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Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form: How divergent planning methods transformed Shanghai¿s urban identity Foreword by Stanford Anderson Paperback – 7 Jan 2009


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Review

Writing complex history and politics is definitely not easy. Reading several of Non Arkaraprasertkul's publications both in English and Thai in the last few years has proven that it is possible to make these topics both interesting and informative. His latest book Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form is not an exception.His curiosity about places, peoples and cultures is extraordinary and matched so well with his capacity to `map' complexities of history, urban geography, physicality and politics with a simple discourse that is easy to follow. He convinces us to see multiple layers of local realities beyond the `western' perspectives on the global city of Shanghai. He describes the making of this cosmopolitan city can complete in a globalized economic context despite its fragmented urban fabric. It has undergone significant crisis, through challenges from semi-colonialism, socio-political collapse by war and lack of coordination in the planning process. Interestingly, the author suggests that the selling point of Shanghai's tourism in the early twentieth century was the elegant image that replicated `western' neo-classical styles. However, he proposes that a new Chinese identity can actually be enhanced through a mixture of diversified sub-cultures on Shanghai's streetscapes. This book clearly points out that the absence of human scale in the city streetscapes can diminish contact, the sense of security and the pedestrian energy level of the city. In general, it answers two simple questions: how a `global metropolis', in particular Shanghai, is defined and transformed, and what is to be expected from its changing images or representations. It is therefore worthwhile to read this book especially as a case study for those policymakers, urban planners, urban designers, architects, academics and scholars who would be keen to learn more about urbanism of the global cities through different lenses in order to see hidden dimensions. The Chinese largest urban `global village' of Shanghai has more historical complexity and dynamic development than arguably any other world city in this century. For those wishing to broaden their perspectives on all these issues, I highly recommend this book. -- Dr. Polladach Theerapappisit, Lecturer and Course Advisor, School of Social Sciences The University of Western Sydney, Australia

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form offers a well-thought-out perspective in understanding the amazing transformation of urban Shanghai. Having been a short-term visitor to Shanghai and overwhelmed as most, the book offered me a framework for understanding what I have experienced and a platform for exploring contemporary city questions. The historic Bund - lively, and with fear of being run over by the traffic - and the dull Pudong New Development - offers an intriguing comparison and an effective way of summarizing the new urban China. My stay was short, and my background is curiosity in how and where people live in cities, but clearly city centers give the starting point, the image and the tone of a city. But this understanding brings new questions and issues for reflection. One wonders if the need for Shanghai to build a bigger Bund to herald its arrival as a world city is a missed opportunity: it is a dynamic city of the present but not a city of the future. The Bund was built before the internet, e-commerce, and all the other technological wonders which question the need for a center as in the past. Symbolic importance still remains in the more traditional sense, but the need for proximity as a guiding principle is being increasingly questioned. The time traveler today may see nothing particularly new in Shanghai, but perhaps things that are only bigger and more grandiose. Shanghai had the opportunity to demonstrate the future, instead of flaunting its newly acquired economic prowess through a `the same but one better' approach. The bigger high-rises, the more advanced faster trains do not signal new concepts of city development. One wonders if the current `tremendously dull atmosphere' that confronted the time traveler in Pudong is only a temporary state. As the traveler continues onward in his journey, he may be confronted with a different Shanghai entirely. It is unlikely that the city will stagnate, and new uses with new responses to urban form most likely would take over - cities, as nature, abhor a vacuum. We read that the Bund was built over a longer period which offered flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and adjust to needs. Pudong is instant - it is a `one-shot' effort, with little time to adjust while being developed - it is a belief in knowing what is right and doing it. Could Shanghai be compared to a Disneyland with its attempt at a better-than-real-life reproduction of reality? One wonders if the same energy as seen in the center would have been applied to housing. Housing represents the largest sector of a city, and has been problematic historically as cities have growth rapidly from new economic realities. Similar rapidly growing cities in history and today in the Third World exhibit vast uncontrolled expanses of informal housing in accommodating growth - often as squatters - which seems to have been avoided in Shanghai. One is so overwhelmed by the center that the outer lying housing areas are forgotten, as the debate over the spectacular center dominates.
One wonders if time is the critical factor - where we stand, and from what time we observe offers only one perspective. We tend to look at things as a `snapshot' as a key to understanding, and at great risk we look beyond as images of the future. What would the future Pudong bring as it adjusts to real needs of the city instead of symbolic imagery? As Shanghai matures, would the now dull and often-unoccupied high-rise areas become vibrant with new energy and uses? Would Shanghai fulfill its desire a vibrant model city? Lastly, one wonders why Shanghai has chosen the European/North American model for emulation, turning its back on its own rich culture. The need to mimic and to do it bigger is more an element of insecurity than strength.
The book is an excellent foundation for exploring contemporary city-building issues. Shanghai is unparalleled in growth and grandeur, and it is truly a Global City, but of the past and not the future. It offers a clear lesson for architects and urban planners: nothing is static, and the past, present and future must be considered simultaneously when building cities. Flexibility with the ability to adjust as circumstances change is the imperative. We cannot know the future, but we should not be rigid as we embrace the present. The design challenge is a city that responds and dominates the present, while allowing the unknowing future with grace. -- Dr-Ing Reinhard Goethert, Director, Special Interest Group in Urban Settlement (SIGUS) Massachusetts Institute of Technology

