Shanghai’s role in shaping modern China and indeed the very idea of what modernity is in China can hardly be overstated. Much of this long-lasting influence can be seen in how the city itself came into being as a complex product of Chinese and colonial forces, and as Cole Roskam
shows us in Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843-1937
(University of Washington Press, 2019), it is in the very material actions of architects and town planners that this is most obvious.
Accompanied by a rich array of archival photos, maps and designs, Roskam’s book takes us down to street level, showing up close how the competing influences of Chinese, British, French, American and other governance and architectural regimes interacted and shaped the urban landscape. As Shanghai has again become an arena where global markets and design innovations collide, appreciating this tangled legacy is key to understanding this metropolis and indeed China as a whole.
Ed Pulford is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and northeast Asian indigenous groups.