Shanghai de Lux

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SHANGHAI DE LUX Projecting Modernity Evan Chakroff


EXT. NIGHT. A skyline glows in the haze. The camera sweeps across the seeminglyinfinite city, emphasizing its impossible extent. Individual towers are lost in the field of lights. Zooming in, we pass impossibly-large screens, projecting advertisements into the night. This is not Blade Runner’s dystopian Los Angeles, this is Shanghai. Specifically, this is Pudong – Shanghai’s new central business district (CBD), as presented in Skyfall (2012), the latest instalment of the James Bond series, in a sequence filmed from a helicopter “on loan from the Chinese government.”1 The most shocking thing about this sci-fi sequence is its dead-on accuracy.

Scenes from Skyfall (2012)

By night, Pudong’s skyscrapers gain substance only through their demarcation in LED. The glowing spheres of the Oriental Pearl Tower turn the enveloping fog blue, red, and green in sequence. The crown of the Jin Mao Tower (SOM, 1998) g lows white, a visual echo of New York’s Art Deco skyscrapers. The World Financial Centre (KPF, 2008) emphasizes its stark geometry with a series of blue bands, and sparks from welders’ torches illuminate the skeleton of the Shanghai Tower, “Dynamic lights dance through the fog, but still under construction (Gensler, 2014). Nearby, the Citigroup tower, hidden by darkness, massive fissures split undistinguished by day, displays the sidewalks: Shanghai is sinking.” advertisements interspersed with light-hearted propaganda: “I ♥ SH” Dynamic animated lights dance through the fog, but hidden by darkness, massive fissures split the sidewalks surrounding the supertall towers.2 This indicates land subsistence: Shanghai is sinking.3 The construction workers’ homes - shipping-container dorms - are hidden behind tall construction fences, shielded from 1

Rumors persist that the film was partially-funded by Chinese investors. This is hard to verify, but numerous sources attest to the helicopter loan.



SHANGHAI DE LUX | 3 the neon glow.4 While the image the city seeks to project is one of uncontested modernity, conditions on the ground (in the harsh light of day) reveal this as illusion. While China may have the world’s third tallest building (at the time of writing), the tap water remains undrinkable, and the air - at times - toxic.5

Pudong Skyline |

In Shanghai, light and colour give designers, planners, and policy makers the freedom to present an idealized image of their buildings, their city. The creation of Pudong as a business district6 to rival Wall Street, Canary Wharf, or, especially, Hong Kong’s Central District7 - may have been driven more by image than urbanism. In Shanghai today, architectural lighting is instrumental – even essential - in the projection of modernity, and represents a key aspect of Chinese society’s reclamation of agency following a long period of oppression and turmoil.8

Across the Huangpu River from Pudong stands The Bund – Shanghai’s historical waterfront: popular image of the city until recent decades.

From the 1840s until World War II, Shanghai and the other Chinese “treaty ports” were controlled by, essentially, Western colonial governments. While subjugation is certainly not to be celebrated, the establishment of foreign enclaves in the country did serve to introduce to China the advances in technology developed in Europe and the US during her long period of isolation, and The Bund is a stunning artefact of that era. Shanghai, as an outpost of European culture and technology, was once of the first cities in China – and indeed the world – to have electric trams and electric street lighting. Shanghai’s Astor House hotel was fully lit by electricity by 1883.9 Some areas of the city had electric street lights by 1900.10 In the early 1900s, Shanghai was one of the world’s leading centres of trade and finance. International banks, hoteliers, and foreign consulates established grand neoclassical edifices along the waterfront. Gradually replacing the old docks 4

5 6

See The Second Coming of Global Shanghai Author(s): Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, World Policy Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 2003), pp. 51-60 7

Hong Kong was returned to China, as a Special Administrative Region in 1997.


China’s “century of humiliation” begins roughly in the 1830s with the Opium Wars. The 1900s were characterized by several wars, plus the disastrous social policies of the Mao era.


