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Sizing Up a Mega-City

"It came out bursting, like a fireball," says Da Xin, chief engineer of the urban planning center. The speed of Shanghai's development, which often bewilders outsiders, is a point of pride among many here.

In China you also have to remember the larger statistic: the total population of more than 1.3 billion people. In the shadow of that number, statistics about private space in Shanghai -- since 1990, the average amount of living space, per person, has increased from 8 to 15 square meters (86 to 161 square feet) -- become rather ominous.

To see these changes from the inside, you might study the photographs of Hu Yang, a photographer who has trained his lens on the rapid change in Shanghai lifestyle and domesticity in recent years. In a series called "Shanghai Living," he photographed hundreds of the city's residents in their domestic spaces, ranging from the bunk-bed dormitories of the city's poorest workers to the sun-dappled, white-walled aeries of its wealthiest. The series captures multiple social trends. In some of the most humble spaces, every inch of wall space is covered, with clocks and baskets, cookware, old photographs and newspapers. Bags and tools hang from the ceiling, and the kitchen table is doing triple duty: a place to cook, eat and work. In the apartments of the wealthy, rooms are filled with furniture that looks elegant but unused. But Hu hasn't just captured the wealth differential, he's also hinted at the growing isolation and solitude of the middle class, with clean, orderly spaces filled with generic Ikea-like bookshelves. The chaos and clutter and crowding of the old Shanghai has given way to one person to a room, engaged in some solitary activity, such as playing the piano or reading.

"When we got a living room, I thought, what is the use of this living room?" says a young Chinese professor of architecture who spends time in both China and the United States. "I thought it was crazy to have two bathrooms. Now bedrooms are just for sleep."

Standardization is the norm in Shanghai's building boom, and the standard can be gleaned from the names of the projects. Consider a development that the Vanke company -- the largest real estate developer in China -- is designing near Nanjing. Called Stratford, it is entered via an automobile passageway through a luxury shopping strip. You then pass over a bridge into three areas of Western-style homes and apartments, zoned into three economic classes.

But it is the river under the bridge that says the most about this development. The river is polluted, so polluted that it would depress home values. And so the old, fetid river has been buried in a giant pipe, underground, while a new, ornamental river (really just a small lake) has been placed above it. Rivers are picturesque, part of the lifestyle.

This sort of thing horrifies Western observers: the imitation of Western materialism, the borrowing of outside architectural styles, and the ostrich-like, head-in-the-sand response to environmental degradation (just hide it!). Of course, other people's cities have always haunted us. Europeans new to Chicago or New York at the beginning of the 20th century were mesmerized and horrified by the crass commercialism, the speed, the apparent indifference to human scale or Old World values. It was Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, who taught New Yorkers how their "other half lives" and helped lead the tenement reform movement. The British were for centuries horrified by Paris, by its squalor and its bad habit of coughing up violent revolutions. Westerners are often aghast at the playgrounds of the Persian Gulf, their tawdry display of conspicuous consumption and their Disneyland silliness.

One might say that fear of the Chinese city is the only prism through which we can see it. "In no city, West or East, have I ever had such an impression of dense, rank richly clotted life," Aldous Huxley wrote of Shanghai in 1926. Huxley was impressed by that mysterious coefficient of urban life in Shanghai, its vigor and bustle and industriousness. But that word, "rank," captures an undercurrent of urban fear that still haunts the Western mind as it contemplates the explosive growth of Shanghai.

"China, whose determined pursuit of economic growth at any cost was blamed by many for finally tipping the world into catastrophic climate change, has suffered massive population loss through floods and storms," writes Elizabeth Farrelly, an architecture and urban critic. That passage comes from the final chapter of a new book called "Blubberland," an extended argument about how democratic freedom and the desires it liberates is killing our cities, and perhaps our planet. The final chapter is her vision of the future, in which China has met its presumably deserved end as the dystopian embodiment of untrammeled capitalism.

It's a sci-fi vision, but hardly a new one. For a century, at least, there has been a not-so-subterranean (and often racist) fear among Westerners about the big "what if" of China. What if a billion people are suddenly thrust into modernity? What if they suddenly have access to modern weapons? Or modern science? Or modern "lifestyles"?

That kind of fear -- that China's cities may be out of control -- colors much of the urbanist discourse about China. The Chinese city isn't seen as a Chinese problem but a global problem -- a problem so big it could take the world down with it. And it isn't just an environmental problem but a social problem: The ugliness of the Chinese city, the uniformity of its mass-produced housing, is seen as a huge step backward, into some gray, quasi-authoritarian, Orwellian nightmare.

Even as Chinese cities spread out, there is also deep concern about the density at their center. Unlike postwar American suburbanization, which emptied out the inner cities in places like Detroit, China's urbanization isn't fueled by any deep-seated cultural antipathy to city life. Suburbs spread, but cities remain extraordinarily dense.

"Mega-cities are the most vulnerable structures mankind has ever created," says Johannes Dell, the head of AS&P architects in Shanghai. And so his firm is proposing something that might seem radical to anyone who has followed the death and life of American cities: de-densification. One possible future, emerging from the Chinese mega-city, is a world of "city clusters," vast networks of cities linked together by the kinds of infrastructure investment -- high-speed trains, new highways and bridges -- that would make American taxpayers quail and revolt.

None of this seems particularly surreal to the Chinese. When it comes to price tags, a billion is the new million. And while they are happy to solicit lots of advice from Western planners -- they will pay for multiple master plans and then cherry-pick ideas from them all -- the Chinese also are convinced that their situation is unique and will require unique solutions.

"We like to learn from mistakes after we've made them," says Ma Yansong, a young but busy architect in Beijing.

Meanwhile, a cynical despair begins to seep into rhetoric of Western urbanism, which simply can't compete with what is happening in China. While American cities struggle to find the millions necessary to fix bridges or extend subway lines, the Chinese city blazes forth: $1.3 billion for a new magnetic levitation train in Shanghai, $30 billion for a new, high-speed rail link to connect the city to the capital, Beijing. Outside Shanghai, the world's longest bridge connects the edge city to the world's busiest deep-water port. And that's just Shanghai. In the United States, there are nine cities with a population of 1 million or more. In China, there are more than 100.

Are we there yet? Absolutely not. And that is the most astonishing thing about the new Chinese city. Nobody knows where it is going, whether it will create, like 20th-century New York, a new ideal of city life. Or if it will implode. Or simply recast the old urban problems -- traffic and crowds, squalor and wealth, isolation and community -- on a new, and unprecedented, scale. "The Chinese city threatens to outpace our understanding of it," said Ackbar Abbas, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who was invited to address a Columbia University symposium on Chinese architecture and urbanism in February.

Many thousands of miles away, there are plenty of people who would echo that sentiment. "We could do much better if we could think more," says Zhang Lei, a prominent Chinese architect who has gained international exposure. "But you don't have so much time for thinking."

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