I'm off to Shanghai for a 3-week photographic project funded by the Arts Council England. I’ll be exploring a series of western-style ‘satellite’ towns that have been emerging over the past decade in this rapidly expanding city.
The final day and after breakfast I headed for the airport. I took the Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) train, which sped me the 30 kilometres to Pudong Airport in about 8 minutes. Reaching speeds of 431 kilometres per hour, I watched a jump-cut sequence of Shanghai’s urban sprawl pass by my window.
It’s been a trip of extremes whilst travelling throughout this giant of a city – a heady mix of enthusiasm and fascination countered by logistical struggles and language barriers that have been a constant reminder of the magnitude and foreignness of the place. I think I need time to reflect on what I’ve achieved and, as usual, spend a few weeks immersing myself in the lengthy editing process. I’ve been feeling a bit homesick over the past few days so I’m ready to take the long trip home and deposit myself back in the familiar, miniature–sized territory of Brighton, England.
One day left and I gave myself a bit of a break today. I took some shots around my hotel area, including the shantytown along the Suzhou River that is soon to be demolished to make way for new apartments.
It was refreshing to give myself a break from the faux towns and, instead, I headed off to The Bund, running alongside the Huangpu River. I walked along the embankment, joining the crowds of tourists looking up at the soaring, seductive skyline of Pudong District across the river, with its super-modern architectural aesthetic. I was struck by how much this city, with its rich colonial past, is defined by difference and diversity and nowhere is this more apparent than within its architecture. From the French Concession on the west bank of the river to the indelible skyline on the eastern side, Shanghai exists somewhere between a postmodern, Bladerunner-esque vision of the future and worn-at-the-edges colonial style.
It reminded me of a comment made by Mr Cagnardi, the Italian architect I met, that Shanghai doesn’t have it’s own architectural history, but is rather an amalgam of other nations’ styles. Maybe then, these new satellite towns are merely an extension of this phenomenon? Yet, what they cannot build into these places is atmosphere; an indefinable quality that develops over time, layer upon layer, memory upon memory. And it is this sense of suburban-esque emptiness that I am left with when compared with the drama and allure of The Bund’s megastructure skyline.
I wandered back to the hotel to pack and head out for a final meal with Giel and Jini who had invited me to quite a swanky restaurant. Great food, but the sort of place where the waiter brings over your meal for the evening, alive and wriggling, to see if it meets with your approval. I mean, what was I meant to say?!
Not long now before I return to the UK. Today involved a trip to Lingan, 30 miles southeast of downtown Shanghai, with its New Harbour Town. This consisted of a patchwork of developments, many in mid-construction, spreading itself around the rim of the largest man-made bay in China. At the centre of the complex an enormous city hall is emerging; reminiscent of something you could imagine seeing in Dubai, reaching high up out of the dry, flat earth. Other areas made me feel as if I were in a flat pack world… situated somewhere between the near future and a 1960s film set. But how this town fundamentally differs from Shanghai’s super-modern architectural agenda I’m not too sure. Less ‘authentic’, it seems mere anachronism and peculiarly devoid of place; at best it is a collection of ideas loosely held together under the unifying banner of a ‘new’ town.
I’m not here to be overtly political, to make a ‘newsworthy’ story or editorial piece.
I’m here to use these sites as a framework to examine notions of pastiche and simulation in such design and, I guess, to indicate certain desires and motives bound into this. However, it’s hard to avoid the very real social, political and economic circumstances driving this urban phenomenon and how well thought through such fast-tracked towns really are. What are they going to be like in ten, twenty or fifty years..?
Then there are some towns that manage to offer a clearer vision of a simulated environment. Fengcheng appears to be such a place, instantly creating a more reassuringly orthodox, if only superficially, approach in re-presenting a Spanish-style town, with its low-sloping red-tiled roofs, patios and plazas. As text book a town as I’ve seen to date.
It’s been a long day, I’m on my third gassy beer and feeling pretty jaded, so I shall sign off..
A proper wet Shanghai day where the heavy clouds loom above your head dropping the light to almost dusk. My driver – I still don’t actually know his name and we communicate by nods and smiles whilst pointing at road signs- took me back to Anting. The German town designed by Albert Speer, not the actual Nazi architect but, infact, the son of this infamous individual. A great location of mainly flats finished off in a range of garish colours, as if a classroom of five years olds had been let loose with a brush. They are mainly intended as home to workers at the local BMW factory, but how will they afford them? Again, little evidence of life or am I missing something here? The guards were particularly keen for me not to photograph, but after much deliberation and phone calls to Jini, wife of Giel, interpreter and lifeline to communication, I was allowed access and, once again, received the golf cart and chauffeur treatment..
I then travelled on to Fengjiang (North American Town apparently) where my driver had agreed to deposit me for the rest of the day. This led to a hapless afternoon, travelling by rickshaw, through the streets of the Old Town in search of the New Town. The rickshaw driver tried to convince himself, and me, that he knew where he was going – for about 2 hours! – until I got pissed off. Jini’s mercurial translating abilities failed to help either. Apart from one street of American(ish)-style landscaping, there was little else to see. I hadn’t expected too much development here and it didn’t disappoint..
I was then due to meet Paul Stowe, Deputy Director of London Taxi Company (Shanghai), at his factory on the outskirts of the town. I’d arranged to photograph the plant where they are soon to begin producing 4000 black cabs a year (four times the number made in the UK). These are to be exported globally, so expect the trademark taxi to appear anywhere from Singapore to Delhi to New York over the next few years.
The ‘Italian’ town of Pujiang is on a large scale and designed, so I was informed by their vice marketing manager, in a contemporary manner. I met him in the sales office and I explained that I am working for FAR in Shanghai, which I find is a lot easier than trying to explain that I am an artist from the UK! I also tactically mentioned that I was due to meet Mr. Cagnardi, the chief architect for the town, later in the day. This immediately opened doors and I was given a driver and guide to chauffeur me around the site, whilst I was directed towards the luxurious and contemporary show apartments. It is actually quite a stylish setup in places with a hint of Milan, yet retaining a certain Eastern European tower block feel in others..
On the bus journey back to the city my bloody flash card corrupted, so lost a load of the day’s shoot. I’d been using film as well, but it’s a pain and I will now have to make a second visit. After calming down, I’m realising that a lot of these sites need an extra visit and next time I shall try and wander round without assistance so I am not ‘directed’ to certain areas..
In the evening, Giel and I visited the Carlton Ritz Hotel (a tad more up market than my mid-range business accommodation..) for a meeting with Mr Cagnardi, a stylish man in his 60s with a touch of the raconteur about him, informing us he’s made 75 visits to Shanghai over the last 7 years whilst working on the scheme! It was a fruitful meeting in terms of the book project and he delved into some of the history and politics of these curious developments. Nice gin and tonic too..