Thoughts on the characteristics of Shanghai's business district
[Photo of mine taken from the Oriental Pearl Tower. From left to right you see the Shanghai World Financial Center (bottle opener), Jin Mao Tower, and Shanghai Tower (soon to be completed).]
Shanghai's Pudong area, the new part of the city that is east of the Huangpu River, has many characteristics of a placeless place, as Relph describes. The Lujizaui business district of Pudong, lying right against the river, could be considered textbook placelessness. For one thing, gigantism abounds. Perhaps no other small area can claim as many truly record-breaking skyscrapers. The Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, and the Oriental Pearl Tower are all within walking distance of each other. Literally just next door to these is the nearly completed Shanghai Tower, which stands as the second-tallest building in the world.
The rate at which skyscrapers are going up is absolutely astounding. This continuous development has transformed the physical area in the last 25 years; what was just a low-lying, sparsely populated outskirt area of Shanghai city is now a beacon of international styles in design and architecture. It's a major financial center, one that resembles the central business districts in other major cities.
Shanghai is an interesting example. While Pudong is the extremely new and shining representation of a city that is recapturing its golden age at the forefront of international acclaim, Puxi (west of the river) is the true city. Most people live there, nightlife is there, restaurants are there, culture is there. It's much more lively and exciting. Meanwhile, the business district in Pudong has skyscrapers filled with offices of international companies and ritzy hotels catering to the world's traveling elite.
However, I would argue that this largely placeless place does
have a sense of place. There is such
a concentration and abundance of these things--skyscrapers, development, and giant indoor shopping malls--that the area is, in a way, actually unlike any of the other business centers of major global cities. The central Chinese government and the local Shanghai government are so unapologetically committed to their vision of Shanghai--they want it to take its rightful place in the world. This dedication comes through in the incredible speed of development. In fact, this itself is unique, and it is backed by history.
Shanghai was a leading global center in the 1920s, and international influence in the city combined with Chinese culture created a unique 'haipai' culture that was incredibly influential. Shanghai iconography spread across the world in movies, postcards, etc. Unfortunately, this came crashing down after the Japanese invasion, and now the government is committed to bringing back this golden era.
Therefore, the incredible recent growth--growth that results in super tall international-style buildings--actually represents a mindset and a history that is very specific to the city. While Pudong does not typically represent the people and their daily lives--for example, I did not spend much time there while I was living in the city--it does
represent the idealized vision for the city. It represents what Shanghai means to the rest of China, and, increasingly, the rest of the world. It is a symbol of this sort of Shanghai manifest destiny. And that emblematic power, I believe, gives it a sense of place.