthralled.




1. The term “hybridity” emerged in academic discourse at the turn of the

twentieth-first century regarding the issues and major challenges traditional
settlements were facing, i.e. massive urbanization and suburbanization, the
spread of consumerism, the internationalization of labor, and the growth of
expatriate migrant populations and ethnic minorities. According to Nezar
AlSayyad, “hybrid environment” simply accommodates or encourages
pluralistic tendencies or multicultural practices, which should be turned on
its head.” Accordingly, to say that urbanism of Shanghai is hybrid might be
problematic since what it represents are two separate environments, rather
than a fusion of different elements that creates a new entity. For details, see
Nezar AlSayyad. “Hybrid Culture/ Hybrid Urbanis Pandora’s Box of the

“Third Space,” in Nezar AlSayyad, ed., Hybrid Urbanism (Westport,

Connecticut; London: Praeger, 2001), 1-20, and “Identity, Tradition and
Built form: The Role of Culture in Planning and Development,” A
Description of 1996 International Association for the Study of Traditional
Environments (IASTE) Conference in Berkeley, CA
(accessed 16 April 2007)
2. Shanghai was once called “Paris of the Orient” by the English Tour Book
All About Shanghai (1935). It was also called the “Paris of the East,” and the
“Queen of the Pacific.” Although the names seem to pronounce particular
prestige, one cannot conclude that they do not have any negative
connotation. For instance, “the Paris of the East” was somehow associated
with “the Whore of the Orient,” while the “Queen of the Pacific” was linked
to the name the “Emperor’s Ugly Daughter.” Moreover, Lee Khoon Choy
asserts interesting comments: “[t]he name Shanghai conjures an image a city
where quick riches could be made, and a tumble of vice, swindlers,
gamblers, drug runners, the idle rich, dandies, tycoons, missionaries,
gangsters and backstreet pimps.” Nonetheless, Shanghai has been a
remarkable city that drew attention from people from all over China and the
globe. See Stella Dong, Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City (New
York: Perennial, 2001), Shiling Zheng, “Architecture Before 1949,” in
Balfour, Shanghai: Wolrd City (West Sussex, U.K., Wiley-Academy, 2002),
88, All About Shanghai: A Standard Guidebook, Hong Kong; New York:
Oxford University Press, 1935) republished in 1986 with an introduction by
H.J. Lethbridge. Repr., and Lee Khon Choy, Pioneers of Modern China:

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Understanding the Inscrutable Chinese (Singapore: World Scienctific, 2005),

3. In 1993, Mayor Huang Ju of Shanghai proclaimed his intention to make the
city to be “a metropolis equal to New York and London.” The city’s
development plan under his direction was designed to create an “oriental
Manhattan…to become an international metropolis of the 21st century.”
“City of Future,” Shanghai Star (2 July 1993, front-page headline) as cited
in Jos Gamble, Shanghai in Transition: Changing Perspectives and Social
Contours of a Chinese Metropolis (London, Routledge: 2003), 10
4. Shanghai is one of 30 cities identified by The Economist as “Fast Cities”
based on several criteria such as economic opportunity, cultural and
intellectual infrastructure, ethereal creativity, and so on. It describes
Shanghai as “a city of 14.5 million people, where foreign investors have sunk
$73 billion into Shanghai-based projects. It is a chaotic, crowded, noisy-and
wildly, crazily creative. China's historic center for innovation has emerged
more recently as a magnet for Western-owned corporate design centers and
research labs.” See Andrew Park, “Fast Cities 2007,” The Economist (Jul/Aug
2007, 117): 90-103
5. The choice of the term “hybrid” is in keeping with the use of this term in
architectural and urbanist writings on the histories of cities and their
cultures. The elaboration of this term can be found in Robert Cowherd,
“Hybridization Between an Imagined West and the Presistence of Everyday
Life,” in Robert Cowherd, Cultural Construction of Jakarta: Design,
Planning, and Development in Jabotabek, 1980-1997, Ph.D. dissertation.
Massachusetts Institute of Techology, 2002.


6. Jos Gamble, “Preface: Ethnography of a City,” in Gamble, Shanghai in

Transition, I-XXVI
7. Yawei Chan, “Shanghai Pudong: Urban Development in an Era of Global-
Local Interaction” (Ph.D. dissertation, Delft University of Technology, The
Netherlands, 2007), 43
8. Mario Gandelsonas, Shanghai Reflections: Architecture, Urbanism, and the
Search for an Alternative Modernity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural
Press, 2002), 22.
9. Richard Marshall, “The Focal Point of China: Lujiazui, Shanghai,” in
Richard Marshall, Emerging Urbanity: Global Urban Projects in Asia Pacific
Rim (London, New York: Spon Press, 2003): 87.
10. Peter G. Rowe, East Asia Modern: Shaping the Contemporary City (London:
Reaktion, 2005)
11. Louisa Schein, “Urbanity, Cosmopolitanism, Consumption,” in Nancy N.
Chen, Costance D. Clark, Suzanne Z. Gottschang, and Lyn Jeffery, eds.
China Urban (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 225
12. Anne-Marie Broudehoux presumes that the condition of Postmodernity in
China was pushed by the cultural fever of the 1970s by Deng Xiaoping’s
“Open Door” policy. Forefront Chinese intellectuals, searching for “the”
ideological means of culture and art of the time, held intellectual discourses
on cultural production and repositioning of Chinese modernity, including
architecture. For details, see Arif Dirlik and Zhang Xudong, “Introduction:
Postmodernism in China,” Boundary 2. Vol. 24 No. 3 (Autumn, 1997): 1-
18. This essay is a proceeding of Fredric Jameson’s lecture at Beijing
University in 1985, Wang Mingxian and Zhang Xudong. “Notes on
Architecture and Postmodernism in China,” Boundary 2. Vol. 24. No. 3