Hanchao Lu, “Out of the Ordinary: Implications of Material Culture and Daily Life in China”, in Everyday Modernity in China, ed. Madeleine Yue Dong and Joshua L. Goldstein (University of Washington Press, 2006):26. (Quoted in Wikipedia: CITI Tower, Pudong | Marina Diez-Cascón


Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N. Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments. London: Routledge, 2009. p48.

4 | CHAKROFF and warehouses, these buildings coalesced into one of the world’s great linear skylines11, with electric light enhancing and enlivening the image of the city.

In a sense, the construction of The Bund was an exercise in propaganda to rival the great exhibitions of the 19th century. The appearance of these neoclassical Beaux-Arts structures in what was then a remote outpost of European civilization served the same purpose as the early world expositions: to draw equivalence between the modern and ancient worlds by miming the proportion, form, and ornamentation of the Greco-Roman tradition.

HSBC Building, The Bund |

In the case of the world exhibitions, flood lighting served to emphasize the overbearing whiteness of the structures, in a somewhat mistaken attempt to draw equivalence with classical antiquity.12 Louisville’s “Southern Exposition” of 1883 was the first of the grand “Architectural lighting is instrumental exhibitions to be completely even essential - in the projection of electrified.13 The World Columbian Exposition in Chicago modernity. “ (1893) was known as the “White City,” famous for its brilliant neoclassical facades, brilliantly illuminated at night with glaring, white, electric light. (The facades were plaster.)

The illumination of The Bund operates in much the same way. Columns, pediments and domes are flood-lit from below, revealing the delicacy and sophistication of proportional systems and ornamental detail, and clearly drawing a conceptual line between these facades and those of the ancient past. While it’s tempting to assume that The Bund was always illuminated as it is today, there’s no clear evidence of this. A 1963 poster depicts a celebration at dusk, with each building’s mass delineated by linear strings of bulbs. Vintage photographs of buildings across town show the same technique. Was this 1960s strip lighting a conscious attempt by the socialist government to visually simplify the massing of these buildings, lest their ostentatious ornament be seen as “imperialist” or “rightist”? We can only speculate.

The self-conscious erection of these neoclassical edifices by British 11

Taylor, Jeremy E. “The Bund: Littoral Space of Empire in the Treaty Ports of East Asia. “Social History 27.2 (2002): 125-42. Print.


As we now know, the architecture and sculpture of Ancient Greece had a rich and vibrant color palette.

13 -’s_Columbian_Exposition

Peace Hotel, The Bund


The Bund at Night ca 1946 | N00/7756781972/in/set-72157603409089396 1/

would-be conquerors was meant as a projection of imperial power. Today the reverse is true: the harsh wash of the flood light presents the imperial Bund like a trophy lifted from a vanquished foe, highlighted like a spot-lit museum artefact.

In traditional China, the colour white was often associated with death or mourning14: we must resist the temptation to read too much into the hue here; it’s enough to recognize that today the static wash of light – white, or even somehow sepia-tone – serves to highlight every crack, stain, pockmark, and bullet hole, emphasizing age, history, and obsolescence. The Bund is dominated by the everchanging facades across the river.

In Skyfall as in life, the illuminated facades of Pudong are fluid, dynamic, and malleable. These adjectives could be applied to modern China as a whole – at least in missives from the government propaganda department.15 The coloured lights of Pudong “The facades are fluid, dynamic, malleable: run the full spectrum, but the adjectives that could apply to China as a overwhelming impression is a blue-green haze, a colour – whole.” qing – traditionally associated

“Shanghai’s Bund on a Festive Day” (1963)

14 15

6 | CHAKROFF with vigour and vitality. (The character is derived from pictograms of sprouting plant life).16 In a recent study, Asian cultures were shown to associate the colour blue with “power.”17

Associations aside, Pudong’s skyscrapers largely feature building-integrated LEDs – shining outward from the façade – that create a veneer of modernity, and celebrate the country’s stunning achievements, while simultaneously masking its many problems. Where the Bund is a remnant and reminder of Shanghai’s colonial past, Pudong projects an image of modernity that dwarfs the previous achievements of the European occupiers.

