According to a plaque on the wall, we were standing in THE HIGHEST LIBRARY IN THE WORLD on the 60th floor of our hotel. With two hands, Barrington took hold of a bookcase and pulled. It swung open, revealing a secret door at the end of a short, dark hallway. “It’s like Harry Potter!” he said. Barrington opened the door and stepped out into the light. And just like that, he was 760 feet above Shanghai.

We had hired a guide to show us the history of architecture in the city. She pointed to a boxy brown building on the street below, across from People’s Park. “That’s the Park Hotel,” she said. “Until 1983, it was the tallest building in Shanghai.”

That was the tallest building in Shanghai?”

“Yes, all of this is new,” she said, sweeping her arm across the horizon.

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Think about this. Barrington was born in 1983. This makes him older than every skyscraper in the city. If you’re a high school senior, you are older than Shanghai’s entire subway system—the world’s largest. In 1999, Shanghai had only one subway line. Now there are fourteen, covering 334 miles of track. And that doesn’t include the Maglev—the world’s fastest train. Using the power of magnets to levitate one centimeter above a track, the train goes more than 250 miles per hour and makes the 25-mile journey from downtown to Pudong International Airport in 7 minutes.

If this all sounds mind-boggling, that’s because it is. The speed and scale of construction in Shanghai right now is simply stupefying. “It’s concrete as far as the eye can see,” said Barrington. Everywhere we looked there were buildings popping up like weeds in an empty lot. Three rose higher than the rest: the Jin Mao Tower (88 stories, 1,380 feet), the Shanghai World Financial Center (101 stories, 1,614 feet), and the soon-to-be-completed Shanghai Tower (121 stories, 2,073 feet).

It’s easy to think of cities as these huge, permanent things as if they’ve always existed. We forget that people had to build them, one building at a time. Shanghai offers a rare opportunity to witness the design of a city from the ground up.

“I’m used to seeing a city laid out like a grid,” Barrington said to our guide. “This seems more like a free-for-all.”

She insisted that it wasn’t. And to prove it, our next stop was the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.
 

In the lobby of the SUPEH, a gleaming gold monument to Shanghai’s modernization towered over us. Above it, in block letters, read the slogan of the World Expo held here in 2010: “Better City, Better Life.”

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It's fitting that Shanghai chose a theme of self-improvement. In 1949, the year Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China, the population of Shanghai was 4 million. Most lived in small colonial-era houses along winding, gated lanes. The city gained only 2 million people over the next thirty years. Then in the 1980s, a new leader, Deng Xiaoping, opened the country to outside investors. “Development,” he said, “is the absolute principle.” Since then, Shanghai has exploded outward and upward to its present population of 24 million and counting.

Imagine the number of people in New York City. Now multiply that by three. How do you design a city to house that many people, each with their own wants, needs, hopes, and dreams? First, you need a plan—a 6,500 square foot plan to be exact. Sprawled across the third floor of the SUPEH, this 1:500 scale model shows how every building in central Shanghai will look in the year 2020. On the far side of the Huangpu River, where there once were fishing shacks and farmhouses, there’s now a highly engineered financial district, featuring pedestrian skyways, a shish kebab-shaped TV tower, and the world’s first trio of adjacent supertall skyscrapers.

The Shanghainese aren’t just engineering buildings. Where there once was a racetrack for dogs and horses, there’s now a grand park for the People. Where there once was a ferry, there’s now the world’s longest steel arch bridge. Where there once was a canal, there’s now an elevated freeway. More Chinese are driving than ever before. Shanghai’s road network can’t handle 24 million drivers, so to deter car ownership, the city charges $15,000 for a license plate—in some cases more than the car itself!

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Photo by Oliver Uberti

They’re engineering experiences, too. On a walk through the gardens of People’s Square one morning, I heard the sound of crickets chirping. It was noticeably pleasant. Then I thought, “Wait a sec. Crickets don’t chirp in the morning.” That’s when I saw the speaker disguised as a rock in the grass. This sort of manufactured nature seemed pretty creepy until I remembered that back in the U.S., brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and Starbucks have been pumping smells and sounds into their stores for years. At least here, I said to myself, China isn’t trying to get me to buy anything. By time I left the SUPEH, I had retracted that statement. Barrington felt the same way.

Every exhibit inside that place as well as every piece of public engineering outside—from the tallest building to the longest bridge—was selling one BIG thing, an idea, and the idea was this: Look at the amazing things China can do for YOU if we all stick together!

Like the rock in the grass at People’s Square, it all sounded creepy to our American ears until we stepped out of the Lujiazui Metro station in east Shanghai and looked up.

 
The Shanghai Tower rises from the street like a charmed cobra. When it opens in 2015, it will be the second tallest building in the world with 121 stories (2,073 feet) of offices, hotel rooms, and retail space. We came to Shanghai to study innovative engineering. It doesn’t get much more innovative than this. A glass skin of windows swirls up around the tower’s inner core, creating 21 airborne atriums—or “sky parks”—to bring trees and the feel of street-level neighborhoods to the upper floors. The trees will help freshen the air and regulate the building’s temperature while 270 wind turbines help power the nighttime lighting. Its elevators are the world’s fastest, racing skyward at 40 miles per hour. And a deep groove spiraling down the building deflects wind to reduce sway. This innovation alone reduced the cost of steel and concrete necessary to strengthen the core by $58 million!

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Because it’s still under construction, we couldn’t get inside. So to get a closer view, we ascended its older siblings—the Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC)—affectionately known as “the Bottle Opener.” From the Jin Mao’s observation deck on the 88th floor, you could look down thirty stories into the lobby of the Grand Hyatt or look up at people on the glass-floored observation deck of the SWFC next door. Like Shanghai’s urban planners, we felt compelled to go higher.

So on our last day in Shanghai, Barrington, Fabio, and I went up the SWFC. An elevator rocketed us 1,430 feet to the 94th floor in 66 seconds! We stepped out onto an observation deck with floor-to-ceiling windows on either side. Stats along the windows put the building’s construction in perspective: 200,000 kilometers of steel wrapped in 94,000 square-meters of glass. “I never knew a building could have 91 elevators,” said Barrington. To dig the foundation, 712,000 tons of soil had to be removed. That’s basically the weight of 10 million people.

Photo by Oliver Uberti

Photo by Oliver Uberti

Photo by Oliver Uberti

Remarkably, the building wasn’t swaying in the wind. That’s because the building’s iconic bottle opener shape isn’t just for looks. The giant hole in the top floors was designed to let high winds pass through. We climbed stairs on one side of the hole to the glass-floored “Sky Walk” that spans the hole’s top edge, 1,555 feet above the street. From that high up, barges on the river were just a few moving pixels in what looked like a screenshot from the video game Sim City.

A grey haze enshrouded the view. If this had actually been a game, the Sims would have rioted over air quality.

“Looks like the apocalypse,” said Fabio. “The day after.”

Barrington thought for a moment, his eyes fixed on the crowds of tiny people below.

“I’m leaving Shanghai with more questions than answers,” he said. “In terms of sustainability, they have addressed the issue of housing people, but what about water, clean air, and food? They can limit the number of cars people buy, but they still haven’t controlled the amount of coal they’re burning. It’s like loading an airplane. To stay aloft, you have to find the right balance."

NEXT STOP: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam