March 18, 2005
Mark Kingwell on Shanghai

Mark Kingwell on Shanghai:

Every architecture student, really every city dweller, should visit Shanghai for a lesson in the aesthetics of architectural ambition. Complain as we may about the design compromises forced in Western cities by overlapping interest groups, setback restrictions, health standards, and public financing, the results at the other end of the scale are far more unnerving. At the asymptotic edge of design freedom lies a sparkling, overgrown, hyperscaled city of bright nightmares, sometimes beautiful, often strange, always oppressive. Shanghai is modern urbanism on a speed high, rambling and incoherent, with a lump of shopaholic emptiness at its center. Nowhere else is the promise of architectural emancipation, that dream of modernism, more vividly broken. Architecture will not set us free, no matter how hard--how high and fast it tries.


The press of humanity here is multidimensional, omniolfactory, inescapable, and loud. Like its citizens, Shanghai's sights, smells, and sounds crowd in from every direction, thick walls of sensory noise that snap out signal as fast as your learning-curve brain can take them in: an English sign in purple neon, the mingled scents of frying pork dumplings and rotting watermelon rind, the unmistakable sound of a businessman in gangster-cut suit and broken-down leatherette loafers voiding his nostrils onto the sidewalk. Dirty water and fish guts spill into the street from sidewalk stalls that cluster under spaceship high-rises and five-star hotel ballrooms, all washed in KFC and McDonald's neon, Prada and Gucci signage, the inevitable Starbucks green.

A tiny man with the weathered face of an ancient god under a Nike toque huddles in a corner selling seven mismatched batteries and a bundle of wilted scallions. Touts with knock-off luxury goods are so persistent, repetitive, and hectoring that you may begin to think your name actually is Rolex Montblanc. Toddlers in embroidered split-crotch pants, imperial hats, and decorated surgical masks stare at you and point. In fact, everyone you pass stares hard, with an indecipherable mix of curiosity and hostility. Roundeye go home.

Long, but well worth the read.

Posted by Bill Stilwell at March 18, 2005 03:50 PM
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