There is a lovely article that I would like to introduce here [the third chapter of the book]. Non Arkaraprasertkul analyses the Pudong area in Shanghai. From a distance the highrises blend together into a lively modern skyline, Arkaraprasertkul writes. On the ground however the Pudong area is deserted. It is lifeless. In the urban plan the central avenue (as wide as the Champs Elysee plus one meter) is lined with lower buildings, pushing the skyscrapers backwards. In reality though, the freestanding skyscrapers don't line the road at all. Without a programmed plinth the streets have emptied. This in contrast to the old city of Shanghai, Arkaraprasertkul says, where the streets are livelier than ever. At the beginning of the twentieth century skyscrapers were the result of a delirious city life. With the skyscrapers of Shanghai the image of that vibrant city has been recreated. The city itself however is absent. The new city can be best experienced from a distance or from an airplane, Arkaraprasertkul concludes. Never try to walk it. -- Michiel van Raaij, Eikongraphia IconographyBlog

This book is a timely and intelligent examination of Shanghai's recent urban transformations. Shanghai is a city whose efforts to reintegrate itself into the global economy have seen the use of built form as a form of cultural construction, one that seems to represent the conspicuous consumption of global elite. Beginning with the questioning of the very conception of a hybrid urban city, this examination of Shanghai's urban transformation asks how the politics of built form can impact such a transformation. Integrating theoretical research, architectural knowledge, and on-the-ground fieldwork, this insightful and thought-provoking work seeks to understand the phenomenon of how the global market is being utilized through the combination of an assimilated industrialized cityscape, as well as through the startling industriousness of Chinese pragmatism. The book's three parts set out its research methodology before going on to examine the importance of the politicization of the built form of the city. It ends with a reappraisal of the research findings using the politics of built form as a framework. Any attempt to
understand the urbanism of Shanghai, or indeed any phenomenon in modern-day China, is going to require an understanding of the Chinese language - this book not only shows this, it even provides a helpful glossary of Chinese terms, something that reflects the author's own Thai-Chinese roots -- Dr. Gregory Bracken, Lecturer in Asian Urbanism, Delft School of Design, TU Delft Architecture Faculty, The Netherlands; Co-editor of the Spring issue of the `Footprint' E-Journal.

Review

Shanghai Contemporary: The Politics of Built Form offers a well-thought-out perspective in understanding the amazing transformation of urban Shanghai. Having been a short-term visitor to Shanghai and overwhelmed as most, the book offered me a framework for understanding what I have experienced and a platform for exploring contemporary city questions. The historic Bund - lively, and with fear of being run over by the traffic - and the dull Pudong New Development - offers an intriguing comparison and an effective way of summarizing the new urban China. My stay was short, and my background is curiosity in how and where people live in cities, but clearly city centers give the starting point, the image and the tone of a city. But this understanding brings new questions and issues for reflection. One wonders if the need for Shanghai to build a bigger Bund to herald its arrival as a world city is a missed opportunity: it is a dynamic city of the present but not a city of the future. The Bund was built before the internet, e-commerce, and all the other technological wonders which question the need for a center as in the past. Symbolic importance still remains in the more traditional sense, but the need for proximity as a guiding principle is being increasingly questioned. The time traveler today may see nothing particularly new in Shanghai, but perhaps things that are only bigger and more grandiose. Shanghai had the opportunity to demonstrate the future, instead of flaunting its newly acquired economic prowess through a `the same but one better' approach. The bigger high-rises, the more advanced faster trains do not signal new concepts of city development. One wonders if the current `tremendously dull atmosphere' that confronted the time traveler in Pudong is only a temporary state. As the traveler continues onward in his journey, he may be confronted with a different Shanghai entirely. It is unlikely that the city will stagnate, and new uses with new responses to urban form most likely would take over - cities, as nature, abhor a vacuum. We read that the Bund was built over a longer period which offered flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and adjust to needs. Pudong is instant - it is a `one-shot' effort, with little time to adjust while being developed - it is a belief in knowing what is right and doing it. Could Shanghai be compared to a Disneyland with its attempt at a better-than-real-life reproduction of reality? One wonders if the same energy as seen in the center would have been applied to housing. Housing represents the largest sector of a city, and has been problematic historically as cities have growth rapidly from new economic realities. Similar rapidly growing cities in history and today in the Third World exhibit vast uncontrolled expanses of informal housing in accommodating growth - often as squatters - which seems to have been avoided in Shanghai. One is so overwhelmed by the center that the outer lying housing areas are forgotten, as the debate over the spectacular center dominates.
One wonders if time is the critical factor - where we stand, and from what time we observe offers only one perspective. We tend to look at things as a `snapshot' as a key to understanding, and at great risk we look beyond as images of the future. What would the future Pudong bring as it adjusts to real needs of the city instead of symbolic imagery? As Shanghai matures, would the now dull and often-unoccupied high-rise areas become vibrant with new energy and uses? Would Shanghai fulfill its desire a vibrant model city? Lastly, one wonders why Shanghai has chosen the European/North American model for emulation, turning its back on its own rich culture. The need to mimic and to do it bigger is more an element of insecurity than strength.
The book is an excellent foundation for exploring contemporary city-building issues. Shanghai is unparalleled in growth and grandeur, and it is truly a Global City, but of the past and not the future. It offers a clear lesson for architects and urban planners: nothing is static, and the past, present and future must be considered simultaneously when building cities. Flexibility with the ability to adjust as circumstances change is the imperative. We cannot know the future, but we should not be rigid as we embrace the present. The design challenge is a city that responds and dominates the present, while allowing the unknowing future with grace.

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