The 1990s’ urge to be the tallest follows the 1950s’ impetus to be the largest. When the Soviet Union was the standard for political and cultural expression, Red Square next to the Kremlin in Moscow, the largest parade ground of its kind in the world, was the model to be emulated and exceeded. Tiananmen Square, the creation of which in the 1950s saw the destruction of the formal entrance to the Imperial City, was built as the largest space for Party-orchestrated spectacle in the world. It was; and so it remains. At the time, plans were even mooted to raze the imperial palace and construct a’Chairman’s Office’ complex that would compete with the Kremlin. It was the late 1950s, however, and China was experiencing the worst man-made famine in history. Moderation, and economic good sense, prevailed. Mao and his fellow leaders resigned themselves to ruling from nearby Zhongnanhai, a former sequestered imperial lake palace that had housed local government offices during the Republican era.
Since the 1970s, an urge for altitude has swept the nation, and in the 1990s the competition between and within cities produced ever more extravagant skyscrapers. They are touted as the ‘triumph of modern [read “international commercial”] civilization’ by investors and developers. As a new wave of reforms hit Shanghai, first the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (1995) was erected on Pudong, the eastern bank of the Huangpu River, facing ‘old Shanghai’ and the Bund to become the third tallest tower in the world (outclassing similar aspirant towers in Beijing and Tianjin).
The low-lying façade of the treaty port buildings of the Bund became a floodlight-drenched themescape that is in stark contrast to the vertiginous po-mo skyline of Pudong.
In 1998 the Jin Mao Tower, a super-tall structure of eighty-eight storeys, was completed. Arguably the most graceful of all the high-rise buildings of the reformist era, the Jin Mao is the tallest building in China and third tallest in the world after the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the Sears Tower in Chicago. Like most of the other new gargantuan skyscrapers in China’s cities, Jin Mao was designed by an international architectural firm and built by a foreign construction company. Although vaunted as palaces of commerce, such buildings can readily put on a political turn, and in November 2002 the façade of Jin Mao was emblazoned with the slogan ‘Celebrate the 16th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party’. However, it is destined to be outclassed by the tallest building in the world, the 101-storey Shanghai World Financial Centre built at the heart of the Lujiazui Finance and Trade Zone in Pudong and projected for completion in 2007 (construction by a Japanese firm having been delayed for many years supposedly as a result of the Asian financial downturn of the late 1990s). The building is of symbolic significance for a city that aims to rival Tokyo and New York as an international financial centre. Meanwhile, the urban wannabes of Beijing have been plotting their own gigantism, and an even higher skyscraper is planned for the capital that will outdo both the finest of China’s south and the new World Trade Center towers in New York.
In the 1990s, Shanghai saw the construction of some forty-one skyscrapers (buildings exceeding 500 feet or 152 metres in height), in comparison to a handful in Beijing and other Chinese cities, although Hong Kong has constantly added to its man-made mountains of skyscrapers. While one skyscraper was built in China over the decade 1970–80, and fourteen in the first ten years of the reforms, during the 1990s fifty-two skyscrapers were constructed. The buildings feature in numerous TV shows and ads, in movies and in literature, where the ‘white-collar worker’ has become both a leading protagonist and a ready consumer of new cultural products. China’s vertical building boom is expected to wane during the decade to come for reasons of economy, market saturation and, of course, terror.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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