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

(Autumm, 1997): 163-175, Anne-Marie Broudehoux, “Learning from

Chinatown: The Search for a Modern Chinese Architectural Identity,
1911-1998,” ,” in Nezar AlSayyad, Hybrid Urbanism, 156-80, and Xudong
Zhang, “Part 1: Cultural Discourse,” in Chinese Modernism in the Era of
Reforms (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 1997): 35-70


1. H.J. Lethbridge, All About Shanghai and Environs: A Standard Guidebook

(London, Oxford University Press, 1934): 1. Republished as on-line version
on “Tale of Old Shanghai” website. “All About Shanghai: Chapter 1 -
Historical Background.”
(retrieved 17 April 2007). The full paragraph reads: “Shanghai, sixth city of
the World!,Shanghai, the Paris of the East!, Shanghai, the New York of the
West! – Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan city in the world, the fishing
village on a mudflat, which almost literally overnight became a great
2. When we talk about the history of a Chinese city, we tend to think of some
general categorizations such as Early Imperial China (from Qin to Han
Dynasty), Three Kingdoms China, Late Imperial China (Ming and Qing),
Communist, and so on; these periods base on the sharply-definition of
sovereign rules’ times. However, for Shanghai, as the history of the city has
been mostly dependant, it maybe more appropriate to look at its history as
an outcome of the overlapping periods of urbanization driven by the

3. This claim is made by an intensive study of Shanghai’s history prior to the

arrival of the Westerners by Linda Johnson. See Linda Cooke Johnson,
Shanghai, From Market Town to Treaty Port, 1074-1858 (Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 1995). “A small fishing village” rhetoric was made
by foreigners. Despite the exhaustive historical accounts that possibly leads
to this major misunderstanding, is to make the story of the city’s
transformation more dramatic.
4. Also called “Whangpu River.”
5. Ibid.
6. There was also a connection to the hinterland and the spillover benefits from
proto-industrialization in the neighboring provinces, along with the
buoyancy of regional commerce that contributed significantly to Shanghai’s
prosperity. See Weiping Wu, The Dynamics of Urban Growth in Three
Chinese Cities (Washington D.C.: Oxford University Press, 1997): 66
7. As Shiling Zheng describes: “Shanghai in its prime during 1930s-40s could
not find any match to its sophisticated cosmopolitanism, not even Tokyo or
Hong Kong. See Balfour, Shanghai, 89.
8. The classic example is a sign "No Dogs Or Chinese Allowed" at the entrance
of a park in foreign-leased-territory (i.e. race court and the Bund waterfront)
in Shanghai, which fought with the strong sense of “ethnic nationalism” –
an articulation of “Han Chinese” identity, dealing with the pre-conceived
notion that they were the initiators of the civilization. Therefore, throughout
the course of semi-colonization, Chinese had to struggle to overthrow the

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

aliens (the white imperialists for Shanghai, the alien Manchu rulers for the
rest of the country). This was, of course, before the founding of the Republic
of China under Kuomintang leadership. Har Ye Kan, email message to the
author, 22 March 2007.
9. It was around the 1860s, not only political upheaval, but also better job
opportunities that attracted an increasing numbers of migrants from the
hinterland to Shanghai – the number of Chinese inhabitants in the
International Settlement rose from 75,000 to half a million within less than
three decades. The design of the lilong is a combination of a Western terrace
house tradition with the Chinese courtyard house in a manner that
perpetuated the narrow lanes of earlier Chinese settlement. See Lei Huang,
Housing Development in the Context of the Modernization, Urbanization and
Conservation of Chinese Traditional cities: Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou.
D.Des. dissertation. Harvard University, 2000: 89, Tess Johnston and Deke
Erh, A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai (Hong Kong: Old
China Hand Press, 1992):8, and Peter Rowe and Seng Kuan. Architectural
Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT
Press, 2002): 40-1. Critical reading of lilong housing can be found in Non
Arkaraprasertkul, “Toward Shanghai’s Urban Housing: Re-Defining
Shanghai’s Lilong” Proceeding of the Sixth China Urban Housing Conference
in Beijing, P.R. China, Hong Kong: Center of Housing Innovations at the
Chinese University of Hong Kong and Ministry of Construction, P.R.
China. 2007: 885-97
10. This structure remains the main structure of the city today, although not as
dominant due to the new planning and the new zoning regulations.
11. Dong, Shanghai, 1


