I am inspired by books like Wade Graham's “Dream Cities” and Rem Koolhaas's “Delirious New York” to write about the spatial experiences of contemporary cities. What make cities behave a certain way? How can architects react and adapt to ever-changing cultural, political, and economic forces? What is the back story to these places, and how did they come to be? During my trip to China and Japan last year, I started mapping out a series of essays I wanted to write about each place I traveled to. I hoped to turn feelings into words, and then ultimately to drawings and projects.
Part 2: State
Location: Shanghai, China
Time Period: 1990's to 2010's
Title: Triumvirate on the Bund
URBAN DESIGN V. ARCHITECTURE
City planning is the same; a great city doesn't spring up over night; there are visionary city “fathers”, there are active officials and planners, and there's a citizen body, willing and ready to take up the challenge of transforming and improving the city, the country.
SHANGHAI AND THE WORLD
What followed was a three-decades-long process of realizing Deng's “Chinese Dream” - and possibly the greatest and most successful urban planning effort since Olmstead built Central Park. City bureaucrats rezoned the Pudong District, including in this new development zone from Lujiazui to the current site of the Pudong Airport, at the edge of the Eastern Sea. Central government orders were sent to establish a new financial district on the farmlands across from the old Bund; and Chinese officials were sent throughout the United States, Japan, and Europe to lobby for world-famous architects to build China's tallest towers and remake Lujiazui. This intense, coordinated, top-down process, comprising of both private and public investments, led to Century Ave, Century Park, and the Lujiazui triumvirate.
For the Shanghai story, I want to focus on the process of building the three towers of Lujiazui, whose images are so ubiquitous in China you can find them covering trash cans and recycling bins. To be honest, the Image of the Three Towers is more important than the tower themselves. It is a physical embodiment of the central governments' efforts of the past three decades; it is a physical propaganda of where the city is going to in the future, equivalent to the symbol of the Empire State Building, during its construction in Depression America. Here, architecture plays a more important role than merely habitation, or even capital speculation; it can become an important arsenal in nation building – something ordinary citizens can aspire to, or see, as a measurable sign of national progress.
In an interesting turn of events, American architects also played a huge role in Shanghai's transformation. All three towers in Shanghai are designed by top American architecture firms: SOM, KPF, and Gensler. Here, the Shanghai towers not only mirror the progress of China, but also the rising and changing fortunes of these three mega-architecture conglomerates.
As western perceptions of China change in the past several decades, so did the architecture.
NUMBERS (MAGIC EIGHT)
Architect: Adrian Smith and SOM
Design and Construction: 1993-1998
SHAPES (COSMIC ARC)
Design and Construction: 1993-2008
FORMS (PARAMETRIC FUTURE)
Design and Construction: 2008-2015
Unlike the first two towers, Shanghai tower has no direct reference to Chinese tradition; besides a vague reference to a “twisting paper scroll”, the tower is sleek and state-of-the art, a confident statement that sheds pastiche references for a statement of the times. At 120 stories tall, Shanghai Tower is twisting, triangulated volume composed of seven “neighborhoods”, each with independent sky lobbies. The distinctive “transparent” quality of the tower is a result of its double facade, with the outer facade detailed as an ultra-clear gossamer curtain, behind which the actual curtain wall for offices exists. The subtle twisting of the form is not for “architectural decoration”, but rather as a direct response to the wind forces at high altitudes.
As a sign of the changing fortunes, the building was funded 100% by state-sponsored companies. Rents at the tower are exorbitant; at the time of the opening the vacancy rate was still high, with the tower partially occupied by state-owned companies and several multi-national companies. (But, when the Empire State Building first opened, it was almost 100% vacant during the Great Depression.) As a speculative development, only time will tell if the tower will be successful; but, as a marketing tool for state power, with the image of the tower emblazoned all over the subways, recycling bins, and television reports, (as a banner of progress) the tower has paid for itself a hundred times over.