Contemporary Shanghai has sought to erase its present. The city feels trapped between a traumatic past, already made distant by rapidly shifting economic and social conditions, and an unimaginable future. This is most clearly visible along the sides of the river: the Puxi side, a gravely colonial façade that replicates London’s squat grey majesty, faces the Pudong side, a neon dream that has exceeded Hong Kong and Manhattan in chaotic visual energy.
The specific energy of the city is found in a sense of forward motion, binding all of the diverse times, places, and peoples of the city into a single force irresistibly hurtling into the future. This project has reached its apogee in the just-ended World Expo, a renovation of a large swath of downtown effected by a temporary exposition of foreign countries, future practices, and strange cities. The Expo’s mascot, vaguely in the shape of the word 人, person, is named Haibao: his name, ‘Jewel of the Sea,’ a potential nickname for the city itself. This recent flooding of architectural experimentation into the city threatens to wash away Shanghai’s distinctive old structures, homes and alleyways that are monuments to a lifestyle on the verge of vanishing.
It is the situation of these lanes and streets at present, a time doomed to immediate disappearance, that is of most interest to us. The grey city in autumn offers a myriad of extraordinary buildings, humbler counterparts to the more famous ornaments of the skyline. The city, tortured by multiple chronologies, has become nearly schizophrenic. Improbable monuments to never-realized lifestyles are to be found everywhere.
This beer storage unit, discovered in a small lane off of Huashan Road, near to the Shanghai Library, attests to a gaudy past now dilapidated and repurposed. The apocalyptic social changes of the past 50 years have left the fragments of the old city like timbers from a shipwreck: the survivors, in creating a new city, rely on the distorted image of the past to resurrect urbanism. The peculiar relics of the past are so overcoded as to be completely illegible. What activities could possibly have required such a structure?
The aquatic history of the city is commemorated in bas-reliefs, in attitudes and culture, and in the pattern of the streets. A submerged Atlantis, or Chinese Venice, was the base of construction in Shanghai: the southern Chinese model of the water town endlessly embroidered upon. The dialect spoken in Shanghai, and a great portion of the population, hail from the canal-city Suzhou, a city described as “Shanghai’s memory and dream” by writer Wang Anyi. Shanghai is built on the silt deposited by the Yellow River within the past 500-1000 years. The citizens, as well, dregs deposited enroute to the ocean.
In the outskirts of Shanghai, the ocean of grey, a counterpart to the brown river that cuts through the heart of the town, is melancholy to the point of absurdity. This tower, located in Hongqiao district, begs the same question as the musical Bierkeller; what mysterious desire could have summoned this building into being? The relics of the Sinosov building style of the 50s, 60s and 70s contribute, in their own way, to the grandeur of city life.
The Xu family village at night demonstrates the electric might of the city’s new spirit. Far from the riverbanks, the neighborhood called Xujiahui functions as one of several alternate centers; for in a city of 20 million, one single center is not nearly enough. A body so swollen requires multiple circulatory systems.
Hongqiao Road: “The world would not be moving so fast if it didn’t have to constantly outrun its own collapse.” Comité Invisible, 2009
Multiple Haibaos set sail down North Sichuan Road towards a glorious future. The concept that all of Shanghai’s streets ought to be replaced by canals has often occurred to me.
What is Modern Chinese Baroque Style? It is the collision of alternative histories, different spatial logics, of 20 million lives aiming in different directions at the same time, in a small space by the banks of the Huang river. Shanghai today is a convergence point of countless different aesthetic conceptions, not yet having decided upon its future identity.
 P. 160,The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, Wang Anyi, tr. Michael Berry and Susan Egan, New York: Columbia University Press 2008.
Jacob Dreyer has been trying to make a career of wandering around Shanghai. His work, as well as that of his brother Max Dreyer, may be found at dreyerprojects.info.
Text: Jacob Dreyer
Images: Max Dreyer