alan balfour
Time + Architecture 2004-3::

Shanghai and Berlin
Alan Balfour

[Prepared for UNSW February 13 2006, a version of this essay appeared in TIME + ARCHITECTURE 2004-3, the magazine of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Tongji University]

A city can best be understood by exploring the multiple desires and ambitions that it engenders– fictions of desire if you will. It is they that underlie the physical and experiential transformation of the city, they map the past and their residue constrains the future. Through all the confusion of their circumstances, many of the same forces were present in the formation of both Berlin, and Shanghai, the need to pray, the need to be safe, the need to be governed and the need to trade.

In the process of renewing itself Berlin has become once again defined by the civic spaces that were the legacy of a severe autocratic history. What little civic character Chinese Shanghai had before communism was to be found in the temples to city gods of trade, and in the gardens of wealthy merchants. The British bequeathed river gardens and the racetrack, which has evolved to into the civic heart of the renewed city
These two cities share five significant characteristics:

- Both were founded in the 12th century
- Both were trading cities with river harbors linked to extensive internal networks of canals and rivers
- Both were once two separate cities, (Berlin twice in its history)
- Both were formed equally from imperialist, capitalist and socialist ideology,
- And both have been grandly renewed since 1990.

There is a significant chronological parallel between the renewal of Shanghai and Berlin. Shanghai’s renewal begins with Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization of 1988; transforming the city in the 90’s: Berlin’s renewal follows the collapse of the Wall in 1989.
These two cities are both similar and different:

- Both are commercial cities, but it is Berlin’s role as capital of a nation and repository of the monuments of its history that makes it so different.
- Berlin is, despite flashes of color, is grey and slow; while Shanghai is fast flashy and brittle.
- Beneath the face of Berlin is a dreadful gravity; beneath Shanghai the roots are broad but shallow.
- Both cities are made from many, many towns.
- The Reichstag and the new parliament centers Berlin, Pudong de-centers Shanghai.
- Both cities tolerate strangers up to a point (one feels far less out of place in either than in Tokyo).
- Both cities are political structures.

What follows are illustration of similarities and differences as these cities are renewed.

Opposite sides of one thing: Imagine two maps: the first is an English map from the mid-19th century, the other Chinese from the end of the century. In the first, all the conventions of map making convey, with great precision, a settlement with its government and commercial buildings, cemetery and churches. It defines the new Western reality, while, on the left, a faint line representing a wall. The map gives no indication that behind this wall was a dense, ancient city with a population in the hundreds of thousands, a city whose port boasted a volume and variety of shipping the equal to that of the port of London. For the English map-maker the Chinese Shanghai simply did not exist.

The West, however, was not alone in representing a partial reality; in the second map, executed by the Chinese authority at the end of the century, Chinese Shanghai was recorded using similar graphic conventions. All the lanes, streets and canals of the city are essentially identical to those mapped in the 17th century. Three transverse canals still flow through it and out to the Huangpu. The imperial Customs House is shown on the river, other administrative buildings are named; the Yu Yuan Garden is emphasized with a drawing of a few symbolic trees and all are contained in the continuous city wall, but there is nothing to indicate that a great European city is being built to the north.

More surprising is a Chinese map from 1902, [fig. 1] the waning years of the empire. Here the international settlement and the Chinese city, though fundamentally different, are represented as one. This oneness unites the uneven canal order of the walled city with the wavering, near-rational grid of the English city. In a peculiar parallelism, the confines of the walled city have a strange affinity with the addictive confines of the racetrack. (And in the unpredictability of history, the racetrack, born of forces remote from the old walled city, would eventually become the heart of revolutionary Shanghai). While the Chinese suggests some continuity of for and order between the two cities, the great Western map from a few years later [fig. 2] still isolates that part it labels 'Native City.’

Into the present the Western city is now the historic Shanghai and, save for Yu’yuan Gardens, most traces of Chinese Shanghai have been obliterated.

Berlin: Haupstadt der GDR Stadtplan, VEB Tourist Verlag 1984: [fig. 3] In this tourist map of East Berlin the Western city exists only in the trace of the major roads and the line of the city rail system under East German administration. The octagon that formed Leipziger Platz is clearly shown, though all the buildings that had framed it had been destroyed, and the land had become part of the vast mine field, dividing East from West. Karte von Berlin, Der Senator fur Bau-und Wohnungswesen V 1984 [fig. 4] is the official map from the Senate of the city of West Berlin. It is in many particulars a complete fiction. This is the view from the West. It shows the line that separates the districts of Berlin but refuses to acknowledge the existence of the Wall or the division of the city. On the right, though under the control of the DDR, the Western administration chooses to map the prewar building and property lines though almost all the buildings outlined had been destroyed. It is understandable that within Western capitalism, property rights, no matter how abstract, no matter how lost to opposing order, must continue to signify. In the official view from the West trolley cars still run through Potsdamer Platz and within the octagon the suggestion of a charming garden.