The “east meets west” narrative is overly reductive, clichéd and passé. Shanghai has been a global city for nearly 200 years, and has never been strictly defined by any one group of people. The image of Pudong is a construct created through the collaboration of Chinese authorities, western designers, Japanese investors, and a host of other constituencies (not to mention “overseas Chinese” and parties based in Hong Kong and Taiwan). However, the facile “old versus new” dichotomy may yet be worth exploring, especially when we consider the role of novelty in contemporary Chinese culture, and consider the significant breaks with the past that have occurred – thrice! – over the past century. THE NOVELTY OF CONSUMPTION “Shanghai… the most cosmopolitan city in the world, the fishing village on a mud-flat which almost literally overnight be-came a great metropolis.... A vast brilliantly-hued cycloramic, panoramic mural of the best and the worst of Orient and Occident.” --All About Shanghai and Environs, A 1934 guidebook. “Over these 10 years the number of high-rise buildings in Puxi has increased more than ten-fold, while Pudong has emerged out of swampy farm-land to become one of the most spectacular cityscapes on Earth.” -- The Shanghai Star, November 11, 200218 In the Republic of China era, Shanghai was held up as an example of what modern China could be, and how quickly modernity could be achieved. Local newspapers cheered the miracle city, born of 16 17


Both “All about Shanghai” and “The Shanghai Star” quoted in J. Wasserstrom “The Second Coming of Global Shanghai” World Policy Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 2003), pp. 51-60 http://www. .

East Nanjing Road (in the 1980s or 90s, before pedestrianization) uK6bUqkA8#.UmH4QdxDvzg


“Pudong 1990 vs 2010”


mudflats in mere decades.

If The Bund was the public face of the Concession-era city, Nanjing Road was its commercial artery. The broad, gently curved avenue was main thoroughfare of the British Concession19 and the location of China’s first western-style department stores. This was “By the 1930s, the road the nexus of foreign brands and luxury items in China, and by the 1930s, the road was a neon gauntlet.

was a neon gauntlet.”

Unburdened by historical reference or theoretical dialog, the neon signs of Nanjing Road20 bathed shoppers in the multi-coloured lights of advertisements, promising the new, the novel, the foreign, or simply presented the old in a new and exciting way.

As the city developed, Shanghai experimented with highrise construction, with techniques imported from Chicago and New York. Shanghai’s Park Hotel (László Hudec, 1934) was Asia’s tallest until 1952. Seemingly inspired by New York’s Radiator Building (Raymond Hood, 1924), the Park Hotel featured zoning setbacks that would have allowed for the tasteful placement of floodlights without disturbing the forceful massing of the tower.21 While this feature was used to great effect in many New York high-rises (real and imaginary alike illustrated beautifully by Hugh Ferris22), in Shanghai, the Park Hotel was lit like The Bund – with linear strings of bulbs. While superlative height and new construction technologies were certainly novel, new architectural programs demanded entirely radical responses. As in other cities, in Shanghai the advent of cinema as a popular diversion was met with the development of a new architectural typology. I’ll leave the complex relationship between architecture and film to the doctoral students, but suffice to say there existed myriad paths of influence.

The German Expressionists were clearly influential on both fields: it’s hard to imagine Ferris’ sublime 1920s renderings existing in a world without Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1927, 23 Or, for that matter, Shanghai’s Municipal Council Abattoir existing without 19 and, later, of the combined International Settlement. 20 Formerly “Nanking” in Wade-Giles Romanization. Sometimes “Bubbling Well Road” in period literature.

21 22 23 . See,

L: a rendering by Hugh Ferris R: poster from Metropolis


the Goetheaneum II (Rudolph Steiner, 1928) or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921).