12. Bryan Goodman, “The Golden Age of Chinese Bourgeoisie, 1911-1937 by

Marie-Claire Bergère,” book review, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol.46 (3,
August 1987): 631-3, and Duanfang Lu, “Architecture and Global
Imaginations in China,” Journal of Architecture, 12 (2, 2007): 139
13. Peter G. Rowe and Seng Kuan, Architecture Encounters with Essence and
Form in Modern China (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002): 36
14. Rhoads Murphey, “The Treaty Ports and China’s Modernization” in The
Chinese City Between Two Worlds, Mark Elvin and G. William Skinner, eds.
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974): 17-71.
15. The name Bund was used right from the moment Captain George Balfour
stepped ashore with his Indian regiment. Bund is a Anglo-Indian word
meaning embankment.
16. Zheng Shiling, “Architecture Before 1949,” in Balfour, Shanghai, 95
17. H.J. Lethbridge, All About Shanghai and Environs
18. In a series of rather romantic panoramic paintings, two elements were clearly
depicted: the buildings and the ships. Horizontally divided by the shoreline,
the water and the earth were clearly separated. The buildings looked
identical. With an impressionist sky, the Bund in such early paintings was
seen more as a peaceful city than a bustling trading port. In contrast to these
panoramas, the famous photo of the early Bund shows a street that was not
even asphalted and a waterfront that was no more than an inclined slant
with some small boats tied up alongside. Its early photographs of the Bund
right after the establishment of the Treaty port shows no more than a series
of low-rise Western-style buildings in very simplified forms on the “muddy
towpath” of the Huangpu River.

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

19. Murphey believes that the Treaty Port did not give a substantial impact on
the technological and industrial advancements, which were the factors of
modernization in the Western worlds. He actually makes a claim that the
emergence of such ad hoc urban place like Shanghai de facto “hurt China
psychologically,” more than it helped her economically. To me personally,
this has been a debate and has not yet been finalized. See Murphey, Treaty
Ports, 17-71
20. Canton, the capital of Guangdong province, was the leading industrial and
commercial center of southern China at the time. It is also called
Guangzhou (or Kwang-chow).
21. 12 of which were considered iconic due to its existence over half a century
(the rest were built and re-built over time). There was also the French Bund
extending southwards but they were not regarded as part of the Bund.
Zhang Zaiyuan notes a few standards that underlie the architectural
development of Shanghai in the period: “Politics – architecture as a symbol;
economics – the display of family or corporate wealth; culture – the
reminiscence of European international metropolises; landscape – as a sign of
entrance to Shanghai; technology – comprehensive performance in design,
constructing standards, the use of new materials and facilities.” See Zhang
Zaiyuan, “From West to Shanghai: Architecture and Urbanism in Shanghai
from 1840-1940,” A + U: Architecture and Urbanism. no. 273 (1993): 93
22. M. Christine Boyer, “Approaching the Memory of Shanghai: The Case of
Zhang Yimou and Shanghai Triad (1995),” in Gandelsonas, Shanghai
Reflections, 57
23. Thanks to Lu Hanchao’s Beyond the Neon Lights, we know that Shanghai
streets in the 1930s were animated by a heterogeneous population. Lu also


tells us that the reality of Shanghai was not always like what we see from
movies or advertisements, which was a common misunderstanding. See Lu
Hanchao, Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth
Century (Berkeley, Calif. :University of California Press, 1999)
24. See Bergère, Golden Age
25. Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, “Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Life in Early
Twentieth Century Shanghai by Lu Hanchao,” Reviewd Work, Journal of
Interdisciplinary History, vol. 32 (2; Autumm, 2001): 277
26. Notwithstanding the elegance of the waterfront corridor, the ambience of
“The Bund or Yangtze Road” was heterogeneous to the core. See Bergère,
Golden Age, and Wasserstrom, Neon Lights, 263-79
27. The buildings were in an international Beaux-arts style, but mainly designed
by foreigners from colonial powers. The monumental appearance of the
Bund attracted both local and foreign investments. It was the objective of
business owners to have buildings that proclaimed prestige and prosperity,
and Western neo-classicism was chosen to this end.
28. Murphey, Treaty Port, 65
29. The hierarchical association between foreigners and the Chinese in Shanghai
reinforced the impression of a fragmented entity.
30. Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W.W. Norton,
1990): 348-354
31. This diversified ethnicity made Shanghai the Manhattan of China, echoing
the fact that Manhattan in its early days was the land of refugees who
traveled thousands of miles for opportunity in the metropolis.
32. Bergère, Golden Age
33. Zhang, From West, 93

