Shanghai architecture is bracing. Bizarre towers loom over what is perhaps the world’s most dramatic skyline, a panorama of soaring lotuses and UFOs, pearls and pyramids. Down below in the smog, bulldozers do battle with alleyways of shikumen – 19th century stone houses. And among all of this is one of the great art deco cities, with gloomy Gotham City style office buildings, the neoclassical grandeur of the Bund and the more discreet charms of the French Concession and its lowrise apartments and villas. There are gone-to-seed colonial buildings, the spires of Russian churches and quintessentially Chinese shophouses, freeways and 400 km/hr maglev trains.
Punctuating all of this – like an architectural palate cleanser – are swathes of wasteland and the rubble of semi-demolished houses. Whole streets, whole neighbourhoods, pop up everywhere, flattened and dusty. At times it is like being in a warzone.
Yet despite this, Shanghai sometimes seems strangely well-preserved. In my wanderings I stumbled upon the enclosed labyrinths of shikumen villages just steps from the main shopping street, Nanjing Lu. In the streets behind the Bund there is hardly a new building to be found while across the river – where the past and the future face off across the sluggish Huangpu – you would be hard-pressed to find an old one.
For all its appetite for destruction, few cities in Asia have retained such a tangible sense of history, and few in the world can match Shanghai for its flashy Twenty-first century ambition.