by Jeff Wasserstrom
Once upon time (well, say a century ago), when people thought about the excitement and terrors of the urban future, the cities they would focus on were likely to be European or North American ones – places such as Paris, London, New York, and Berlin. During the decades following World War II, new cities, mostly ones perched on the Pacific came into the mix, including Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Singapore and Tokyo. Most recently, Chinese mainland cities, which seemed anything but futuristic as recently as the 1980s, have become important symbols of the dreams and nightmares of the contemporary age. In particular, Shanghai’s skyscrapers and superfast maglev train have led to comments about its ahead-of-the-curve features by everyone from urban theorists to celebrities. To cite just one of the latter, Paris Hilton, upon arriving in the city for the first time a few years ago, exclaimed simply: “Shanghai looks like the future!”
I’ve been writing on this theme for a few years now, most recently in an essay for the SF section of the LA Review of Books, in which I focused on William Gibson’s use of Asian cities as muses for his imaginings of things to come or the futuristic aspects of the present moment. In that piece, “The Future is a Different Country,” I suggested that, based on how powerfully Gibson has written about Singapore and Tokyo for the magazine, Wired should consider sending him next to Shanghai. And I know who they should send with him to document his trip, if they take me up on my suggestion: historian and photographer Tong Lam. I became convinced of this after checking out my friend Tong’s website, which is full of stunning shots of inviting and forbidding Chinese urban landscapes. And now, to complement my piece on Gibson, LARB has created a slide show featuring images that show off Tong’s special eye.
Fittingly, for a series of images included in a publication with “Los Angeles” in its title, the first thing you’ll see when you click through to the slideshow is a photograph of crisscrossing freeways that was taken in Shanghai but looks like it could just as easily have been shot in Southern California. Tong titles that opening shot, “Red China Turns Blue,” and it is followed later in the series by other images of Shanghai, some related to the 2010 World Expo held there, which was the biggest World’s Fair in the history of the spectacle. And on the eve of the Olympics, it’s worth highlighting this shot of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, the best-known building created for the 2008 Beijing Games. Here is Tong Lam’s commentary on that shot, which he titles “The China Model”:
The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo was not only associated with the arrival of the then fastest train in the world and wide-ranging infrastructure upgrades, it also marked Japan’s return to the international community after two decades of postwar reconstruction. The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing sent a similar signal to the world that China had entered a new era.
The slideshow also includes an image of another recent iconic addition to Beijing’s urban landscape: the CCTV tower designed by Rem Koolhaas. It has an unusual twisting form, which has been admired by some and mocked by others, including bloggers who have said it reminds them of a giant pair of pants. Tong titles his photograph of this building “A Sci-Fi Fantasy,” and has offered up this explanation to go along with it:
The new headquarters of China Central Television (CCTV) in Beijing has inspired awe and fear. The stunning architecture, designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, seems to showcase the predominate state broadcaster’s ability to defy gravity. But not even China’s greatest propaganda machine can escape the law of nature after all. During the Spring Festival of 2009, the smaller of the twin towers was burned down due to a mishap in a firework display commissioned by CCTV itself. The spectacle of the burning of Beijing’s most controversial building resonates with the sci-fi fantasy about the ultimate disaster of the great metropolis.
Reading this makes me think that perhaps it would be good for Wired to send William Gibson and Tong Lam not just to one Chinese city, but to two.