Shanghai Satellite Towns | publication

Satellitenstädte: Eine Stadt, neun Städtchen | Bauwelt 7.2012

Earlier this year, the German architecture magazine Bauwelt published ‘Satellitenstädte | Eine Stadt, neun Städtchen‘ [words by MovingCities, images by Arnd Dewald – featured in Bauwelt 7.2012]. The article deals with the phenomenon of the thematically and sketchy styled satellite towns [a Dutch, Nordic, Italian, Spanish, British, German, Canadian and even Chinese one]  dotting the periphery of Shanghai 上海. Visiting these areas wasn’t a fun experience but a rather depressing journey to the end of urbanism, to a far-fetched future, a suburban scam.
Download the German version directly [pdf (3.9MB) no longer available] , or read the full English version below.

Shanghai Satellite Towns

by Bert de Muynck | architect, writer, co-director MovingCities

Today, and all over the world, architecture and urban planning are facing a crisis of identity. In architecture this situation can be exemplified by the rush to iconography that characterized large parts of the agenda of last decade’s development. In urbanism it was the fifty percent rural versus fifty percent urban that woke up the world. For European cities, the outcome of both developments are mostly disconnected; icons are added and districts, oftentimes, demolished or renovated. In developing cities, both developments seamlessly intertwine; the growth of the city is an alibi to rethink its identity. In those cities, the tools at the disposal of planners and architects are not the dogmatic ones of modernism, or the freewheeling ones of postmoderism and sprawl, but the full back catalogue of architectural history. Where in western cultures signs of historicism – Las Vegas, Disneyland, Amsterdam – are support by ideas of ideology, tourism or preservation, in developing, or even redeveloping, cultures similar signs of historicism are oftentimes understood from economical, real-estate or consumer perspectives.
This dichotomy can be seen in the way some talk about cultural difference in terms of creativity versus copy, implicit versus explicit. A typical, although on a dramatically large scale, case is Shanghai’s ‘One City, Nine Towns’ plan, implemented in 2001. A plan that marries the East with the West, intended as a flattering copy, but ending up a unique case-study for architectural and urban development. Today the question is if this marriage has been forced, has a future, was futile or based on financial motives.

From the beginning, the Shanghai municipality decided to add a European and North American stylistic touches to the development of the nine satellite cities. A decade later, a crown of pseudo-historical, pseudo-regional and pseudo-European towns surrounds Shanghai 上海, connected with the central city via subways and highways. Amongst these a Spanish Town, an Italian Town, a German Town, a Dutch Town, a Scandinavian Town and a British Town. With the ambition that “each city gets its own unique character or identity”, some of these areas have become infamous, due to recent journalistic coverage, for their copied construction. They have gained notoriety as protagonists in a discussion on importing foreign architectural styles to China.

If one has to believe these reporting’s, one would imagine that whole areas of tens of square kilometers are build in traditional European styles. But the reality could not be further away from the headlines reporters create. Not only that nobody seems to move in, but also few care to visit them. No serious work has been done in investigating these areas, besides paying lip service to the past intentions of local governments and architects.

Old Map of Shanghai's New Suburbs | image: © 2006 NPR

A recent visit, in December 2011, revealed that today something else is going on. The question should be to discuss the architectural relevance and reality of these places, thus gaining insight in the implications of architectural copy/paste techniques when it comes to creating cities. The struggle of these places should be based on a more precise Sino-European semiotic reading of these areas. One thing can’t be denied; their emptiness and desolation are dramatic, if not depressive. But that does not mean these districts are dead, on the contrary, they are just now figuring out how to adapt to the future. And that after having radically and dogmatically forced to represent the past.

Thames Town | January, 2012

The experience of traveling to the satellite towns
Thames Town, Nordic Town and Holland Village are all located near the last stop of the Shanghai subway: Thames Town [Songjiang City/Taiwushi] at the end of Line 9 in the West, Nordic Town [Luodian] at the end of Line 7 in the North, and Holland Village [Gaoqiao] at the end of Line 6 in the East. By subway, it takes about a one-hour travel from the Bund [a collection of neo-classical architectures, build in the first decade of the 20th century and today Shanghai’s premier tourist destination]. One hour is about the same time as to travel from the Eiffel tower to Paris Disney. A large part of the travel happens underground, but from the moment the subway pops above ground, one sees typical Shanghai’s suburbs: a mix of large-scale high-rises under construction and local districts disappearing. Upon arriving in these end stations, one would expect them to be filled with billboards advertising the nearby European-inspired architectural achievements, expect that certain signs – a small scale model of the Big Ben, the Little Mermaid, the Coliseum or a windmill – are on display. Nothing of that.

