Creating The Future?

When people say Shanghai looks like the future, the setting is almost always the same. Evening descends and the skyscrapers clustered on the eastern shore of the Huangpu River light up. Super towers are transformed into giant screens. The spectacular skyline, all neon and lasers and LED, looms as a science fiction backdrop. Staring out from the Bund, across to Pudong, one senses the re-emergence of what JG Ballard once described as an ”electric and lurid city, more exciting than any other in the world.”

On the shores of Suzhou creek, Shanghai’s other, more neglected waterway, another, subtler, transformation is taking place. Here, the abandoned factories and warehouses of the city’s modern industrial past are being restored. This talk will argue that these newly reanimated industrial zones -- now refashioned as ‘creative clusters’ -- are potentially an even greater harbinger of what is to come.

The renewal of Shanghai’s industrial heritage began in the late 1990s when a few lone artists and architects started to occupy the empty shells along the creek. Their innovative restorations helped pioneer a mode of urban development based on preserving the city’s architectural legacy. By the mid 2000s this trend fused with China’s embrace of the ‘ creative economy.’ In the rejuvenated buildings that once housed Shanghai’s modern industries, the city now hopes to forge a new economy. No longer content to be a manufacturing hub for products designed elsewhere, Shanghai is attempting to reengineer itself into a hub of innovation at the forefront of the global economy. The creative clusters of Shanghai have spread like a contagion. Operating with a highly complex interrelation between the private and public sphere, they are now one of the most important forms of property development in the city.

Yet, today these clusters are in a deeply paradoxical situation. On one hand, projects are still sprouting everywhere – each more vast and ambitious than the next. Yet, on the other, and at the same time, there are substantial signs of failure. Many of the spaces are empty, and their visions for future development are unimaginative, predictable, and stale. After discussing the decade long history of creative clusters, this talk will attempt to assess the significance of this moment of simultaneous crisis and growth. It will suggest that -- when viewed from the perspective of the city as agent -- contemporary failures may just be the result of the experimentation and risk that are an essential part of creativity itself. And that in this process of ‘creative destruction,’ Shanghai is constructing the infrastructure of a new modernity upon which the creation of its future depends.