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

34. It was a time when nothing was certain and the country was closely watched
by its unfriendly neighbors, ready to exploit any weakness. Shanghai did not
suffer any major effect from this political shift.
35. Ning Yuemin, “City Planning and Urban Construction in the Shanghai
Metropolitan Area,” in The Dragon’s Head: Shanghai, China’s Emerging
Megacity, eds. Harold D. Foster, David Chuenyan Lai, and Naisheng Zhou,
Canadian Western Geographical Series 34 (Victoria, Canada: Western
Geographical Press, 1999): 229, and K.L. MacPherson, "Designing China's
Urban Future: the Greater Shanghai Plan, 1927-1937," Planning Perspectives
5 (1990): 39-62
36. Chan, Shanghai Pudong, 51
37. Alan Balfour, “Twin Cities,” in Balfour, Shanghai, 75
38. During the time when the Nationalist government used Nanjing as a
political capital, Shanghai was being considered economically because of its
trading ports.
39. Christian Henriot, Shanghai, 1927-1937: Municipal Power, Locality, and
Modernization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993): 75
40. Dong went to University of Minnesota and Columbia University. Most of
the first-generation Chinese architects went to the University of
Pennsylvania and studied under the Beaux-Art direction of Paul P. Cret,
such as Liang Sicheng, Lin Huiyin, and Yang Tingbao.
41. Hitler hired Albert Speer to design the new city that embraces a series of
monumental buildings and boulevards. See Frederic Spotts, Hitler and the
Power of Aesthetics (New York: Overlook Press, 2003)


42. “Shanghai [under the Japanese occupation] would become a central

instrument of Japan’s “Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.” See Alan Balfour,
“Japanese Occupation,” in Balfour, Shanghai, 101.
43. Alan K. Lathop, review of In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: Shanghai under
Japanese Occupation. by Christian Henriot and Wen-Hsin, eds., China
Information 19, no. 521 (2005): 521-3
44. Balfour, Shanghai, 98-105
45. Alan Balfour, “The Communist City” in Balfour, Shanghai, 109
46. Phillip Short, Mao: A Life (New York: Henry Holt, 1999)
47. Gambe, Transition, 8
48. Duanfang Lu, Remaking Chinese Urban Form: Modernity, Scarcity, and
Space: 1949-2005 (London: Routledge, 2006): 82-3, and Richard Gaulton,
"Political Mobilization in Shanghai, 1949-1951." in Shanghai: Revolution
and Development in an Asian Metropolis, Christopher Howe, ed.
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press): 46
49. Ibid.
50. Gandelsonas, Reflections, 22-8
51. Marshall, Emerging, 93
52. Due to a handful of interpretations on the actual meaning of the Open
Door Policy, this book follows that of the Modern China: Encyclopedia of
History, Culture, and Nationalism, which reads: “a collective foreign effort to
maintain access to China’s fabled markets…[the kind of policy has been
favored by many giants such as United States and Great Britian. However,]
it had conflicting implications for Chinese nationalism. On one hand, it
aimed to prevent the dismemberment of a weak China by aggressive foreign
powers and to maintain respect for China’s territorial and administrative

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

entity or integrity, the terms generally used to refer to China’s sovereignty.”

Wang Ke-Wen, ed. Modern China: Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and
Nationalism (New York: Garland, 1998): 250
53. Yehua Dennis Wei and Chi Kin Leung, “Development Zone, Foreign
Investment, and Global City Formation in Shanghai,” Growth and Change,
vol. 36 (1, Winter 2005): 17
54. Yawei Chen elaborates the lobbying process, which involved not only the
President of the P.R. China (at the time was Yang Shangkun), but also the
Premier Li Peng, and several top officials. Interested readers can look into
these details. See Chen, Shanghai Pudong, 54-65
55. Marshall, Emerging, 88
56. Gregory C. Chow, “China’s Economic Reform and Policies at the
Beginning of the Twentieth-First Century,” Speech presented at the Fourth
International Investment Forum, 8 September 2000. See also, He also
comments that “[t]he rapid economic growth of Shanghai since the early
1900s is the most spectacular phenomenon in city development in history.”
See Gregory C. Chow, Knowing China (Singapore: World Scientific: 2004):
183. Likewise, My definition of “economic transformation” in the Chinese
context relies on Professor Chow’s account. For details, see Gregory C.
Chow, China’s Economic Transformation (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002)
57. Ibid, 93
58. “Shanghai Lujiazui Finance & Trade Zone Development Company,”
advertising brochure, 1994, as cited in Chia-Liang Tai, “Transforming
Shanghai: The Redevelopment Context of the Pudong New Area” (M.Sc.
thesis, Columbia University, 2005), 5, and Sean Kennedy, “Beijing Sheds
some Weight,” The Banker (March 1995), 48, as cited in ibid., 22


