The Shanghai Century


The Skyscraper Museum in New York City has opened an exhibition, “China Prophecy: Shanghai,” the third and last in its series, Future City 20 | 21. The premise of the “China Prophecy” exhibit is that Shanghai will be to the twenty-first century what New York City was to the twentieth century. According to the Future City series, New York was the model for Hong Kong, and Shanghai will be the model for a twenty-first century megalopolis that’s yet to be.

While Shanghai has a high personal savings rate going for it–that means lots of cash for down payments–New York at the beginning of the twentieth century had some advantages that Shanghai doesn’t have now. New York’s building boom occurred during the peak of industrialized urbanism, a model that has proven more durable than some people would have thought, but everyone agrees it needs rethinking and Shanghai doesn’t seem to have any fresh ideas. New York’s boom occurred when the United States first emerged as a dominant economic and military power, but also as a dominant cultural power. New York wasn’t simply the Woolworth Building and Rockefeller Center, but also Sister Carrie and The Naked City. Chinese popular culture continues to be eclipsed by Japanese pop culture. Even Indian pop culture is more compelling in the US than Chinese.

A few stylish buildings aside–the Jin Mao tower by SOM’s Chicago office and the Oriental Pearl television tower by the Shanghai Modern Architectural Design Co.–it’s not clear, looking at the “China Prophecy: Shanghai” exhibition, that the Chinese commercial center represents a compelling model for the twenty-first century city. Is there another way to deal with the urban hypermasses other than the frenzied piling up of endlessly repeatable spaces?

There’s also something American-centric about the idea of Shanghai as the city of the future. The choice of a Chinese city speaks more to American anxieties about China, as well as the American imaginary of a teeming Asian city that functions according to its own mysterious rules. I would think the model twenty-first century city would be a place like Mexico City or Cairo–a messier, more improvisatory city than Shanghai, with fewer resources to address even larger problems.



  1. I also believe that we live in an era where China is becoming more and more powerful, through its cities, of course. Shanghai for example, is an important center for many businesses, in many areas, including technology, law, software, commerce and industry.


  2. Yes, China is definitely becoming more powerful. I just wonder if it won’t all come apart one day in an uprising in the provinces.


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