So long Shanghai

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Shanghai was not at all what I had imagined.  I was expecting the big city chaos and speed of Hong Kong.  I got a city on tranquil hiatus.  Shanghai is gearing up for Expo 2010.  The city is mostly under construction and smog.  This will be Shanghai’s Beijing Olympics, an opportunity to modernize (more than it already has) and clean up.  A night out on the town was maybe been a telling summary of my whole visit.  I was trying to experience the infamous Shanghai nightlife (Time Out calls Shanghai the “whore of the east” for it) yet I felt like I could have been at any club on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.  (The drinks cost about the same price too.)  I saw a lot of upscale, modern, very western establishments (the products of globalization?) throughout the city.  I also saw more Chinese village-in-the-city typologies here, various pockets of traditional houses among the newer skyscrapers, which was an interesting contrast to the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods.  The Bund, Shanghai’s reminder of British settlement, is another point of departure; however, on this trip, the entire strip is undergoing renovation.  The boarded up promenade and blocked-off building entrances obstruct most views of the distant Pudong skyline as well as the immediate and impending colonial architecture.  As I walked past the deep recesses along the rusticated bases of these monolithic stone structures, a cool and damp air poured out onto the sidewalk.  It didn’t come without the dust and debris of the retrofit within.

Because Shanghai is focusing on the future, there are various exhibits, models, renderings and souvenir shops for this coming expo.  Haibao, the expo’s friendly blue mascot is plastered all over the city.  Interesting fact: among all the foreign pavilions being built for the expo (currently 21) the USA will not have a structure among them.  According to Director of SOM Shanghai Silas Chiow, US corporations have been hesitant to invest (this is how the expo is financially backed) because the call for collaboration came at the realization of recession back home.  He gives a dismissive shrug when I ask if SOM is designing anything for the Expo.  “The Chinese people want Chinese designers,” he admits.

This was unheard of about 5 years ago.  Large corporate architecture firms were being sought out at all costs by the east.  China hired firms like SOM for the name (and reputation).  SOM would be responsible for schematic, and often design development, phases of a project, while the final construction documents, administration, and build out were handed over to the local Chinese firms.  There were milestone projects sometime around 2003-2006 in which SOM, and others, were able to see projects through to their completion.  This was a huge step forward quality control wise for these firms who found that while China built faster than anyone else, the construction often lacked the precision and standards of craftsmanship known in the west.  I am honored to have had the opportunity to catch up with Chiow and the situation in China.  He is an inspiring architect who has lived and worked in Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, the US and has started roughly 3 architectural offices in the span of his career.

I am fortunate for students and professors from Tongji University who taught me about the intricacies of all the new towns and cities springing up around Shanghai.  Although, at best, these are themed suburbs, they point to another way that China is aiming for a “better city, better life” (the tagline for Expo 2010).

One more thing.  To be fair, Shanghai wasn’t completely tranquil at all times.  I was one member in a herd of thousands of others being pushed through the underground throughfares of People’s Station during rush hour.  It is the central point through which all the city’s modes of transit pass/transfer….as well as this sea of commuters.  It makes me wonder about the implications of a way station….and thesis.

BTW, thesis kids, I’m thinking about you.

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