It also traces, though unintended, a lost idea of city. In contrast to the 19th century order of the prewar city on the right of the map, the post war creation Kultur Forum, built on the destruction, is a disorder of roads to nowhere and buildings adrift in disorder (a disorder that suited the architect Scharoun well). It maps unwittingly the loss of a central authority. It suggests a future being formed not in the selfishness of corporate speculation but in a reality of existential serendipity. In political terms these tough yet virtuous objects, the Philharmonic, the State Library, the National Gallery of Art, can now be seen - apart from whatever small mysteries they keep to themselves – as the products of imaginations freed by the severing of the body of the city, this a strange freedom which disappeared immediately the ‘wall came down.

Ideology: East Berlin was transformed by communism. Karl Marx Alle, formerly Stalin Alle was, and remains the most monumental work of socialist planning anywhere in Europe. Its style is the thin almost oriental classicism of social realism, a style that appears in only one place in Shanghai - the Russian designed exhibition hall dedicated to ‘Friendship.’. This is the only work of overtly ideological architecture in the city; otherwise Shanghai’s public buildings and public housing are barely distinguishable from the equivalent modernist structures in Europe; in even the most disturbed years of the Cultural Revolution, more concerned with pragmatism the politics.

Consumerism: A major influence in returning the city to its true nature after forty years of socialist austerity has been the overwhelming power of the propaganda produced by international consumerism. For a century before the revolution European Shanghai had cultivated a taste for international consumer goods and had come to claim a place in the world as a centre of production and consumption. The 1988 economic revolution quickly reignited the pleasurable desires of consumption.

From the evidence one might believe the stern ideologues in Beijing quickly saw in the reforms of Deng Xiaoping not simple economic growth but a means of dealing with the banality of socialist culture. The dictatorship of the state sees the benefits of dressing the tired body of revolution in the multiple veneers of consumerism. Even at its most authoritarian, Marxist society never had propaganda tools as extensive and precisely constructed as those developed by Coca-Cola and McDonald’s et al. And these global lifestyle producers have never had a more compliant audience and a more enthusiastic government with which to work. The relationship between world brand manufacturers and the Chinese state has developed from one of wary skepticism on both sides to the present wholehearted co-operation. Imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when the producers begin to encourage the administration in Washington to see the benefits of a single party political system – with state support the producers are given all the power and control provided they are seen to be advancing the interests of the party and their activates clearly maintain the stability, and provide endless distraction from the reality of the regime. (Perhaps my memory is playing tricks, but I have distinct recollection from the mid 90’s of Pepsi Cola commandeering all the lamp post on a major commercial street – perhaps Nangjing Lu, an capping each with disc carrying he Pepsi, this sequence of discs created a continuous band of color along the street and yet almost imperceptibly the lamps the discs in the middle section, same color and form as the rest, carried the message Raise the Flag for Deng Xiaopin).

In Berlin Potsdamer Platz is the largest area of planned rebuilding bridging the divide that once separated the two cities. The master plan re-established the tree-lined avenue of Potsdamerstrasse that once led to the commercial heart of the prewar city and now leads to a public plaza surrounded by hotels and theatres created out of an extension of the State library on the west and the Daimler Benz pavilion on the east. North and south became an extensive landscaped water garden. But despite all the good intentions of theses structures of the master plan it is the great oval plaza of the Sony headquarters, that creates the illusion of the public realm, a realm however owned and produced by Sony and its products. Close by a shopping mall, sucks all the remaining life from the pleasant yet empty streets that surround it. [fig. 4a]

Simulacra: Nowhere is there evidence among the planners, architects and engineers of attempts to form a Chinese vision for Shanghai; able to enlarge and ennoble the distinct character of the culture. Shanghai is still in the main a product of European mercantilism with little to remind one of the Maoist years. It is difficult to explain how a culture that is so fiercely proud of its uniqueness can destroy almost every vestige of own history. A Shanghai colleague of mine, of some influence, was pleased to tell me that a committee he chaired had designated some three hundred historical structures, for landmark protection; the vast majority the work of European and American architects from the 19th and early 20th century. Only a handful of buildings have survived from the thousand years of Chinese Shanghai.

