Circle of life…28 years ago I spent a summer at Tongji University in Shanghai, as part of that university’s first American exchange program when I was a student at Illinois. It was a life-changing experience, both in terms of being a young, impressionable architect and a young, pretty unworldly kid. This morning my colleagues at Iowa State and I worked out the arrangements to continue our own exchange program with Tongji, now in its third year and going strong–and by happy coincidence, the room we met in was in the same building as our studio back in 1988. That was the “new” architecture building then, and today it’s the smallest of a complex of three buildings, one of them ten stories tall, that house the CAUP’s 5000 students (five thousand, no typo), along with international students like our own. (And yes, they organized the official group photo by hierarchy, with the deans and chairs in the middle and me…well…)
Shanghai, of course, isn’t the same city. There were virtually no cars when I was last here, no metro, and no sewage treatment plant. Today, the shipyards across the Huangpu have been replaced by some of the tallest skyscrapers on the planet, including the new Shanghai Tower by Gensler that features a gorgeous, twisting curtain wall that forms ventilating sky gardens up the height of the tower. (The Pearl River TV tower, to the left, is less describable).
Looking the other way, the view is actually not all that different. The Bund remains a mid-scale moment in the relentless construction in the city, and the Peace Hotel (with the pyramid) is still a hotel, even if the jazz band composed of ancient cadres who’d had to learn their riffs pre-1949 has been replaced by hipper fare. The Peace is now owned by the Fairmount, and the black market money changers who helped us get by that summer on about $150 total for eight weeks have been replaced by black market counterfeit watch hawkers, which pretty much encapsulates the way the city has gone upscale.
More later on the skyscrapers here. The Shanghai Tower has a brilliant logic to it, some of the other towers here not so much. One of the firms we visited today pointed out that a typical project here has a design team of about four, and a contract to turnkey time of about three years. So things move fast, and that doesn’t always make for rigorous thinking.