Shanghai, Modernity, and Speed: The Future of Metropolis


Enda Duffy in The Speed Handbook tells us that modernity brought about a series of new human-scaled and immediately vastly popular technological inventions of the beginning of the twentieth century, centrally and most importantly the motorcar, offered to masses of people that rarest of things: a wholly new experience, the experience of moving at what appeared to be great speeds, and the sensation of controlling that movement.1 The modern city would give birth to the road, the boulevard, the speed-zone of linear geometry, world where machines could roam at will but humans must fear to tread.

Anna Greenspan in her book on Shanghai’s future Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade reminds us that the modern vision of the ‘Contemporary City’ is not tied to any particular place and time. Instead, it is produced on an empty, abstract plain. It is precisely this abstraction that makes the modern metropolis continually futuristic. Its time, writes Robert Fishman, was ‘the time of the present, not any calendar day or year, but that revolutionary ‘here and now where the hopes of the present are finally realized’. ‘It is called contemporary,’ Le Corbusier insists, ‘because tomorrow belongs to nobody.’  In much of the world the Contemporary City may be a relic, but in Shanghai dreams of the future metropolis live on.2

One aspect of this new vision is the old war between the road and the street: the sense that streets are places of life, where humans live, work, play, and enjoy existence; while roads are devoid of humans, places of speed and machines, sites of geometric purity and inhumanity – realms of pure war and death. Greenspan will outline the modernity revival that is taking place in Shanghai’s architectural retro-futurism is the great revival of the modernist vision of speed and verticality, Platonic geometry and the infinite line of purity. At the heart of this is the famous architectural vision of Minoru Mori whose 14 years of struggle, controversy, and redesigns, opened Shanghai World Financial Center – China’s tallest skyscraper – in 2008. (Bloomberg) Born in 1934  Minoru Mori is Tokyo’s most dynamic and well-known property developer. A self-proclaimed urban development visionary, his aim is to transform Tokyo from a sprawling collection of small buildings on tiny plots into a globalized city with grandeur and style, with an accent on culture rather than just business. Simultaneously, he aspires to transform this spread-out connurbation, characterized by long commutes, into a more compact high-rise city where people can work, live and play in the same vicinity. He died in 2012 but his vision lives on.

Yet, what is this vision? Greenspan in her book tells us Mori was deeply influenced by the father of modernist architecture Le Corbusier. As an out and out Platonist, Le Corbusier would seek pure geometric harmony in everything he did even to the point of dehumanizing his architectural paradise and disposing of its human wildness by imposing a top-down hierarchical system of pure mathematical authority. Architectural emotion exists when the work rings within us in tune with a universe whose laws we obey, recognize and respect. When certain harmonies have been attained, the work captures us. Architecture is a matter of “harmonies,” it is “a pure creation of the spirit.”3

Following his master Mori’s vision of the modern city is the contradictory postulate— essential to Le Corbusier’s thought— that to decongest the city it is necessary to increase the density of the urban core. This seemingly paradoxical idea is best understood in contrast to the opposite inclination: decentralisation. Faced with the pollution, squalor and chaos of newly-industrialised cities, governments and planners tend to support a strategy of fleeing outwards, believing that spreading people out into small suburban towns or ‘garden cities’ that are built on the urban edge could deintensify the city and make mass urbanisation more manageable. Le Corbusier vilified this impulse with characteristic ferocity, attacking decentralisation as an ‘illusion’, ‘falsehood’ and deceptive ‘mirage’.  Garden cities with their ‘mock nature’ should be banned, he proclaimed. Suburbs should be eliminated. Instead, Le Corbusier advocated for compact cities that cram people tightly together, rather than extending ever outward. In the Metropolis of the Machine Age, we should ‘pile the city on top of itself’. (Greenspan, p. 23)

This new dense city or as Lewis Mumford stipulated in his monumental study of the city as Megacity would align it with his notion of the reality of the city as a megamachine: the convergence of science, technics and political power as a unified community of interpretation rendering useless and eccentric life-enhancing values. Of course during the age of Robert Moses as the architect and dictator of America’s New York construction (destruction) projects for forty years, Mumford opposed the vision of modernity to his ideal vision of what can be described as an “organic city,” where culture is not usurped by technological innovation but rather thrives with it. Needless to say he lost that battle. Moses as a student of Le Corbusier would reconstruct New York City in the image of his master a world of roads and bridges, of speed and automobiles. A vertical world of skyscrapers where humans inhabited machine like entities of harmony and beauty while the surrounding caves of the underworld would be inhabited by automobiles and speed devoid of human streets. A geometric island of Platonic purity and beauty.