It’s equally hard to imagine Shanghai’s Grand Cinema (Hudec, 1933) existing without the Glass Chain, a series of letters between a group of German Expressionist architects who promoted crystalline, illuminated forms as a new path for architecture. The transparency they promoted promised to disestablish traditional hierarchies and provide a way forward for a somewhat fractured society, a noble goal for Weimar Germany and Concession-era Shanghai alike.24 Hudec’s Grand Cinema, free from historical typological reference, was one of Shanghai’s most thoroughly modern buildings. Lit from within, it is a glowing beacon of international modernism.

Future site of People’s Square , with Park Hotel. “Night Scene on the Race Course “ from Above: The Bund, 2010 , Wikipedia

In Shanghai, as in the western world, architectural lighting was as revolutionary as the elevator or the Chicago frame, and can be seen as a key component of modernity and the luxurious entertainments that modern life entails.

Crass commercialism and the ostentatious celebration of the luxury had no place in Mao Zedong’s China, where anything luxurious or ‘western’ was suspect.25 During the Cultural Revolutions, tradition suffered the same fate as luxury and consumerism, though novelty was spared: the “four olds” were literally smashed. Innumerable cultural relics were destroyed in the same purges that sent intellectuals to the farms or mines, while modern urban planning on the Soviet model was enthusiastically embraced. 24

It’s hard to judge the extent of influence here. There was a German concession in Shanghai by this time, and Expressionist films were screened in Shanghai, with an apparent influence on Chinese cinema. See “Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945” - http://books. in%20shanghai&pg=PA108#v=onepage&q=german%20expressionists%20in%20shanghai&f=false


In the public eye, at least. The glamorous lifestyles of the Communist party elite are a topic for a different author.


De Volharding Building, The Hague (Jan Buijs , 1928)


Shanghai’s Grand Theater (Hudec, 1933)


“A Night View of Nanking Rd” (1930s)


“Sincere Company Big Sale” (1930s)

14 | CHAKROFF Consumerism was to reappear with a vengeance in the “opening up” era under Deng Xiaoping. 26 By the time China “re-opened” to the world, the neon advertisements of 1930s Nanjing Road had proliferated and spread to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Vancouver; to Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. By the 1980s, the architectural-scale advertisement was no longer novel (though the Blade Runnerscale was yet to come). In recent years, that neon glow has expanded to encompass whole storefronts, a phenomenon that can be seen across Shanghai, but especially in the facades designed for Louis Vuitton and other luxury brands. By the 1990s the Pudong skyline had become the apotheosis of this trend.27

This obsession with novelty is no surprise to a western observer, as the linear march of progress is a metanarrative that’s drilled into our psyche from birth in social, economic, religious, and historical contexts. In Asian cultural traditions, however, linear progression has not been so emphasized. Buddhism is known for its cyclical cosmology, and traditional Chinese art emphasizes replication, repetition, and minute, iterative improvements over years, if not generations. Even the rise and fall of political dynasties can be easily explained in a cyclical timeline, as tied intrinsically to the cosmic cycles of the heavens and the earth. It’s tempting to ascribe the China’s obsession with reinvention and novelty as a wholesale rejection of the former, cyclical worldview, in the interest of joining, finally, the modern world, and reclaiming her position as a world leader and font of influence; economically, socially, and culturally, and while this argument may hold for The Bund and Pudong, China’s relationship with her past is ultimately more nuanced and complex. The project of modernity in Shanghai does indeed involve the emphatic embrace of the novel, but it also embraces aspects of the city’s past, recontextualized. INFRASCULPTURE & HYPERREALITY 26 27’s_Republic_of_China

While Pudong is often portrayed as the city of the future – miraculously built in 30 years from rice paddies, a look at any historical map will show that 1920s Pudong was the site of heavy industry, not idyllic fields.

Louis Vuitton, IFC, Shanghai (Jun Aoki, 2012)


While the Bund-Pudong dichotomy is fairly clear-cut, and the proliferation of illuminated storefronts ties to the contemporary obsession with novelty, it’s harder to define the role of architectural and urban lighting in other, less iconic, areas of the city. Shanghai’s old town – Puxi – is divided into quadrants by two massive elevated highways. Where the two meet, a six-level interchange rises above a lush planted park to dwarf the surrounding buildings (including blocks of remaining shikumen row houses, built a century ago). The central pillar of the stack is elaborated into a gilded relief of a dragon, encircling this main support. According to local legend, the construction crew had great difficulty digging on the spot, until they appeased the slumbering dragon with the promise of a sculptural tribute.28

“Highways are transformed into massive infrastructural sculptures, all the colour of power.”

