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View from Shanghai: more than any other metropolis, Shanghai has become synonymous with the most brutal kind of urban development.

Chosen in the late '80s to drive China's economic progress, Shanghai responded with unprecedented determination. By 2000, half of the buildings from the late '40s, the vast majority colonial, had been razed to make way for 200 000 high-rises and the city became the world's largest construction site. Shanghaiese flocked to see a new scale model of their future city at the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall only to find their homes had been erased from history.

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Shanghai today has a somewhat calmer aura. The business zone of Pudong still rises, but in the older districts of Puxi across the Huangpu river, signs of what Shanghai's city government calls 'controlled planning' is beginning to mitigate urban sprawl. The slowdown in building has coincided with the first steps to conserve traditional architecture. Both the Bund, a sweep of former colonial banks and insurance companies, and many of the remaining shikumen courtyard houses have been spared and are being restored.

Like all modern Asian cities, Shanghai has its fair share of eyesores, yet it can claim some fine examples of modern architecture, not all of them high-rise. Among its arsenal of gleaming towers and six-lane freeways are a handful of notable cultural buildings that were completed in the mid to late '90s. The $75 million library, the largest in Asia, was followed by Xing Tong He's Shanghai Museum shaped in the form of an ancient bronze pot. Xing, a professor at Tongji University, masterminded Shanghai's successful bid for Expo 2010. Opposite the museum in Renmin Square is Jean-Marie Charpentier's Grand Theatre, China's first purpose-built opera house. Aside from its allusions to a number of ancient Chinese symbols such as the square and circle representing heaven and earth, the theatre is a paean to Modernism. Spread over ten levels, with three auditoria and four stages, its most impressive feature is the ceramic and glass box that encloses the foyer areas, covered by a huge curved roof.

Massive investment has brought the world's best-known architectural firms to Shanghai. Richard Rogers was hired to turn the rice paddies of Pudong into a blueprint for China's most profitable economic arena. John Portman's Sunjoy Tomorrow Square, Kenzo Tange's Bank of Shanghai and Kohn Pedersen Fox's Plaza 66 on Xanjing Lu, the city's foremost commercial thoroughfare, were prime examples of the kind of landmark skyscrapers usually found in Western cities, located in the city Shanghai hoped to upstage--Hong Kong. Looking across the river towards Pudong, the gaudy pink Oriental Pearl Tower, until fairly recently the symbol of modern Shanghai, the Shangrila Hotel and the city's International Convention Centre still dominate the waterfront. Behind is the 88-storey Jin Mao Towers, China's tallest building, 44 storeys of which house the luxury Grand Hyatt hotel with its lofty atrium and incomparable city views. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, this soaring structure combines a metal and glass skin of elaborate Art Deco-inspired detail with the general shape of a pagoda adorned with multiple ascending roofs.

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Drive along Century Avenue, billed as Shanghai's Champs Elysees, towards Century Park, and you encounter a sculpture resembling a collapsed satellite. To its right is the imposing glass walled and domed Science and Technology Museum by Chinese American architect Liu Xiaoguan. On its left is Paul Andreu's $94 million Oriental Arts Centre, a multiple concert hall resembling, to some commentators, a butterfly orchid. It doesn't stop there. For the 2010 World Expo, Shanghai will be the focus of yet more convention centres, two more bridges and a 43-storey office building by Li Chung Pei (son of I. M.), plus the world's tallest building in Kohn Pedersen Fox's World Financial Center (1509ft).

While for casual observers Shanghai has come to resemble Hong Kong, it feels its true rival is Beijing, still China's undisputed cultural and political capital. When Shanghai created its own tennis Open, Beijing followed suit with its own China Open. Shanghai also landed the museum, the European-style theatre and the first Chinese Formula One Grand Prix located on a new $240 million circuit, plus a host of arts festivals. For most cities the cost would be prohibitive.

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Restoration is less costly, and attracts tourist dollars. Aficionados of Shanghai's traditional 'European' architecture were greatly relieved to find out that the square mile of heavy concession-era structures on the Bund were being spared the bulldozers. In the case of the famous Peace Hotel, the building has retained its original function; others are reinventing themselves to appease the gods of conspicuous consumption. Within Number Three on the Bund, formerly the Union Assurance Company Building, Michael Graves has created a 35m-high inner atrium of Russian birch veneer, to add lustre to expensive shopping.

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Other areas still retain something of their prewar character. The Chinese City south of the Bund has remained virtually intact. In the French Concession, mock Tudor mansions and '30s apartment blocks share tree-lined streets with swanky restaurants and night clubs. Shanghai's best Deco buildings centre around the Jinjiang Hotel where Nixon and Zhou Enlai signed the Shanghai Communique in 1972, and the nearby Grosvenor House, an apartment block and former hotel which played hosts to countless famous politicians over several decades.

Tourists today are pointed towards Xintandi. The brainchild of British architect Ben Woods, this retail pedestrian complex-amusement park of restored shikumen houses (as well as some fakes, using old bricks from rubble) goes to great lengths to avoid looking new and so retains some historic charm. Here you can meander down quaint lanes to stumble across spaghetti joint here, art gallery there; and there's a real museum thrown in. Still, it's small and oddly anachronistic and ends rather abruptly at a busy main road.

What role can Chinese architects play in all this? The question divides the city's intelligentsia between those who believe engagement with foreign architects is a necessary part of the country's cultural evolution and those who condemn successive leaders for spending too much on ego-driven architects who at best pay lip service to Chinese sensibilities. A new generation of Chinese architects is emerging, especially in Beijing with SOHO China, but, following the Japanese experience, it may take another twenty years before their work becomes mainstream. In the meantime they must hope that China's booming economy keeps booming.
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Author:Turnbull, Robert
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Words:1047
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