Mori understanding that he would no be able to accomplish this type of vision in his homeland because of its dense and spread out chaotic systems of architecture unless he applied a creative destruction of its ancient worlds decided to move to Shanghai where his vision came upon Pudong. Here in this empty world of slums and farms, factories and trash heaps that existed outside of Old Shanghai he believed he could create a Vertical City. As Greenspan will report: ”

The Vertical Garden City, then, is an old idea made new. The question is, what type of temporality is at work in this revival? Is this a case of history repeating itself; of development as backtrack in which concepts once tried but now forgotten are destined to play themselves over until they are abandoned once again? Or, alternatively, is the return to modernity the result of a time spiral in which recollection is combined with innovative production? In this latter case the future need no longer be defined relationally as a temporal moment but, instead, can be reconceived as a qualitative condition of time that is always, at least virtually, accessible.” (Greenspan, pp. 26-27)

Yet, as Greenspan tells us Pudong was only the beginning, that Shanghai’s most cutting edge experiment in sustainable design, however, is taking place back in Lujiazui, next door to the SWFC at the site of Pudong’s third giant skyscraper, The Shanghai Tower, which at 128 storeys high will soar above the landscape of Pudong and become— at least for an instant— the second tallest building in the world.  Super-tall skyscrapers, due to their exorbitant cost, operate as singular showcase buildings, and are thus uniquely positioned to pioneer practices in engineering design. The Shanghai Tower is ‘Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’certified, and blueprints have been lauded for pioneering environmental construction. ‘We hope,’ says Art Gensler, chairman of Gensler, the firm that is in charge of construction, ‘that Shanghai Tower inspires new ideas about what sustainable tall buildings can be.’  The massive edifice has a cylindrical core that is wrapped in a transparent outer skin that twists up to the sky. This double-skin façade will act as a ‘thermos bottle’, insulating the building and increasing its energy efficiency. The structure will also harvest rainwater, recycle grey water and use wind turbines to generate power. Between its two curtain walls are nine indoor gardens each with a fourteen-storey atrium. These sky gardens will separate the buildings into ‘vertical neighbourhoods’ which will be open to the public and are meant to function as city parks with space for leisure, exercise and play.  The tower is conceived of, according to Gensler’s Dan Winey, as ‘a vertical sustainable city’.  The influence of Mori, and of Le Corbusier, is clear. ‘One is almost on top of the greenery, one sees a sea of trees; and here or there are those majestic crystals, pure prisms, limpid and gigantic [the skyscrapers]. Majesty, serenity, joy.’ (Greenspan, p. 28)

One problem with the dream of harmony and purity, of progress and speed – it left humans out of the equation. As she will tell us in designing car-based cities, modern urban planners envisioned ‘avenues of progress’ that would lead, inevitability, to a future destination waiting for us on the road up ahead. The linear mode of temporality is encoded ferociously in the road-based imperative of creation: destroy the old to pave the way for the new. This master plan of the modern metropolis conceived of as a city of roads, however, is and has always been contested. There is another, alternative and more messy vision of the future city, which emerges bottom-up, out of the continuously disruptive and enormously innovative culture of the street. (Greenspan, p. 30)

In their creation of the modern city, Le Corbusier, Haussmann and Moses shared the conviction that the older urban centres that had stood in their way had to be destroyed. They viewed the pre-modern city as riddled with slums that needed to be cleared away. Small, dense, crowded lanes were condemned as a cumbersome relic, unsuitable for the coming new age. In this lineage of modern urban planning, the bulldozer has always been the most important tool in the creation of the future. (Greenspan, p. 35).

Jane Jacobs in her early work (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities would be one of the first to offer a critique of this architecture of speed and verticality, of Platonic top-down authoritarian and androcratic organization of cities. As Greenspan reports:

According to the high modernist tradition, urban development needs to be mastered through the implementation of top-down plans. Jacobs’ critique rested on the counterargument; cities are too complex to be comprehended from on high. She railed against the arrogance— and impossibility— of imposing a single abstract ideal on the diverse multiplicity that was essential to urban innovation and growth. The cities’ complexity meant that unforeseen consequences would always, invariably, upset the plan. Tear down slums and build new public housing and what you ultimately end up with are projects so derelict and dangerous that the only solution is to blow them up. Build more roads and, rather than solving the problem of congestion, all you do is attract more traffic. These unfortunate consequences are not accidental. Plans go wrong because planners do not think on a neighbourhood scale. Instead, they view the city as a whole, try to comprehend it from on high and seek to impose order from above. Jacobs, who was attentive to and immersed in the micro-rhythms of daily life, argued for bottom-up emergence, or order from below. Cities are built from the emergent order of individuals not the oversight of all-powerful planners. They work, not because they adhere to the neat lines of a well-ordered plan, but rather due to the vital everyday entrepreneurialism of the street. (pp. 38-39)