59. Robert Lawrence Kuhn, Made in China: Voices from the New Revolution
(New York: TV Books, 2000): 252-3, and Lee Khoon Choy. Pioneers of
Modern China: Understanding the Inscrutable Chinese (Singapore: World
Scientific, 2005), 140-4
60. Chen, Shanghai Pudong, 66-7
61. Zhu later defined another new era of contemporary economic reform by
gaining China’s membership to the World Trade Organization (WTO). He
was also the Dean of the Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and
Commerce in Beijing.
62. Chao Zhang, “Geographical Construction in the Pudong New Area” in
Foster, Dragon’s Head, 275-8
63. City of Future, Shanghai Star (2 July 1993, front-page headline) as cited in
Jos Gamble, Shanghai in Transition: Changing Perspectives and Social
Contours of a Chinese Metropolis (London, Routledge: 2003): 10
64. Yuemin, City Planning, 243-5
65. I would like to note that nationalism did not exist before the nineteenth
century when China was still an empire. Chinese political elites begin to
embrace modern nationalist doctrines for China’s defense and regeneration
only after China’s disastrous defeat…in the 1840-1842 Opium War. The
result of today’s Chinese Communist party’s process of building a nation-
state to assure vital national interests is “pragmatic nationalism.” Its
consideration of the nation as a territorial-political unit gives the
Communist state the responsibility to speak in the name of the nation and
demands that citizens subordinate their individual interest to China’s
national ones. See Suisheng Zhao, “China’s Pragmatic Nationalism: Is it
Managable?” The Washington Quarterly (29; Winter 2005-06): 131-44

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

66. Christopher R. Huges, Chinese Nationalism in the Global Era (London:

Routledge, 2006): 2-5
67. I rely on the definition of “globalization” as multi-national phenomenon,
which involves highly complex interaction between varieties of social
institutes across geographical scales estabalishing a vast landscape of urban
network. See Saskia Sassen, “Identity in the Global City, Economic and
Cultural Encasements,” in Patricia Yaeger. ed. The Geography of Identity
(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996)
68. Chen, Shanghai Pudong, 59
69. Marshall, Focal Point, 94
70. Richard Rogers as cited in Kris Olds, Globalization and Urban Change:
Capital, Culture, and Pacific Rim Mega-Projects (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2001): 224-5
71. Ibid., 229
72. Marshall, Focal Point, 100
73. Olds, Globalization, 220
74. Wang, Lujiazui, 11, and Peter G. Rowe, “Advanced Research Seminar:
Pudong New Area, Shanghai, China” Harvard University Graduate School
of Design, Fall 2003, Course Syllabus. (accessed July
12, 2007). Also, the issue to consider here is whether the plan was “taken” or
“stolen.” This brings up an interesting point-that the Chinese did it to get
Western expertise without seriously compensating for it. Since all plans
were privately held in secret, there is no way of knowing whether the
Chinese took the best of the plans submitted and created their own,
effectively using them without having to acknowledge the use of them.


75. Jorge Otero-Pailos, “Bigness in Context: Some Regressive Tendencies in

Rem Koolhaas' Urban Theory.” City 4 (3, 2000): 379-389.
76. That is, buildings are tangible. They are solid and obviously exist. Chinese
pragmatism is based on tangible value. Lim, Shanghai Urban
77. Yung Ho Chang uses the term “critical pragmatism” as a respond to the
developing mentality of the Post-Mao era, derived from the key idea “Black
Cat, Black White” by Deng Xiaoping. For details, see Yung Ho Chang,
“The Necessity of Banality,” Volume, 8 (2006): 86-8
78. Chow, Knowing, 186
79. Olds, Globalization 99-101
80. Fulong Wu, “Globalization, Place Promotion and Urban Development in
Shanghai” Journal of Urban Affairs 25, no. 1 (2003): 55–78
81. Benjamin Wood, the author or a bustling shopping and entertainment
district In Shanghai, is the principal of a successful design firm in Shanghai.
See Lim, Shanghai Urban
82. Zhu’s goal to demonstrate the massive success of Shanghai in his era later
granted him a position as China’s Premier. That is to say, Zhu followed the
footsteps of his predecessor, Shanghai’s former mayor Jiang Zemin who later
became the President of the People’s Republic of China.
83. The condition of nationalism in Shanghai has been evolved from the so-
called “ethic nationalism” in the early period of the establishment of the
Treaty Port, to a “liberal nationalism” in the founding of the Republic of
China in the turn of the century, and to Mao’s “state nationalism,”
foreshadowed by the impact of the Great Leap Forward policy and the
Cultural Revolution.

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form


1. Balfour, Shanghai, 148

2. Saskia Sassen, Cities in a World Economy (London: Pine Forge Press, 2006):
3. Jyoti Thottam, “On the Job in China” and “The Growing Dangers of the
China Trade,” Time 170, no. 2 (2007): 27-31
4. For a detailed study of lilong see Non Arkaraprasertkul, ‘Toward Shanghai’s
Urban Housing: Re-Defining Shanghai’s Lilong’, in Proceeding of the Sixth
China Urban Housing Conference in Beijing, P.R. China, Hong Kong: Center
of Housing Innovations at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and
Ministry of Construction, P.R. China. 2007; and Non Arkaraprasertkul and
Reilly Rabitaille, ‘Contemporary Lilong: Revitalizing Shanghai’s Ingenious
Housing’, Proceeding of the Fourth International Conference of Planning and
Design in Tainan, R.C.China. Tainan, Taiwan: College of Planning and
Design, National Cheng Kung University, 2007.
5. In Urban Planner Tingwei Zhang’s research, he refers to these levels in the
administrative structure of Shanghai as the municipal government (for the
Municipal Planning Bureau), urban district (a district may have more than
one million population; the largest district in Shanghai has 1.6 million
population; for District Authority Control), and street offices (sub-district
government, with a size approximately to a company in U.S. cities; for
Controlled Detailed Planning Section). See Tingwei Zhang, “Urban
Development and a Socialist Pro-Growth Coalition in Shanghai,” Urban
Affairs Review 37, no. 475 (2002): 485

