Beyond Buildings


Lost In (and Around) Shanghai

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I got lost in China. These days, that is an easy thing to do. One moment we were driving along a highway on the outskirts of Hangzhou, the next moment, according to the map on the dashboard, we were cutting through fields, while in reality we were zooming along a new elevated highway on our way to Shanghai.


On the way, we stopped in the village of Wengzhou, where the authorities are turning a Chinese version of Venice, though at a smaller scale, into an efficient tourist attraction—you buy tickets in an air-conditioned hall, stand in line for a boat, and then float down the main canal or shop in the narrow roads in perfectly restored gray brick buildings. You feel like you are in a movie set.


Photos by Aaron Betsky

On the way out, we headed into the countryside. The driver said he knew where he was going. We passed by rows of factories, brand-new housing projects, and shopping areas. Some of them were humming away, even on May Day weekend, others seemed to be already abandoned as a new structure went up nearby. We had no idea where we were, and we could have been anywhere. Electronic guidance did not help, and neither did local knowledge; Each time we stopped to ask directions, the inhabitants professed uncertainty as to where the new road, or onramp, or provincial road to Shanghai was.


We eventually found our way back to the highway, and cruised into the megalopolis. Then we made the mistake of getting off again, even though it seemed to me that we were at the wrong end of town. The GPS device told us to do it. We found ourselves in more intense sprawl, housing projects here rising up to thirty or forty stories, shopping malls to five, factories giving way to stadia and universities. We remained lost. Finally, one of our hosts hailed a taxi, he got in, and we followed him in our car to our destination. Once we arrived and our guide sped off, we had to find our way through a complex of modern towers, locate the right elevator, and rise up to circuit of small offices to find the one where a half-dozen architects had been waiting for an hour.


They showed us their plans for Shanghai, multibillion dollar developments rendered as stacks of foam core piled up next to the river, while to the side the standard towers, “What we do for money,” rose in more detailed renderings.


I went into my hotel next door, and looked down at the blue tile-roofed housing developments across the way, the mass of skyscrapers at the center of Pudong—where the new World Financial Tower completely blocked my view of what used to be the tallest tower in town, Jin Mao—while cranes marked the spot where another tower will soon overshadow the current champion.



Later, we wandered again through Shanghai, eventually locating our host’s favorite Hunan restaurant in a shopping mall on the other side of the river. I woke up the next morning wondering where I was.


What is most unsettling about this little diary is how normal this is. It could take place anywhere in the world. It is only the speed and scale of Chinese development that makes it any different. From the palimpsest of new transportation contours coursing over old landscapes, to the spread of functions throughout a vast area, to the presence of different regions—often visible or tastable through their cuisines—to the earnest attempts to make sense of everything through architecture, all the way to targeted historic renovation, the elements are everywhere. At least the food was better.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:10 PM Thursday, May 13, 2010

    wow sounds like a nice trip. so who paid for it? can an average architect during this recession afford a trip like that?

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.