After the failure of modernism and its dream of geometric civilization as enforced by the likes of Robert Moses and his predecessors Rem Koolhaus would say: ‘Modernism’s alchemistic promise has been a failure, a hoax: magic that didn’t work. Its ideas, aesthetics, strategies are finished. Together, all attempts to make a new beginning have only discredited the idea of a new beginning.’ (Greenspan, p. 40)

Yet, Mori neither dissuaded by such apparent failures nor even phased by the need to clear a space for his new vision of modernism set out to destroy the remnants of Pudong’s former inhabitants. Creating Pudong’s apparent emptiness required a mass relocation of industry, businesses and homes. Yawei Chen, who has carried out detailed research on the district, claims that 22,214 households and 136 blocks of flats were relocated in the making of Pudong. To create the central zone of Lujiazui alone, 27,000 houses had to be moved.  The speed and efficiency of this mass relocation was eased by the fact that few held any sentimental attachment to the area. ‘Better a bed in Puxi, than a house in Pudong,’ was the commonly heard refrain. There are few if any stories of Pudong’s lost old-worldly charms. Nevertheless, for Shanghai to modernise, an older urban district had to be wiped away. (Greenspan, pp. 41-42)

As Greenspan will remark in many ways Pudong appears to be a simple continuation of modernist planning; the latest manifestation of ‘the future city’ as it was imagined by the modernists of old. Yet, while Pudong does, at least at first glance, seem like a master-planner’s fantasy, in fact, the forces that went into the making of Pudong are far more complex. Shanghai’s showcase district emerged from quite singular and messy conditions. There was never a clear overarching plan that guided Pudong’s development, and its growth has not been governed by the solitary vision of a single individual. Rather than the product of a plan administered from above, Pudong is the manifestation of state power just at the point that it began opening to a multiplicity of players. Thus, though it may seem derivative, as if it is copying the ideas and practices of a modernity that has already been tried, Pudong, the showcase of Chinese urbanisation has actually emerged from a web of singular forces that have arisen through the particular forces of the contemporary East Asian entrepreneurial state, which is carving out the contours of its own singular modernity. (Greenspan, pp. 44-45)

One critic of the new Pudang Yasheng Huang in his book Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, dedicates an entire chapter to dissecting the truth behind Shanghai’s shallow façade. The chapter, entitled ‘What is wrong with Shanghai?’ argues that the ‘dizzying rise of skyscrapers from the rice paddies of Pudong’ are ‘both the sign and the culprit of what is structurally ailing the Chinese economy.’ Rather than the mark of success, they are ‘a glaring warning sign’ of the fragility of a system that might one day collapse. (Greenspan, p. 58)

Other architects both before and after Mori’s death have argued for another vision, a vision that brings back the chaos of streets and peoples actual lives and needs for community. As Greenspan concludes, today, the architects and developers working in the spectacular core of the district are becoming increasingly aware that an urban design meant for cars and not people lacks the vitality crucial for city life. Workers in the towers of Lujiazui complain that there is nowhere for them to eat and discussions on Pudong’s development speak of humanising the scale, finding ways to recreate the street life that has been lost. Gensler’s plans to open the sky gardens of the Shanghai Tower is meant to address these concerns by encouraging a neighbourhood feel. Mori is said to be working with the government on a plan to build a retail courtyard at the base of the SWFC as well as a pedestrian deck connecting the towers, complete with restaurants, shops, parks and even a monorail [written before his death]. Chris Choa, an architect at EDAW points to the ‘exquisite irony’ inherent in Mori’s position. ‘He was drawn to Pudong out of the frustration that he experienced trying to assemble large parcels in Tokyo. Now he finds that to make this project work, he must recreate the delicate tissue of community that makes urban life desirable.’  In the end, roads are not enough. The future city needs the dense and twisted tangle of the streets. (Greenspan, pp. 50-51).

1. Enda Duffy. The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism (pp. 3-4). Kindle Edition.
2. Greenspan, Anna (2014-10-15). Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade (p. 28). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
3. Corbusier, Le (2012-11-01). Towards a New Architecture (Dover Architecture). Dover Publications

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