6. Dong Nan Nan and Stephanie Ruff, “Managing Urban Growth in

Shanghai,” in City Strategies, 58 (2007): 32
7. Roland Barthes, The Eiffel Tower, and Other Mythologies. Richard Howard.
trans. (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1997). Also partially re-
published in Leach, Rethinking, 172-80.
8. Ma Qingyun asserts “Pudong has certain existing dimensions of symbolic
quality, to represent ambition and achievement in its new form of
urbanization.” See Louisa Lim, Shanghai Urban Development: The Future Is
(accessed July 8, 2007)
9. Read more about criticisms and comments on modern towers in China in
Layla Dawson, “Towers to People,” in China’s New Dawn: An Architectural
Transformation (New York: Prestel, 2005), 16-33
10. Rowe, East Asia, 137
11. Howard French, “Shanghai Journal; In World Skyscraper Race, It Isn't
Lonely at the Top,” The New York Times, May 8, 2007.
DAC0894DF404482 [retrieved 11 May 2007]
12. Ibid. The core of the article reads: ‘while diplomatic, the explanation strains
creditability, especially for anyone who knows the history. The Shanghai
building was originally designed to have 94 floors, rising to roughly 1,509
feet, but has quietly grown since then, with more floors added, as well as
more height to each floor, resulting in about 105 extra feet.’
13. See detail about the projects, renderings, and criticisms of both buildings in
Xing Ruan, New China Architecture (Hong Kong: Periplus, 2006), 125-31,

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Dawson, New Dawn, 74-7, and Bernard Chan, New Architecture in China
(New York; Merrell, 2005), 6-15
14. Jane Jacobs, ‘The Use of Sidewalks: Contacts’, in The Death and Life of the
Great American
15. Rowe, East Asia, 134-7
16. Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge; MA: MIT Press, 1960): 8
17. “In Place of God: Culture Replaces Religion,” The Economist No. 383
(8527, 5-11 May 2007): 14
18. Jennie Chen, “Urban Architextures: A Search for an Authentic Shanghai”
(M.A. thesis, McGill University, 2003), 59


1. Marshall, Focal Point, 105

2. This raises both meta and implicative questions in many issues, e.g.
relationships between capital and labor, environment, massive consumer
market, and so on. For details, see Fulong Wu, Urban Development in Post-
Reform China: State, Market, and Space (London: Routledge, 2007)
3. Zheng adds: “[t]he competitive tradition underlies its dynamic and
progressive nature, an entrepreneurial spirit that sets it apart from other
Chinese cities. But, as with any city that occupies a strategic global position,
its future lies not only in the hands of its architects and policymakers, but in
the national policy for growth and development. See Zheng Shiling,
“Shanghai: The Fastest City?” Urban Age: A Worldwide Investigation into the
Future of Cities,
Notes [retrieved 15
May 2007]
4. Yan Zhongmin, “Shanghai: The Growth and Shifting Emphasis of China’s
Largest City,” in Chinese Cities: The Growth of the Metropolis Since 1949. ed.
Victor F.S. Sit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985): 94-125
5. Considering that the term “Chinese cities,” according to a contemporary
narrative and research account of Lawrence J. Ma, implies “the sharing of
certain common characteristics or the constitution of a single cohesive socio-
economic, spatial, or political entity,” Shanghai differs from the rest of
China by all means. See Lawrence J. Ma, “The State of the Field of Urban
China: A Critical Multidisclipnary Overview of the Literarure,” China
Information, No. 20(2006): 377
6. Louisa Lim, Shanghai Urban
7. Chen, Urban Architextures, 76
8. Rhoads Murphey, “The Treaty Ports and China’s Modernization” in The
Chinese City Between Two Worlds, Mark Elvin and G. William Skinner, eds.
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974): 17-71, Jeffrey N.
Wasserstrom, “Locating Shanghai: Having Fits about Where it Fits” in
Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950,
Joseph W. Esherrick, ed. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000):
9. Marie-Claire Bergère, Histoire de Shanghai (Paris: Fayard, 2002)
10. Marcia Reynders Ristaino, “Histoire de Shanghai by Marie-Claire Bergère,”
Book Review. Project Muse, [retrieved 16 April 2007]
11. William G. Skinner, “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China,”
Journal of Asian Studies 24, no. 1 (1964): 3-43

