Building Up: China's Biggest Cities Are Struggling to Balance Modern Design with Their Historical Structures

Article excerpt

Byline: Cathleen McGuigan

Shanghai is a city with a split personality. In little more than a decade its modern financial district, Pudong, has sprouted dozens of shiny glass-and-steel skyscrapers--most of them mundane, and a few over the top, such as the Pearl Oriental Tower, adorned by two pink balls that sparkle like costume jewelry on the skyline. Across the Huangpu River in old Shanghai, the monumental 19th-century colonial buildings of the Bund stand like dowagers at a fancy-dress ball. Yet even here cranes hover over almost every neighborhood--threatening even the elegant art deco villas of the French Concession. In Beijing there's a similar clash between old and new: east of the historic Forbidden City, plans are underway for the vast new Central Business District. And all over the city, the Chinese character chai--meaning "destroy"--is painted on the walls of old houses, spelling doom for the gnarly web of hutongs, or traditional alleyways.

China's two greatest cities are struggling with modern design under the long shadows of their historic past. As their populations swell (Beijing has more than 11 million inhabitants; Shanghai, more than 13 million), government incentives continue to provide unprecedented opportunities for developers and architects from around the world. Many areas of both cities have changed beyond recognition. It's tempting to regard these new urban landscapes as chaotic places that reflect the worst of imported Western city planning: relentless sprawl, choked highways and the disappearance of history, culture and community. Yet in terms of design, Shanghai and Beijing are starting to embrace the good--not just the bad and the ugly.

Shanghai's passion for tall buildings, for instance, is essential to sustaining its booming population efficiently. Among the global talents who've been drawn to China, architects Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) of New York have designed what may become the world's tallest building there: the striking World Financial Center in Pudong will top out at 1,509 feet in 2008. Also going up is a 43-story office building designed by New York architect Li Chung (Sandi) Pei, son of I. M. Pei--which will include a small tree-lined promenade, something sorely needed in Pudong.

Beijing officials, mindful of the global spotlight that will be turned on their city with the 2008 Olympics, are in the midst of a massive building effort that will likely cost more than $20 billion. Several key commissions have gone to avant-garde European architects. Rem Koolhaas of the Netherlands has created a stunning scheme for the $600 million broadcasting headquarters of CCTV: a 5.5 million-square-foot structure in the form of a continuous loop with a huge opening in the middle. His fellow Pritzker Prize winners Herzog & de Meuron of Switzerland won the competition for the $500 million main Olympic stadium, with a design that looks like a gigantic bird's nest. "It's an architect's dream to work in China," says Zhang Xin, CEO of SoHo China, one of the most progressive and creative developers in the country. "Nowhere else offers the scale that Chinese cities do. …