The history of Shanghai goes back over 5,500 years. As a city, it is a heterogeneous condensor of Chinese history, reflected in its urban form and architecture, and revealed by its traditional gardens, temples, churches and residential typologies. Because of its unique location as a major port on the east coast of mainland China, Shanghai has been an effective link between the port cities of North and South China, and also in the wider Asian sub-region, encompassing Japan and Korea. This is why over time it has become a compact container of different periods and styles of international architecture and urbanism, integrating classical models of European urbanism with traditional Chinese ideology. Shanghai became an important economic and cultural metropolis in the 19th and 20th centuries, establishing itself as a centre of modern Chinese culture and architecture.
In perspective one could say that there are three great periods in Shanghai's history: the founding period in the early Middle Ages; the prosperous mercantile era of the early 20th century, and, most recently the sustained growth of the 1990s. Throughout, Shanghai as a city has always enjoyed the culture of tolerance and coexistence. Founded in the 13th century as an administrative centre, a traditional circular city with canals and narrow streets, it grew into a modern metropolis in the 1920s and 1930s with the addition of traditional "European" urban areas to accommodate the new economic activities and residential needs of this early 20th century period of growth. The city was divided into four international sectors or "concessions", each with their own administrative systems. During the 1930s, a masterplan was developed - based on modern principles of urban planning but with traditional architecture forms - with a new centre in the northern fringe of the city, away from the influences of the International Settlements and French Concession areas.
Due to political circumstances associated with the policies of the Communist regime, Shanghai lost its role as an international centre of growth and development for over 40 years, from the early 1950s to the 1990s. Very little construction occurred in this former world city. Following the USSR's model of urban growth, satellite cities, heavy industrial zones and residential quarters were designed and built under the policy of national industrialisation throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Some buildings, especially the public institutions, were designed using traditional Chinese architectural forms of monumentality and dignity. As part of a sustained nation-wide plan many new industrial buildings were constructed in the city, especially in the Min-Hang Heavy Industry Zone in south-west and Wu-Jing Chemical Industry Zone in the south-east fringes of Shanghai.
During the 1950s, the Soviet inspired style of social realism was introduced to many buildings in Shanghai. Over the next two decades, China experienced a severe winter in the realm of architecture and urban development. Public life and public buildings retreated into the shadow of politics, responding in part to economic realities but more to the prevailing political and ideological culture. The only constructions of note were a petroleum chemical plant in Jinshan in the south-west area of the city and a major steel industrial area to the north.
The national government's decision to embrace a more open policy in the early 1990s gave the city a much needed opportunity to modernise and redevelop. Shanghai's ambition is to once again become a world class centre of finance, commerce, trade and shipping. As a result, since the late 1990s, it has developed a series of masterplans for different areas of the city, covering over 800 square kilometres, to accommodate this growth. About 20 million square metres of buildings are expected to be built every year with new housing, offices and other activities. To give a sense of scale, this equates to the addition of a city the size of Shanghai in 1949, every two years. The current masterplan covering the period 1999-2020 is based on a multi-centred urban structure which will lead to wholesale re-urbanisation of the city. After decades of neglect, the Shanghai Municipal Government is addressing issues of public transport and suburban development.
After channeling industrial growth in different directions-north, south, southwest, west-the city chose to move eastwards in the 1990s, across the Huangpu River, in the larger expanse the Pudong area. The result of the redevelopment of Pudong has led to a restructuring of the city's industrial heritage and urban form. The Huangpu River has become a focal point, with factories, shipyards and old warehouses being gradually replaced by public open spaces and other activities. The transformation of the waterfront is the key driver of the choice of location of the vast World EXPO 2010 site, closer to the city centre along the river banks.
Shanghai has always been an open city, ready to seize opportunities and allow its citizen to display their talent and creativity. This competitive tradition underlies its dynamic and progressive nature, an entrepreneurial spirit that sets it apart from other Chinese cities. But, as with any city that occupies a strategic global position, its future lies not only in the hands of its architects and policymakers, but in the national policy for growth and development.
Zheng Shiling is Professor of Architecture at Tongji University in Shanghai and former Dean of its Architecture and Urban Planning Department