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

12. Carol Willis, Form follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and
Chicago (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995.), Paul Goldberger,
The Skyscraper (New York: Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1981)
13. Michael Masterson, “How to Grow Your Business Like China: A 3-Part
Confucian Strategy, Part 1: What a Difference 20 Years Can Make” Early to
Rise, [retrieved 22
April 2007]
14. Jameson criticizes and questions the images of contemporary urbanism,
lacing social and economic issues into the propaganda of progressivism of
the developing regions. See Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” NLR, No. 21
(May/June, 2003): 65-79. And Fredric Jameson, “The Politics of Utopia,”
NLR, No. 25 (Jan/Feb, 2004): 35-54. My main argument significantly
emerged from a fruitful seminal discussion I had with my colleague at
Harvard University’s East Asia Studies Program, Har Ye Kan, whose
principal reflections on the politics of built form is: “Governance, and
discipline and knowledge of the population, thus firmly rests upon the
layout and built forms of the city, to control and configure the spaces in
which people flow, so as to regulate them with this information of flows.”
Har Ye Kan, email to author, March 23, 2007
15. Rowe, East Asia, 153-7



1. Apart from many analyses on the situation, and a “common sense” for
everyone who visits Shanghai today, I also recommend these concise studies:
Haiyu Bao, High-rise Housing Development in Shanghai Since 1972.
M.Arch., McGill University (Canada), 2000. Zhigang Tang, The Urban
Housing Market in a Transitional Economy: Shanghai as a Case Study. Ph.D.
dissertation. Indiana University. 2006. And Stanford Anderson. “High-
Density Housing.” Dialogue 101 (Taiwan). 2006: 109
2. One of which is of course Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American
Cities (1961).
3. Population of Shanghai in 2005 is 17,780,000.
4. Peter G. Rowe, Modernity and Housing. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
1993): 47.
5. Chunlad Zhao, “From ‘shikumen’ to New-Style: a Rereading of "Lilong"
Housing in Modern Shanghai.” Journal of Architecture, vol. 9. Spring 2004:
6. Normally, there are two main lanes and a series of side lanes. See Qian
Guan, Lilong Housing: A Traditional Settlement Form. M.Arch Thesis.
McGill University, Canada. 1996: 25.
7. Roger Sherwood, Modern Housing Prototypes. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1978): 17
8. Not only Shanghai, but also China as a whole had never been part of
Modern discourses, since most of the foreign architects who worked in
Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

Shanghai had been trained in a Beaux-Art tradition, such as British Hong

Kong-based architectural firm Palmer and Turner, Spence Robinson and
Partners, Atkinson and Dallas.1 Also, the first generation of Chinese
architects educated abroad from the Boxer Rebellion funds, despite the fact
that none of them was trained in a Modern school had not return to until
late 1920s and mostly worked in the northern part of China, which includes
Zhang Bo, Wu Liangyong, Chen Dengao, Zhang Kaiji, Dai Nianci, and
Xiong Ming. In addition, most of the Western-educated architects went to
University of Pennsylvania, a school which, at the time, was led by the
famous Beaux-Art architect Paul Philippe Cret. See Peter G. Rowe and Seng
Kuan, Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003): 49.
9. Louis D. Morris, Community or Commodity?: A Study of Lilong Housing in
Shanghai (Vancouver, Center of Human Settlements, 1994): 8-12. Also,
Some authors note that there was a vacumm moment in the development of
lilong, between 1941-1949; the period when China was under the control of
the Japanese. However, since the houses were being occupied by the same
group of people, it is assumable that there must be an internal development
– the organic improvement from within. See Guan, Lilong Housing, 29
10. Around the 1860s, not only political upheaval, but also better job
opportunities that attracted an increasing numbers of migrants from the
hinterland to Shanghai – the number of Chinese inhabitants in the
International Settlement rose from 75,000 to half a million within less than
three decades later. See Huang, Housing Development, 5-8
11. The emergence of lilong relates directly with the vicissitudes of the Western
architectural development. Trading and commercial activities and the


establishment of restricted settlements – concessions – areas provided a

unique set of circumstances for the development of pattern of occupation.
See Lei Haung, Housing Development in the Context of Modernization,
Urbanization and Conservation of Chinese Traditional Cities: Beijing,
Shanghai and Suzhou, D.Des dissertation, Harvard University, 2000: 5-2
12. Zhao, From Shikumen, 57
13. Junhua Lü, Peter G. Rowe and Zhang Jie, eds., Modern Urban Housing in
China: 1840-2000. (Munich ; New York : Prestel, 2001): 63.
14. Xing Ruan, New China Architecture (Hong Kong, Periplus, 2006): 163
15. The “hybridity” of lilong is expressed through the combination of a Western
terrace house tradition with the Chinese courtyard house in a manner that
perpetuated the narrow lanes of earlier Chinese settlement. See Rowe,
Architectural Encounters, 40-1.
16. Shi-ku-men literally means “stone framed door.” Tess Johnston and Deke
Erh, A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai (Hong Kong: Old
China Hand Press, 1992):11
17. Lü, Modern Urban Housing, 67.
18. A study shows that the depth of most lilong houses built after World War II
(1945) was reduced by 20% (from 10-14 to 8-12 meters) See Huang,
Housing Development, 5-29
19. Peter G. Rowe, East Asian Modern: Shaping the Contemporary City (London:
Reaktion, 2005):124.
20. Johnston, Last Look, 12.
21. Zhao, Shikumen, 57.
22. “Lilong” (sometimes called “li-nong”) is the Shanghai dialect for nongtang