The systematic destruction of the streets and shop houses of the old city in the last five years could be justified as necessary renewal, but the rebuilding is all to do with real estate speculation with little concern for history or community. While the poor are being removed to the edges, the wealthy are restructuring the centre. At what was the very center of the old city, a massive apartment block is entered through a gateway beneath the sign, in English, ‘Sun Wonderland.’ [Fig. 5] From the grandiose gateways and fountains to the rows of Roman-inspired figures that surround the base, nothing about this building would be out of place in Las Vegas. It will serve only the rich constructing class divisions that were never so reinforced in the Chinese city’s past. The great Buddhist Temple, Jing’an on Bubbling Well Road, founded in 1008 and rebuilt over many years in a consistently modest style, has become very wealthy in the last decade. A visit in the summer of 2001 found the temple half destroyed in the midst of rebuilding. Rather than reconstruct in a style consistent with its history, the temple leaders have chosen to create a building with a colorful public image borrowed from imperial religious structures. Intended, it can be presumed, to match the expectations of the tourists. [Fig. 6]

For all their brash commercialism the renewed streets of Shanghai are lively and satisfying. Yet with all the best intentions of enlightened architects, planners and politicians, the rebuilding of central Berlin feels like a simulacrum; it has the appearance but not the life of a real city. Elsewhere in both east and west, the city has regained the brooding intensity and sexual thrill of the imagined Berlin, more by commercial exploitation that by tasteful planning. Across the eastern city little has changed since the wall came down; huge public housing estates remain aggressively socialist.

The Stadtschloss – city castle - was founded by Elector Frederick II in 1443. At the end of the 19th century it had become the Berlin home of the Kaiser Wilhelm and it was from the Stadtschloss that he directed the First World War into disaster and defeat. The Second World War reduced it to a shell and the Communists demolished it as a symbol of aristocratic oppression; but since the reunification there has been a persistent and growing demand that it be recreated. This climaxed early in the 90’s with the illusion of the west facing façade being created on a painted canvas on scaffolding exactly where it had once stood. [Fig. 7] However to rebuilt the castle the former parliament of East Germany would have to be destroyed. So many in the East are opposed to this that the city has sustained a decade long program of extremely slow demolition – until it will at some time pass the point of no return.

While Berlin struggles with rebuilding its past, Shanghai has no qualms over inventing a past. A most peculiar and extravagant example is in Ming Hang, One of five self-contained industrial communities built in the Mao years, Ming Hang remains a remote suburb far to the west of the city. In the town center, just beyond thet housing blocks, the hotel and the community shops, is the new district court house. Each political subdivision has the authority to build as it wishes and the judiciary of Ming Hang has chosen to be housed in a two-thirds scale replica of the US Capitol. [Fig. 8]Along with the French-style dormers, it is all colonnades and wings and folie de grandeur beneath the dome. Unless one commits a crime it is impossible to enter, so who knows what is on the inside? What was in their minds? To create the image of an admired political system and somehow democracy will follow. Or is it just another consumable image, the illusion of the unachievable, another simulacrum?

Looking forward, looking back: Perhaps Shanghai has always looked forward, and this is truer now than ever. In 1990 I wandered through the narrow lanes past the modest houses of Pudong as the bulldozers were tearing away at the edges of what was had the appearance of a poor village, just across from the Bund. Though overshadowed by the vast television tower the Pearl of East, Pudong was a community whose way of life had remained remarkably untouched by the great city across the river, now all traces of this village have gone replaced by one of the most extravagant collections of commercial towers I the world. In the old Shanghai the streets around the City Temple still traced the paths of the canals framed by decrepit terraces of shop houses with faded red upper floors and many trades, noodle shops and merchants. Crossing from the North into the gate is was still possible to fully appreciate the total shift in reality between old China and the European invaders. All this is now gone and nowhere in ideology could one have anticipated the desire for such complete erasure of Chinese structures while preserving and so much of the international city. In the end the most significant surviving historical monument will be the great Anglican Cathedral by Giles Gilbert Scott, hidden in full view in the center of the European city.

In rebuilding a unified Berlin the need to create a memorial ‘for the murdered Jews of Europe,’ (as it was titled in the official documents), was always present. The competition for a design was announced in 1994; the site lies one thousand meters south and east of the Reichstag, between the Brandenburg Gate on the North, and the Tiergarten on the west. On the southern edge the site adjoins a housing project built in the gardens of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery and beyond had stood the long mass of the Chancellery. German Chancellor Kohl personally declared the New York team of architect Peter Eisenman and artist Richard Serra as winners. Their proposal comprised of a dense grid of 4000 pillars each in plan 7 feet by 3 feet, the shape of a coffin, running north south on the side with only a minimal passage of 3 feet between. [Fig. 9] The pillars were almost flush with the ground at the edges, the narrow passages between slowly descending to a depth of 21 feet at its heart. In the increasing darkness there would have been disorientation and great difficulty in encountering and passing another person, Inside a place of oppression and horror, outside a an ordered ruin; inside a clear awareness that entry into the passages was a symbolic entry into a mass grave; a concept subtly changes in execution. Kohl’s called for a reduction in the number and height of the pillars; for the passages to be widened, for a tree lined path to surround the place, and for an area to be designated for the laying of wreaths. The German press expressed the concern that these changes could subtly move this experience from a memorial dedicated to the ‘Murdered Jews of Europe’ to a more ambiguous memorial in which there could be shared grief for all who suffered under Hitler including the German people.

