Architecture and Urbanism: Shanghai and Beyond

Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of the Graduate School of Design, moderated the “Architecture and Urbanism” panel discussion.



Mohsen Mostafavi, Dean, Graduate School of Design 

Alex Krieger, Professor in practice of urban design

Lin Wang, Deputy Director, Research Administration Department and Chief Planners Office, Shanghai Planning and Land Resource Administration Bureau, an Executive Office, Shanghai Planning Committee 

John C. Portman III, M.Arch. ’73, Vice Chairman, Portman Holdings 

Wu Jiang, Vice President, Tongji University

Yu Kongjian, D.Dn.’95, Founder and Dean, Graduate School of Landscape Architecture, Peking University; visiting professor of landscape architecture and urban planning and design; founder, president, and principal designer, Turenscape


Dean Mostafavi began the discussion by noting that the Graduate School of Design (GSD) has three studio courses involving problems in China today (see coverage of the studio on Sujiatuo Township on the northern fringe of Beijing)—each engaged in some way with the roles of architecture, landscape design, and urban planning in finding sustainable, ecologically sound ways for development to proceed.

 The broad questions facing the morning’s panel, he said, concerned the physical environment of Shanghai: What is the nature of China’s urbanism? Given the “phenomenal processes of urbanization” in China and India (as evident in the Pudong environs), how could anyone cope with the rate of change and growth? How, indeed, could planners and policymakers deal with the future of urbanization and its rationale, given its scope and pace in these countries? Pudong itself, he said, was the result of real-estate development and deployment of infrastructure—an outcome where the individual buildings themselves, “the objects,” were the objective, but where no real community had been created between them. Would the so-called “second-tier” cities of China develop in the same way as growth proceeds?

Alex Krieger remarked on the different view out of his same hotel room now versus 18 months ago. Visiting, he said, is a “jaw-dropping experience,” prompting questions about how such substantial development and change had taken place. For perspective, he cited the growth of Chicago in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at a speed and height that astonished European visitors. China’s contemporary push for trophy buildings reminded him of the New York Stock Exchange building (reminiscent of the Paris Opera House); in the aggregate, he said, China’s major cities were today attempting to replicate and out-do the earlier skylines that signified the greatness of cities like Boston and New York. But the resulting development, he said, raised several questions.

First, echoing Mostafavi, he said individual, iconic buildings were just that: a community needs “fabric” and some kind of organization, between the structures, as well. Referring to the array of skyscrapers in Shanghai, he asked, “What will happen when you run out of shapes?”—a time that might be approaching soon. Second, Krieger said, such buildings were conceived from a bird’s-eye view, but slighted the ground-level experience of the city and its buildings as perceived by citizens in the street. Third, he lamented the “love affair with the automobile” evident in the broad streets of Pudong, with the resulting rise of gridlocked traffic (as in Beijing, routinely) and adverse effects on the global climate—all this, ironically, as Americans are rediscovering their bicycles.

Next, he said, as Americans are rediscovering the historic fabric of their own built environment, the Chinese are “replicating history rather than treasuring history,” adopting earlier forms in, say, erecting new KFC fast-food outlets. In this urge to rebuild, rather than to preserve and renew historic structures, much of China’s built history was being lost. An associated loss: the sites where people live are being replaced “to a remarkable degree,” through massive clearance and construction schemes. The risk, Krieger feared, is sprawl of the sort typified by California’s Orange County—an unthinkable prospect for China, if it aimed to so accommodate a population of 1.3 billion people.

The premium on speed in construction and development, Krieger noted, raised real questions about “what role quality plays” in the built result.

Finally, he speculated that Shanghai and other Asian megacities would test the limits of urban size: how large could a functioning city actually be?

During the urbanization of Europe and America more than a century ago, he said, a wave of great invention took place, with the introduction of skyscrapers, sewage systems, parks, multilevel transportation, suburbs, and public transportation. Every element of urban development was now in play in China’s torrid city growth, he said, making ever more urgent questions about what equivalent twenty-first-century inventions in urbanization and city life would arise from Asia’s great cities today.

Wu Jiang addressed the broad themes of Shanghai’s development as both a world center and as a sustainable city. The emphasis on iconic skyscrapers in Pudong, he said, was adeliberate part of the plan for the area conceived in 1992, when the decision was made to cross the Huangpu River—in itself a symbolic measure—and to develop the eastern lands as a future international financial capital, with successively higher towers (Jin Mao at 420 meters, the World Financial Center at 492 meters, and now Shanghai Center, under construction, at 632 meters), demonstrating that Shanghai was “the head of the dragon.” Going up to such heights was also meant to minimize use of land, he said, and thus was a form of pursuing sustainable development.

The growth of the city—now estimated to contain 20 million people in 660 square miles—was meant to be accomplished not only by enlarging Shanghai proper, but by building nine or 10 new cities in the wider region. He said that the expansion of infrastructure—a huge new deepwater port, away from the downtown Huangpu waterfront; the enormous Pudong international airport; and the Shanghai elements of the burgeoning national railway network—was aimed at enabling and accommodating this regional urban growth. Local transportation infrastructure investments have included a highway system with four ring roads, and the essential, enormous subway system, which carries huge volumes of people underground (and for all its present size has reached just half its planned extent so far).

At the same time, the city has been greened with parks and greenways. And efforts have been made, progressively, to preserve historic and cultural sites—not just individual buildings, but areas, like the newly renovated commercial area on the Bund, facing Pudong across the Huangpu—so they can have a new life in the changed city fabric. He noted that Alex Krieger had done the design for the Bund parkway—the first project that integrated both infrastructure (a major road system goes along the Bund) and public amenity space, an important departure for Shanghai. The Shanghai Expo 2010, which opens in May, deliberately carries the theme, “Better city, better life”—a significant message for Shanghai’s continued evolution.