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

(弄堂)— nong means “alley way,” and tang stands for the front room of
Chinese courtyard houses – in other words, a space in front of the courtyard
house which is the “lane.” There are some changes in the meaning for “li-
long” – li refers to the basic urban neighborhoods, which varied in size from
25 to 100 households. It was commonly used for naming alleyway-house
compounds that, by the twentieth century, became equivalent to “alleyway
house.” Also, according to the Great Chinese Vocabulary Dictionary, li is a
word that has been always associated with human settlements in different
way, such as a place where people live, a hometown, dwellings in a
neighborhood, and a basic organizational unit in residential management in
ancient China (the same meaning that Lu refers to); for long, also according
to the same dictionary, it literally means “small street” in a basic sense. See
Hanchao Lu, Beyond the Neon Light: Everyday Shanghai in the Early
Twentieth Century (Berkeley; London; Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1999): 143-5. And Guan, Lilong Housing, 1-2, and Jianxiang Huang,
email message to the author, 20 December 2006
23. Although “lilong” is an adjective, it is often used as abbreviation of “lilong
housing neigborhood.” According to Zhao, it refers less to the materiality of
this dwelling form, but more to the vivid social life within and around it.
The term can be pronounced as li-long, in the Shanghai dialect, or li-nong,
in Mandarin. So, what Leo Lee calls linong is the lilong houses. Rowe,
Architectural, 238, Zhao, From Shihumen, 50., and Leo Ou-fan Lee,
Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-45
(Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 1999): 32-5.
24. I used the term cho, an adjective, as a abbreviation of a noun “chokai.”
According to Hiroto Kobayashi, it means: “a unit of neighborhood


organization in Japanese cities that has influenced everyday life of

inhabitants in urban history.” Nevertheless, it is also referable to Theodore
C. Bestor’s larger definition: “ the term chokai and chonaikai (literally, ‘town
association’ and ‘within town association’) are used most interchangeably.
There is no scholarly consensus on preferred usage or any standard
translation of these other terms referring to the units of local government
and community structure…Therefore, I translate both terms as
‘neighborhood association.’” See Hiroto Kobayahi, Cho: A Persistent
Neighborhood Unity Maintaining in Microculture in Japanese Cities,
D.Des dissertation, Harvard University, 2003: iv. And Theordore C. Bestor,
Neigborhood Tokyo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989): 289
25. These concepts are described in Rowe’s East Asia Modern. “Soi” literally
means “small branch streets” is a noun used to describe residential
neighborhood that is formulated around the small branch street. It is where
I have been living for more than twenty years.
26. The structures of these East Asian neighborhoods are similar; situating in a
city block, most of the shop houses are located the sides that are close to the
main roads, and narrow interior lanes porously go through the block of
residential units.
27. “No place can one get a better image of daily life in Shanghai than in the
alleyway-house neighborhoods that spread across the city…For them, these
back alleys were not only where they lived but also where they worked,
entertained, socialized, and conducted most of their daily transaction – in
short, the neighborhood was the city to these people.” Hanchao Lu, Beyond
the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century (Berkeley:
University of California Press. 1999): 189.

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form

28. Hang, Housing Development, 5-23

29. Qian Guan, “Lilong Housing: A Traditional Settlement Form” (M.Arch
thesis, McGill University, Canada, 1996), 116.
30. Morris, Commodity, 20
31. Louisa Lim, “Shanghai Builds for the Future: A Cinematic Ode to
Shanghai's Vanishing World.” N.P.R. Morning Edition, 14 December
(accessed 15 December 2006)
32. He uses the term “alley-living style” which I am not convinced that it is
what he means since the term carries a negative connotation. Ibid.., 68.
33. Morris, Commodity, 22-26.
34. Ibid., 24. The change of unit type has been indeed the factor that
determines the size of the lanes – the smaller the unit type (private) is, the
larger the required space for lanes (public). In other words, the
transformation of unit type constitutes the structural change of the
neighborhood, moving towards a collective life of the people of urbanized
35. "[In lilong community] there is such close contact between people, everyone
helps each other," says Shanghainese filmmaker Shu Haolun. See Lim, A
36. Kevin Lynch, Theory of Good City Form (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
1981): 248-9, 303.
37. Xintaindi is not considered an appropriate model for the development of a
new LMRHD because it neither provides a way to re-approach housing
design with the economy of residential program nor to challenge the high-
rise housing with the innovative low- and medium-rise strategy.


38. Nevertheless, if every lilong is renovated to serve a sole commercial purpose

like Xintaindi, the city will soon become lifeless because of the diminishing
of mix-used program and diversity of urban activities.
39. Greg Yager and Scott Kilbourn, “Lessons from Shangahi Xintaindi: China’s
Retail Success Story,” Urban Land Asia, December 2005: 36.


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