Once you leave the subway, the best way to get to any of these areas is by taxi. The look on the cab drivers face combined each time disinterest, acceptance and boredom. Could I be yet another homesick foreigner, another reporter poking fun at the ruined state of these satellite towns? It is easier to accept and/or ignore the hundreds of thousands of square meters of bland housing blocks [about 30 stories, topped off with friezes, cupola’s, pitched roofs and facades adorned with neo-classical columns] surrounding these subway stops, than it is to give architectural amnesty to these European towns.

Line 7 to Nordic Town | 2012 [click for post]

Line 6 to Holland Village | 2012 [click for post]

Initial observations
The first thing one notices upon entering these guarded territories, is how small they are. Yes, they are walkable and varied in form, street section and amount of public space. They are definitely no districts, almost not even towns, and even in the case of Holland Village just a square and a street. They are stretches of land, tucked away in-between other real-estate development. They are not there grabbing all the attention, no they are just alternatives to their neighbouring developments.

To call these towns, or even satellite cities, is thus simply far fetched. Although the number of initially intended inhabitants is staggering [Thames Town for 10,000; German Town between 30,000 to 50,000; Italian Town for 80,000; and Spanish Town for 80,000 inhabitants], when actually built they have become rather small developments intended for accommodating a couple of hundreds, maybe even a thousand people. One realizes while wondering off in these towns, a thought support by the many journalists and researchers that frequented these areas in the past few years, that the objective of this architecture is not to accommodate people, but to accelerate profit. What they do accommodate although are a lots of ‘typical’ spaces for wedding photography [brides and grooms are, besides the guards, the only human category one can discover in this area] and a few shops selling basic stuff. The rest, the streets, the ‘public’ spaces, the restaurants, are all fairly deserted. But change is at hand, as each of the nine towns is transforming it is a unique and peculiar manner.

Nordic Town | January, 2012

The Typical
Is it due to irony or intelligence that Holland Town is located in the vicinity of the North Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone in the flatlands of Pudong? It could be an unintentional historical and place-making pun on the Netherlands Golden Century and the consequent stepped gables style I expect to see. Upon arrival, this zone feels like a blown up version off the Amsterdam harbour area, including smokestacks, container areas and the closeness of the sea. Contrary to the pseudo-iconic Bell Tower in Nordic Town which is visible from the subway, Holland Town has no typical skyline in sight while driving to it. Once inside, Holland Town proves to be only the combination of one square and one street. The place reminded me about the open and windy spaces one encounters in the Dutch suburbs. Probably the unintended and undesired side-effect of a search for the typical.

Thames Town is not totally empty, but indeed barely inhabited and very silent. Just like I imagine any small-scale British town to be. In its architecture and planning it clearly shows the revival or the revenge of the picturesque. It street names – High Street, Oxford Street, Kent Street – and parks – Chelsea Garden, Leeds Garden, Victoria Garden – are spot on. Its central square – Love Square – is bordered by a typical church which is not used to conduct ceremonies, but as a wedding shop. But there is something in the scale of this town that does not feel right. If you expect purity of style or carefulness of planning, be ready to be disappointed. Upon closer inspection, the area feels overall more average European than typical.

Beyond a certain scale, the typical has no typology. Every district has a local big building, houses a planning museum, some administrative activities, fitness center, convention centre and a museum. All of them are build in a bland Chinese style and scale. But upon closer inspection it wasn’t Chinese at all, but could be actually European in essence; something copied from a random European New Town build in the 1970s or 1980s. These towns are definitely not planned as parody, but neither are these areas a very flattering depiction/representation of foreign styles. The underlying strategy becomes clear: the scenery, style and the setting have been sold. Not the community.

The Emptiness
Nordic Town features, disappointingly, no signs of typical Scandinavian extravaganza. In this Nordic town there is no need for typical names for street or squares. Nordic Town has although a theme park (abandoned), golf court (empty), international art gallery (closed), bell tower (inaccessible) and Nordic style street (desolate). This town is today an outlet area, a place to buy cheap clothing and furniture, but also to see cheap architectural concepts. Everything is empty, deserted, on sale and without customers. This is not due to a crisis of consumption, but probably due to competition. There are shops called Nordic House of Games, Euro Moda and a few Spanish and Italian sounding stores.