At twilight, the highways entwined around Shanghai’s dragon column are uplit in a wash of blue-gel fluorescent, transformed into city-spanning infrastructural sculptures, all the colour of power. “Blue Hour” is an urban event on a massive scale, a one-to-one visualization of the pulsing energy of the modern city.

Typical criticisms of urban freeways seem invalid here: these highways were constructed along the boundaries of the former foreign concessions, and adjacent neighbourhoods retain much of their historical character. These roads are not divisions, but connections, not regrettable mistakes of urban planning, but a 28

18 | CHAKROFF celebration of modernity.

One could be forgiven for ignoring the narrow alleys of the Old Town and the low rise lane-houses of the former French Concession: from the blue streak of the elevated road, this is a city of towers, whose illuminated forms alone puncture the mist.

Previous Spread: Six Level Stack at “Blue Hour”

Down on the boulevards of the Former French Concession, a slightly different strategy is visible. Many historic lanes and structures are now (thankfully) protected by heritage laws. In these districts, building heights and street widths are limited by code. The Former French Concession is, and will likely remain, Shanghai’s most charming district, exuding historic character. It’s through lighting alone that they can participate in the construction of Shanghai’s modern self-image. The tree-lined avenues are often decked with a rotating selection of string lights representing various holidays, but throughout the year one thing is consistent: the trees are uplit with a bright green. These streets themselves, are of course somewhat unnatural: the plane trees29 were imported from Europe, and laid along the streets according the French designs, but by uplighting the trees with a colour so closely associated with the natural world, a kind of disconnect occurs.

Hyperreality is sometimes understood as the condition when the real and the virtual or the fictive are blended so effectively that distinction becomes muddled.30 Here, street lighting has been implemented to over-code the natural with the artificial, to upgrade the real to “Lighting has been implemented to over-code the hyperreal. Trees are kept, but the natural with the artificial, to upgrade the their authenticity questioned, their reality destabilized by real to the hyperreal.” something as simple as a wash of neon green. Shanghai’s urban lighting has reclaimed the French Concession for China, without resorting to architectural one-upmanship or casual demolition. Here, there is a celebration of the past, stripped of associations with colonial oppression. SHANGHAI DE LUX Lighting design and nocturnal illumination in Shanghai today thus plays into a metanarrative for China as the country struggles with the pressures of modernity: that of the reclamation of agency. The “Middle Kingdom” – arguably the most prominent and persistent of the world’s great ancient civilizations, finds itself recovering from a period of humiliation –a period when the civilization was first pulled apart by technologically-advanced invaders, then subjected to the vicious strains of forced modernization. Now, finally, China and the Chinese people are charting a modern course on their own terms, in 29 30

Sycamore, to Americans.

Xinhua Rd at Night Evan Chakroff


Xinhua Rd at Night Evan Chakroff

collaboration as equals with their global partners.

Nothing’s perfect however, and China continues to struggle in many ways, and it is here where nocturnal illumination plays a crucial part in China’s establishment of a modern image in the global psyche. Night lighting gives the designer control, highlights only those aspects of a building intended for display31, while masking any defects in construction quality or design. The equation of lighting with luxury and modernity reinforces China’s self-image as a contemporary global player. The illuminated skyline of China’s “Head of the Dragon” functions as a kind of exhibition, projecting an image of the city purged of the vestiges of the past, and unburdened by the legacy of colonialism.


Architectural lighting’s legacy in stage lighting and set design is still evident here.

Evan Chakroff is a designer and critic., currently based in Seattle. The author lived in Shanghai from 2010-2013, and traveled extensively in China.