Gothic Futurism

Stories of Shanghai’s contemporary rise are usually accompanied by images of the illuminated skyscrapers of Pudong. Under the spell of this spectacular vision, Shanghai’s hypermodern ethos appears to reanimate the raze and replace mentality of a previous age. The ‘clean slate’ modernism of Pudong – with its echoes the International Style - belongs to a lineage of Chinese Modernity that was forged in the May Fourth movement. In this earlier epoch the modern impulse sought freedom from the ‘shackles of tradition.’ “The light that died is born anew,” wrote Guo Muruo, “The cosmos that died is born anew.”

It is widely agreed amongst theorists of Chinese modernity that at the core of May Fourth culture was an acceptance – or conversion - to linear time. This embrace of progressive temporality involved the rejection of an ‘older’ conception of cyclical time and required the construction of both a past that lay behind and could be discarded, as well as a brightly lit future that lays up ahead.

This paper seeks to delineate a notion of Shanghai futurism that is rooted, not on the clear light of progress with its inherently linear temporality, but rather on a darker, more occulted idea of time. Signs of this more shadowy futurism haunt the vast metropolis. In the dark brick intricacies of the Park Hotel or the looming art deco monuments behind the Bund, Shanghai appears more as a shadowy Gotham city than like the luminescent imaginings of the City of Tomorrow.

This Noir sensibility haunted Shanghai’s own modern period in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s presence can be glimpsed in the sorcerous writings of Shi Zhicun, the ghosts brought to life in the best works of Lu Xun, the Brick Expressionism of Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec, and in the delirious borrowings of Art Deco, which, inspired by golden age of archaeology, sought to replicate the mysterious patterns that were being unveiled from the chasms of deep-time.

The aim, in exploring Shanghai’s urban gothic - to borrow a phrase from Leo Lee – its to uncover traces of an occulted futurism that was, and is, haunting the city’s modernity.