It was a sunny afternoon. Walking up towards the high street, we passed a red telephone box, and a series of red brick town houses. Turning onto the main square, just off Oxford Street, we caught sight of the church spire rising from behind a row of austere Georgian terraces. There was Costa Coffee on the right, and a fish and chip shop to the left. Sounds like a typical day in an English town, right? Wrong. In fact, we were in Shanghai.
When faced with the growing problem of overpopulation, the former Shanghai mayor Chen Liangyu (2002-2003) came up with an idea: turning suburban areas into satellite towns, creating much-needed residential space while allowing local and foreign architects to experiment with new design initiatives.
Most of the towns have a European theme. Two, in particular, are German designed. Anting Town (安亭) is the brainchild of Albert Speer (who, incidentally, is the son of Hitler’s favourite architect) and was built to house 50,000 people. Rather than designing the town to mimic traditional Teutonic stadts, Speer conceived a modern take on old German architecture. He laid out the streets and squares in a meandering, haphazard way, to copy how old European towns grew organically. Anting is the epicentre of Shanghai’s automotive industry, with a Volkswagen production site nearby, as well as the city’s only Formula 1 track. Despite the eye-catching apartment buildings, the town is pretty much empty, with vacant store fronts and an eerie lack of people in a city as populated as Shanghai.
Getting there: take Metro Line 11 to Anting Station.
Also German designed is Lingang Harbour City (临港), the largest of the new towns. Its style isn’t specifically Germanic, but the architect behind it is Meinhard von Gerkan. He envisaged an urban utopia (or “Copacabana unlimited” as he dubbed it) radiating from a 3km diameter lake; the tagline of the project was “Born from a Drop”. Initially, Lingang was planned to serve 300,000 residents, Lingang will house 800,000 by 2020 if all goes to plan. The Harbour City has faced criticism from academics at Tongji University for its overly idealistic design, but von Gerkan believes that idealism is the very cornerstone of the project.
Getting there: when completed, Harbour City will be served by Metro Line 11 (R3) which terminates at Central Area. Pudong Railway will also run through this area.
Closest to Shanghai is Pujiang (浦江), or Città d’Italia, designed to house 50,000 residents displaced by the Expo development. While ostensibly Italian, and coming from the Milan-based Gregotti Associates, Pujiang looks more like a minimalist villa complex than a Tuscan idyll. It was carefully planned to mix Italian minimalism with the traditional Chinese architecture of the hutongs and lilongs.
Getting there: Take bus No. 20, 22, 37, 42, 55, 65, 71, 926 or 928 to Pujiang.
The suburb of Luodian (罗店), which can trace its roots to the Ming Dynasty, is now known as North European Town. This is an unsuitably catch-all term for a conurbation which is an exact copy of an actual town. Scandinavian architects SWECO based their designs on the quaint town of Sigtuna, which lies about an hour away from Stockholm by car. North European Town even has a lake called Mei Lan, which is a copy of Malaren Lake in Sigtuna.
Getting there: when the northern extension of Metro Line 7 is completed later this year, get off at Meilanhu station.
Taking inspiration even further afield is Fengjing (枫泾). This town was originally planned to be a miniature Canada, complete with maple trees and wide boulevards. However, Canadian maples don’t thrive in east China’s humid environment, so Japanese trees were planted instead.
Two of the new towns are completely Chinese in design. The ancient walled town of Qingpu (青浦) was given over to the crème de la crème of Shanghai’s top architects, and this initiative seems to have paid off. Most of the 830 units are occupied, and the town seems to be flourishing. Chengqiao New Town (城桥新城), on Chongming Island (崇明岛), was designed by German architects Stadtbauatelier, and has become a viable satellite town since the tunnel bridge connecting the island with Pudong opened. This will cut the current ferry time of four hours down to just two and a half hours by car.
As it stands, the new towns don’t seem to be as successful as Mayor Chen envisaged. They are popular novelty locations for daytrips, and couples posing for wedding photos, but by and large they remain empty. Perhaps the somewhat wacky design concepts are a step too far, even for Shanghai. Time will tell whether or not they will remain ghost towns, or become viable places to live.
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Keywords: Shanghai nine towns One city nine towns Shanghai Shanghai Suburban towns European towns Shanghai
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