Tuesday, May 11, 2004


all that's missing is the all-seeing eye of sauron
(image by author)

Of all the considerable impressions that Shanghai leaves on you, its architecture has been the most overwhelming and visceral. I picked up on this last time I was here but now that my parents live in the middle of Puxi (right next to the Shanghai TV Station, off of Nanjing Lu), I realize how insane architectural design is out here. S agrees - it's some straight up Blade Runner shit, not simply in the futurism of the design, but also in the stark contrast between Shanghai's towering aspirations towards free market dominance and the reality of economic struggle that many of its 16-17 million residents have to deal with on a daily level.

This manifests powerfully in the many skyscrapers that thrust across the skyline, few more dramatic than that phallic monolith above - the JW Marriot. I don't know how I managed to miss the building before - I was probably too caught up in Pudong's skyline (with Jinmao Tower, the Oriental Pearl Tower, etc.) to notice but Barad-Dur, oops, I mean, the Marriot is impossible to ignore. This is an arrogant building (which is saying a lot in a city that is filled with pretentious architecture) but I can't help but stare at it. The design is ridiculous - the base looks impossibly weak, especially with its engorged Q-Tip head - but it carries itself with a (decidedly masculine) defiance, s big, fat middle finger (or erection if you like) right in the heart of Puxi.

However, the Marriot is just one among many striking structures. This isn't the best shot I have for the contrast I was aiming for but the foreground building houses the Shanghai Art Museum and it's clearly a product of the city's European colonial past while, far in the background on the right, is an ultra-modern skyscraper with these wholly unnecessary waves of glasses that cascade down each side of the building. Actually "wholly unnecessary" essentially describes Shanghai's architecture planning writ large.

Everything is frill and flourish, with some inexplicable results. It's as if each new building is trying to say to its older predecessors, "you think you're on some outrageous shit? Ha, wait until scaffolding comes off, wussy." If you're into more austere design, this will no doubt mortally offend you but for me, I like how brazenly silly it gets. Many of the buildings here excel at adding details that make absolutely no sense whatsoever except that they simply can include them (again, I'll have examples up within 24 hours).

This is what I think it comes down to: Shanghai might be China's foray into free market promiscuity but the city is still informed by Communist era sloganeering and Maoist "Great Leap Forward" idealism. I forget to take a picture of it, but there was one sign that I saw that updated many of Mao-esque aphorism into a more contemporary form, basically stating that Shanghai is destined for a most glorious and revolutionary future. You can see how the archtitectural design is directly influenced by the same kind of attitudes that produced the now-familiar Chinese agit-prop imagery, with these shiny-faced, Red Book-wielding youth, standing triumphantly with national pride. Instead of chubby babies, we now have these monuments to Chinese hubris in the form of glass and steel.

(By the way, apparently, all these massive structures are helping to sink Shanghai. Hubris manifested literally! You gotta love it.)

The City on Fire Photo Album.