John Portman, who became the first foreign developer to complete a project in Shanghai’s current wave of modernization (in 1990), discussed some of his work. Early developments, catering to foreign nationals living and working in Shanghai, were self-contained: mini-cities unto themselves, meant to make foreign amenities available to workers assigned to this strange new venue, freeing them from having to plunge into the city any more than necessary. More recent projects were less hermetic. Those built as purely architectural commissions for clients, he said, tended to be more subject to the kinds of design constraints Krieger had mentioned: showy shapes and ornamental tops on tall towers that satisfied a developer’s desires, but, he implied, lacking some of the desirable qualities of design that his firm had been able to achieve in its assignments for its own portfolio. Finally, he described a new neighborhood-wide renovation of a 1920s community—a model, he hoped, for future efforts, rather than large-scale clearance that has been the norm.

At this point, Mostafavi began the discussion. What role did historical memory play for Chinese citizens planning their built environment? he wondered—after all, they had had a revolution. Krieger said it was refreshing that the Chinese were not sentimental—that they were not plagued with excessive attachments to the past that led to the overdoing of preservation in some American contexts. But on the other hand, he worried that Chinese development tended toward amnesia and hostility to the past—an unwanted turn, given the nation’s unparalleled history.

Lin Wang observed that when families live in overcrowded older units, the tendency has been to move them out wholesale. But that raises a question about who has the right to move them, and who decides whether a building will be renovated for reuse, or razed. Shanghai had but a single example of respecting residents’ right to determine the reuse of their own facility. Absent more instances of successful reuse, she said, the likelihood is that more historic areas will simply be lost. Creating that option—finding new uses for historic areas, and creating public spaces within them—is a government responsibility. In this case, Western experience might prove fruitful. Mostafavi noted that public-private partnerships were a key to success in the West; in China, he said, it seemed that the government worked through private companies to effect rapid, wholesale change. Finding a balance, where the government might renegotiate those responsibilities and seek developments that resulted not just in towering new buildings, but also complete communities with public spaces accommodated, was the major challenge.

Yu Kongjian saw the opportunity—and need—for wholesale innovation, to begin a “green revolution” in development. For two millennia, he said, China’s urban design pattern had been unchanged. He drew an analogy to the past practice of binding feet (what he called the “little feet” aesthetic): an elitist, court- and literati-centered aesthetic practice that was at odds with the rural way of life. The latter, he said, was much closer to the land and to natural resources. Modern development practices were driven by the pure aesthetics of design: the cosmetics and appearance of buildings and ornamental plantings. In the long run, this practice was utterly at odds with the pressure China’s huge population put on its natural resources, and with the ultimate carrying capacity of its land and water systems. Nothing less than reversing the urban, gentrified aesthetic would suffice to make room for a sustainable China.

That vision, he said, should be guided by the “big feet” of the countryside—the  historic practices in China that were consistent with the natural, green infrastructure, the water systems, and their ecological capacity (all of which were ignored in a nation of massive engineering projects, concrete flood control walls, and so on). That would be the key, he said, to defining public spaces. (Yu’s landscape practice is defined by these natural-systems, rather than aesthetic or gardening, principles.)

These reflections prompted Krieger to revisit his description of urban innovations of a century ago. All those innovations, he said, were resource-intensive. The urgent need today was for urban innovations that were resource-husbanding. Wu Jiang noted that sprawl, wantonly consuming land, was the most disastrous of development patterns in terms of its use of the fundamental resource. Mostafavi hoped that the scope of the problems would be a spur to innovation as urbanization ran up against real resource limits, much as London’s congestion charges for commuter traffic were providing an incentive to the deployment of electric autos.

Other discussants wondered whether the national government’s plans to encourage multiple urban centers were workable, and whether they were accompanied by careful plans. Wu Jiang thought that planning within individual centers, like Shanghai, was functioning, but that trade-offs among separate city centers in a wider region could not be made readily within the current political arrangements. It was not clear, for example, how the new satellite cities around Shanghai would develop economically. Krieger thought that China might be happier with 500 cities of 1 million people each than with 50 cities of 10 million to 20 million people—but it is not headed in that direction. He also noted that given the historic location of established cities, their development and growth outward were destroying China’s best farmland—unlike, say, the United States, where sprawl around Los Angeles does not affect wheat fields in the Dakotas.

Several speakers cited roles that government needs to play to affect development outcomes. Portman said the government had to provide incentives for preservation and reuse of historic buildings. Mostafavi noted that unless government establishes aesthetic standards, developers will continue to churn out unattractive buildings, unconnected to one another; such standards would have to be married to a real, meaningful review process. Portman, steeped in development himself, agreed that absent such changes, all developers would pursue maximum heights and ego-satisfying designs for their projects that compelled attention from above, but that resulted in sterile communities.

Yu Kongjian again pointed to “ecological urbanism”—development directed by natural systems and constraints—as a way of achieving integration of communities at the street level, rather than the current “architectural urbanism” of stand-alone projects and trophy towers. Given plans for another two decades of tremendous growth in Beijing and Shanghai, his comments suggested both opportunities, to rethink how that development might occur, and warnings, if current practices are not altered.

Overall, Mostafavi said, Harvard design professionals and colleagues in the People’s Republic must work together fruitfully to find a way to tie historic physical development to the nation’s ambitions for the future, and Chinese tradition to its vision of modernity. At present, he said, there is no tradition that respects history while embracing modernization—by implication, yielding the very different, unintegrated old Shanghai (or what is left of it) side-by-side with the ever-upward momentum of Pudong.

This is an online-only sidebar to the news article "Global Reach."

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