In the mid-1970s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping unleashed his country's entrepreneurial energy by exhorting, "To get rich is glorious!" Shanghai's skyline reveals how the populace has taken Deng's advice to heart. That's what I learned during my visit as part of my reporting for "The Gucci Killers." This is capitalism at its young, awkward age. There are so many gaudy skyscrapers, Shanghai is like Vegas, only without the irony.
It's hard to top the city's signature Oriental Pearl TV tower, which, lit up at night in purple and green, looks like a spaceship to Pluto. But my favorite was a huge new condo complex being built down the block from my hotel. The signs on the construction walls advertised it as "Richgate"—promising that it was the "Kinging [sic] of Shanghai Buildings!" In this town, Donald Trump would be Old Money.
I felt strangely at home, however, in a popular shopping area in the historic French Concession called Xintiandi. The low-rise complex housed restaurants and stores in beautifully restored stone buildings. When I remarked on how much I liked it, Shanghai Tang's creative director, Joanne Ooi, said the complex had been designed by a hot architect whose plan for the area was so successful he was currently getting a lot more work in China. She promised to email me his name so I could check him out when I got back to the States. I did. His name: Ben Wood. His firm: Wood + Zapata. Address: Boston.
On November 17, Wood announced he would leave his practice in the States to open a full-time office in Shanghai, and not a moment too soon. Let's hope he can save a few more buildings before the wrecking ball destroys what's left of Shanghai's history.
A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.