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Shanghai Calling: Exploring China's mega-projects

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The scale of China has to be seen to be believed, writes student Eleanor Jolliffe

A month or so ago I took the opportunity to travel around China and see some of its marvels up close. The scale of this country really does have to be experienced to believed and likewise the scale of its building projects and infrastructure. Every town has its boasts - my favourite by far had to be ‘The largest indoor ceiling mounted screen in any shopping mall in Asia’.  

This huge country and its multiple provinces are linked by some of the most impressive and ambitious infrastructure I have ever seen. This infrastructure was one of the highlights of my trip. The high-speed rail links slowly joining the dots on China’s map are easily comparable to The Great Wall in terms of scale and ambition and the experience of travelling on them is quite eye-opening. Mass transport is something the Chinese do very well.

Mass transport is something the Chinese do very well

In fact ambitious projects seem to be a hallmark of Chinese culture, in Xi’an I stared dumbfounded at an entire army of terracotta, each soldier unique, all constructed of clay and built to be buried. In Beijing I trekked along a cloud wreathed Great Wall and marveled at the majestic structure appearing out of the mist before me. The next few days I spent exploring the Forbidden City and Summer Palace becoming weary of spectacular flying roofs and ornate woodwork, overwhelmed by the scale of these monuments to Chinese ambition and strong leadership. I dread to think what the human cost of these marvels was.

Forbidden City

Forbidden City

This is not a typology that has been left in the realms of history. Whilst many of China’s mega-projects are now infrastructure, a day at the Olympic Park reminded me of the Forbidden City - both full of people and buzzing. Where the Forbidden City was home to China’s ruling elite the Olympic Park was built to celebrate the World’s sporting elite and seeing the sun set and the buildings light up around the Olympic Park was one of the highlights of my time in Beijing.

Olympic Park

Olympic Park

Olympic legacy was so often talked of in London and here, in Beijing, there is a strange sort of legacy. The Park feels very much like there is still an event here - full of tourists, ice cream sellers and kite hawkers. The only clue that the Olympics may have moved on are the faded colours, missing letters in signage and air of slow decay and accidental neglect, alongside the obvious lack of athletes.

Olympic legacy was so often talked of in London and here, in Beijing, there is a strange sort of legacy

Inside the water cube I was surprised to find a giant water park, complete with a live concert happening on a stage in the middle of the pool, Chinese families bopping around in waist deep water. The swimming hats seemed incongruous with the pop music. The rest of the building felt a little like the Marie Celeste - as if the elevators had stopped and the cafes closed at the end of the closing ceremony, layers of dust disturbed only by the odd tourist or maintenance man. The whole building was slowly moldering, the decay clearer the further you got from the bright lights and music of the water park. When it got dark the cube was lit up blue, and the building regained some of its former glory, the darkness hiding the dust and air of neglect.

The Chinese are looking forward, and perhaps this is why the Olympic Park is suffering from poor maintenance, they have moved on to the next project, the next idea, the next move. They are too busy racing forwards to look back. The Shanghai Tower is the second highest building in the world, China has both the most, and the longest high speed rail line, they are merging nine cities into one super city in the south east and the South-North Water Transfer Project is looking to divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water a year from the South to the industrialised North. Fabulous though the Olympic Park buildings still are, this was China’s triumph five years ago and now the moment has moved on and so have the Chinese. I wonder if London’s Olympic Park will fare any different.

  • Eleanor Jolliffe has recently completed her Part I at Nottingham University. She is currently doing an internship in Shanghai.
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