The first thing you see when entering Holland Town are the billboards that have Creative Holland and Orange Education written on them. I walk around, see underground-parking garages (boarded) and guards (asleep). Holland Village is actually only one street. Once again emptiness. Once again nothing to do, to shop, to eat or to drink. But they have a small train to drive you around. Life on main street is absent. This village has its own sales office, which makes the experience even more sad. The office has a Nederland Kids Club, a promo video, large scale model, a sales person following me, a lounge and free tea on offer, even a piano. They are in need for selling the typical Dutch living style villa’s in the neighbourhood.

Here too, the streets have no names. I walk around and read billboards: “Original European Flavor and Central Villa”, “Nederland, The Central Landscape Area Of Holland Village” and “Private Club, The Luxury Gift For The Host Of Nederland”. The only thing to see around here is the ghost of a generic Netherlands.

Holland Village | January, 2012

The Transformation
Nordic Town is already under transformation. Today it is more Chinatown than Copenhagen, its surrounding has more high-rise projects than the whole of Helsinki, and in terms of distance to the centre of the Shanghai, it could be a satellite town from Stockholm. This Nordic setting is slowly, but steadily being snowed under by Chinese billboards and posters. A new language is taking over, imposing itself on top this town and much along the way some parts of European cities have been. A weird feeling of recognition, as if a Chinatown is superimposing itself on the Nordic style: buildings are adorned with Chinese roofs, dragons and billboards.

It is funny to observe how in Thames Town all empty bars, hotels and restaurants have French names – Hotel de la Côte, Paris Bohéme. Yes, there is no French Town on the list, a Petit Paris if you like. No one would consider constructing it as Shanghai already is blessed with a homage, in the form of the French Concession. Besides that Thames Town has plenty of empty shops: Euro Fashion, Thames Times or Twilight Club. Thames Town, like Europe, faces a crisis of consumption and capital.

The problem here, equally visible in the other districts, is that these towns might strangely not be typical enough. Their identity has become something that can be changed, transformed and adapted. They are not build around any icon in particular, but a collection of architectural elements put together; the style of houses, the names of the street, a church, a lawn, gardens, street furniture and texture of pavement. They are background buildings. Thames Town is a more movie set like, so flexible it can portray Bruges, Amsterdam or London at the same time. With a bit of luck even Venice.

Thames Town | January, 2012 [click above to enlarge]

Nordic Town | January, 2012 [click above to enlarge]

Nordic Town | January, 2012 [click above to enlarge]

Holland Village | January, 2012 [click above to enlarge]

Holland Village | January, 2012 [click above to enlarge]

You can’t be serious. You simple can’t. These thoughts haunt me while strolling through these sketchy satellite towns. You must be kidding me. There is nothing to like about these areas, and many reasons to dislike them. I could not imagine why anyone would move there for its architectural quality. It is just bad taste. I can’t help asking myself who has been making money out of this? Who allowed this to happen and what kind of architects signed off on these buildings? And: What is going to happen with them?

These areas are small drops in the Shanghai’s typhoon-like territorial expansion. The attention they received is not in accordance with their architectural quality. Tourists will probably not come here, as these areas are build for the locals, constructed based on marketing, machinations and with the middle-class in mind; those commuting every day to downtown Shanghai, to airports, universities, financial districts or harbour areas. Or as investment. These areas are not high-end European, nor high-brow, sophisticated or luxurious environments. They are the architectural equivalent of schlagers, musicals or operettas.

So is there anything positive in this plurality of picturesque projects? Yes, these areas still hold a promise: a promise of habitation, of being occupied, of people wandering off in a different world.

Today, these areas are becoming less and less exclusive in their style, combating the emptiness, change, and thus struggle to remain picture perfect. These satellite spaces, these European-inspired towns orbiting the city of shanghai, are going to mutate so to fit into what the market wants from them. Its master planners were probably/obviously wrong and now the market has to fix their future. And, how strange it might sound, probably one of the future dilemma’s will deal with the preservation of these areas, with keeping them typical. That is what called photopreservation. Here the future is framed. Literally.

Pictures by

‘Satellitenstädte | Eine Stadt, neun Städtchen
words by MovingCities, images by Arnd Dewald
published in Bauwelt 7.2012

Shanghai’s New Suburbs | NPR, 2006
Shanghai’s European Suburbs | smithsonianmag, June 10, 2010
One City, Nine Ghost Towns | popupcity, February 16, 2011
One city; nine towns; no people | globaltimes, July 26, 2011
Homes from home | China Daily, August 24, 2012

further reading
The Urban Code of China | by Dieter Hassenpflug [Birkhäuser Verlag 2011 >
Shanghai New Towns | by Harry den Hartog [010 Publishers 2011 >]

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