The Hyperstationary State: Five Walks in Search of the Future in Shanghai


  • Owen Hatherley United Kingdom



Shanghai, China, Architecture, Urbanism, Contradiction, Modernism, Socialist Realism, Uneven Development, Neoliberalism, Communism, Expositions, Futurism


Shanghai is invariably used in film sets and popular discourse as an image of the future. But what sort of future can be found here? Is it a qualitative or quantitative advance? Is there any trace in the landscape of China’s officially still-Communist ideology? Has the city become so contradictory as to be all-but unreadable? Contemporary Shanghai is often read as a purely capitalist spectacle, with the interruption between the colonial metropolis of the interwar years and the commercial megalopolis of today barely thought about. A sort of super-NEP has now visibly created one of the world’s most visually capitalist cities, at least in its neon-lit night-time appearance and its skyline of competing pinnacles. Yet this seeming contradiction is invariably effaced, smoothed over in the reigning notion of the ’harmonious society’.

This essay is a series of beginners’ impressions of the city’s architecture, so it is deeply tentative, but it finds hints of various non-capitalist built forms – particularly a concomitance with Soviet Socialist Realist architecture of the 1950s. It finds at the same time a dramatic cityscape of primitive accumulation, with extreme juxtapositions between the pre-1990s city and the present. Finally, in an excursion to the 2010 Shanghai Expo, we find two attempts to revive the language of a more egalitarian urban politics; in the Venezuelan Pavilion, an unashamed exercise in ’21st century socialism’; and in the ’Future Cities Pavilion’, which balances a wildly contradictory series of possible futures, alternately fossil fuel-driven and ecological, egalitarian and neoliberal, as if they could all happen at the same time.


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How to Cite

Hatherley, O. (2011) “The Hyperstationary State: Five Walks in Search of the Future in Shanghai”, Culture Unbound, 4(1), pp. 35–80. doi: 10.3384/cu.2000.1525.12435.



Theme: Shanghai Modern: The Future in Microcosm?