Transforming Shanghai

There seems to be no end to the superlatives being used to describe cities in China: the buildings there are the biggest, the most, the heaviest, the longest, the deepest, the tallest, always spatially out-performing what came before. But there also seems to be a distinct lack of qualitative discussions—that is, whether or not the Chinese construction boom is anything more than that: sheer construction, not worthwhile design at all. In other words, is there anything really new happening over there—or just lots and lots of the old urban tricks we're sadly used to?

It's thus always refreshing to see something that tries to contextualize China's explosive urban growth, offering an economic, historical, or cultural analysis. Luckily, Shanghai Transforming, edited by Iker Gil, does exactly that.

It should come as no surprise to hear that Actar, the Barcelona-based publisher, has produced a beautiful book; in fact, they seem incapable of putting out an uninteresting design. Shanghai Transforming impressively weds full-color photographic spreads, infographics, maps, and original essays by the likes of Saskia Sassen, Robert Venturi, and Denise Scott-Brown into a coherent reading experience. The book roams back and forth across spatial scales, exploring a perhaps less well-known Shanghai of public infrastructure, scholars' gardens, administrative subdivisions, and the so-called "ghost streets" of England's steadily disappearing imperial presence. It all culminates, to some extent, in the book's final section, a look at the "green" development of Chongming Island—a deltaic land mass 1000 square-kilometers in size. This project, led by SOM, presents a particularly interesting example of a 21st-century eco-masterplan.

While the book's sheer quantity of infographics can produce an almost irresistible urge to skim the pages, and while a few of its more number-drenched stretches feel like glorified investment primers for companies that might hope to set up shop in the city, the book nonetheless pulls off its own unique, spatio-economic analysis. The book "studies the facts," Gil writes in the opening introduction; it invites readers "to untangle and understand these complex processes, and in so doing, to explore possibilities for the future."

By no means the final book about the city, Shanghai Transforming is still noteworthy for its timely combination of description and critique, quantity and quality both.

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