Empowerment: The development of Berlin is tightly controlled by administration dedicated to the public good, the development of Shanghai is tightly controlled by an omnipotent mayor who creates a vision for the city in response to political and financial pressure. Post 1989 the baumeister of Berlin managed to establish legislation that controlled heights and the scale of city blocks and the amount of open space that had to be provided, qualities that were felt enhanced public life. His detractors felt he stifled any creativity that could have explored new urban forms. He believed he was acting in the public good as did the mayor of Shanghai when he decided to green the city with the banks on either side of the Huang Pu become a glorious public garden. The difference in these two administrations is one of power. The Berlin baumeister has to work with and through the Senate of the city and the lawyers for the each and every property owner and developer affected. In Shanghai the mayor can take unilateral action provided it is the best interest of the party. In Shanghai centralized power created a field of apparently free speculation; in Berlin democratic procedures led to constraint and caution.

Nature and character: Colleagues in Shanghai argue that recent consumerism is a minor part of a revolution that has restored the value of human life, and renewal of the side of Chinese culture. In an absolute sense, planning for the future of Shanghai demands nothing more than that which has determined its character for a 1,000 years; sustaining a rationally ordered field inn the support of industry and commerce. Over the centuries the people have demonstrated exceptional resilience; adjusted to continually changing political and physical environments without losing any of their energy or ambition. The cities future will be shaped more by the character of the people than in the visions of planners and architects; a process that must not be judged too soon. It may take several generations to drive production with the deep poetic desires of the vast, brilliant, selfish population. And when this happens it will be the product not of Chinese labor but of Chinese desire, and it will compel the world.

This unprecedented program of competitions that followed the collapse of the wall and the reunification of Berlin is too incomplete to offer conclusions. These all remain projects into the unknown. It is unclear whether opportunity was lost in the process of competitions and whether the future of Berlin would have been different if the more transformative and radical projects had been chosen. However there it is evident that since the Wall came down, Berlin has retreated not only from the progressive vision but also from any attempt to idealize the future.
The apparent conservatism of recent years has as much to do with shifts in world ambition as it has with Berlin. The growth and the change in a city is subject much more to market forces than to the dreams of architects, and cities naturally define their character in the consensus of broadly accepted forms. The question for Berlin -the question to be asked of the urban decisions already made is whether the attempt to constrain the configuration of the future city will equally constrain Berlin as a financial center; will act to weaken its world role in the competition with cities more tolerant of speculation such as Shanghai, particularly Shanghai.

In conclusion: There are a number of fairly obvious differences emerging as these cities assume their new form

- Berlin seems increasingly captive of its past,
while in Shanghai most of its past is being erased
- In Berlin a liberal democracy chooses to impose severe order on the form of the city;
while in Shanghai a dogmatic communist regime is able to create the illusion of laissez faire capitalism
- The rebuilding of Berlin has constrained corporate speculation in the interests of public order,
yet Shanghai has actively encouraged extremes of speculation with little concern for civics
- Berlin is committed above all to building a stable German reality (except in the Reichstag),
while Shanghai is increasingly a wild agglomeration of world realities
- Berlin has been rebuilt to assert the city as a structure of public authority (admittedly it is the capital);

The architecture of Shanghai gives no clue as to where authority lies

But there are deeper more intangible forces at work that will take time to fro the full character for these transformations to be understood

The reformation of Berlin as an explicit instrument of national ambition is appropriate to it regaining the role of the nation’s capital. But in so doing the planners of this new old Berlin have shown too little concern for the future – they have created a fabric with too little tolerance for change or for speculation. This Berlin would socialize its population on a nineteenth-century civic stage, yet there is no telling how the city can respond to the myriad desires that this arrangement will suppress. [Fig. 10]

Over time, Shanghai will able to evolve and define its own reality, its own instruments, its own structures, and apply them with a management equal to its resurrection in the last decade of the 20th century. And even if the city is unable to escape the seduction of the West, unable to fulfill such unreasonable dreams, the result will not be failure. This has always been a city of wily pragmatism. So if the economy fails to create the wealth promised, if few can afford the cars, villas, and corruption distorts the modeled reality, 20 million people still need to eat, sleep and make love and find work. And the mass population of this expedient and disciplined city will create new forms of manufacturing, new kinds of businesses, new communities in their own terms shaped by their own desires. [Fig. 11]



Alan Balfour is dean of the School of Architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and author of Berlin: The Politics of Order, and Cities of Artificial Excavation: The work of Peter Eisenman, plus other books.


» back to top