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Cole Roskam, Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843-1937

Christopher Cowell
Référence(s) :

Cole Roskam, Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843-1937, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2019

Entrées d’index

Index géographique :

Asie, Asie de l'Est, Chine, Shanghai

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle, XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

1Surprisingly few studies of architecture and urbanism in English have presented a complete sweep of the turbulent history of the treaty port of Shanghai during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Christian Henriot’s Shanghai, 1927-1937 (1991) translated from the French in 1993, Leo Ou-fan Lee’s Shanghai Modern (1999), and Meng Yue’s Shanghai and the Edges of Empires (2006), have examined, in remarkably different registers, its burgeoning twentieth-century manifestations; while Samuel Y. Liang’s Mapping Modernity in Shanghai (2010) remains one of the few works to explore the spatial history of the city, particularly across its formative nineteenth-century development. Edward Denison and Guang Yu Ren’s visually splendid Building Shanghai (2006) is one of the rare studies to cover a wider span. Cole Roskam’s new book, Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843–1937, arrives as a valuable addition. Broaching a century, it examines the visual politics of governance that mediated the violently-divided spatial sovereignties of this pre-eminent China treaty port. It was a port separated from Imperial China by way of extraterritorial agreements, in which architecture played its part in this mediation. Architecture becomes a vehicle for interpreting this phenomenon as much as it is also an opaque expression.

2The main title of Roskam’s book underpins his general thesis. “Improvised city” is a phrase borrowed from the disgruntled International Settlement’s Landrenters’ Committee of 1863. The phrase was coined as pejorative describing what they perceived as a city forced to reconcile European with Chinese interests, following a sudden growth in the Chinese population following the Taiping Rebellion [69]. For resident westerners, the legal ramifications of “extraterritoriality” granted by the Qing Government to their new treaty port now appeared to cut both ways. Realizing that they were never in full control, the occupiers crafted a built environment that would overcompensate, using architecture to produce an image to the contrary, a determinative image of legitimacy. Roskam argues that the types of architectural objects within the treaty-port city⸻Shanghai’s banks, memorials, town halls, consulates⸻collectively and visibly sustained the problematic performance of governance implicit in extraterritoriality [7–8].

3The complexities and tensions generated by colonial Shanghai’s condition as a juridical space of exception from Imperial and, subsequently, Nationalist China, is central to Roskam’s analysis. It is interesting to note that extraterritoriality continued to be practiced in China long after it had been abolished in favor of more equitable treaties and agreements with Western powers in other parts of East Asia. Roskam assigns to architecture a peculiar agency able to engage and decode the “legal abstractions” of extraterritoriality across the city’s development [12]. It is interpretatively ambitious, because of the many moving parts to his thesis. Nothing is stable; everything is heterogeneous. Treaty Shanghai was precariously comprised of multiple settlements, multiple municipal governments, and multiple legalities. If architecture is, at first, believed to be able to secure for us a reading of continual urban development, then it too is infused with this precariousness, this slippery legibility, or as Roskam puts it, “ambiguous landscapes” [7].

4The “improvisatory” as a figure of analysis does come with inherent risks. Taken too dominantly, it could present a reactionary account of city development within the treaty port. It might play as much into the passive siege narratives of western residents as it might also camouflage the true power differential between these occupiers and the Chinese immigrant populations that first flooded the city during the Small Swords and Taiping rebellions (1850-1864). There is a delicacy to this interpretation. How can one explore the unique conditions that fueled Shanghai’s sector-divided growth and convey its highly complex legal and cultural identities without losing sight of the colonial forces that brought it about, indeed, maintained it? Roskam’s sensitivity to this difficulty is borne out in the way he juxtaposes architectural case studies. For example, buildings are configured and analyzed as symptomatic or illustrative of much broader, apparently contradictory, conditions. In 1864–65 alone a Chinese arsenal was built within the American Settlement yet operated by an American manufacturer; a Chinese-style mixed court building holding trials under both Qing law and British law was constructed in the International Settlement; while in the French Concession, its British-designed, Chinese-built new municipal council hall stood aloof and detached, with the clock face of its western-style tower among the first to be seen in the city [82-90]. The combination of influences appears complex and intense. The difficult task, of course, is to convince the reader that specific architectural cases are sufficient proof of an argument of more general weight⸻something I will return to in a moment.

5Roskam’s book is able to set out Shanghai’s architectural development in a cohesive, linear manner, while each chapter examines a stage in its development thematically. The book is divided into three overlapping parts. Chapters 1 to 3 could be described as the most broadly urban, certainly its most cartographic portion. Here, the geopolitical conditions that made Shanghai possible⸻the competing factions that tugged the extraterritorial city into its first fragmented shapes, the imported components of an architectural language, and the development of municipal government from its laissez-faire commercial beginnings⸻are examined with care and shown to be interpenetrative. Chapters 3 to 5 explore the regulatory and professional development of Shanghai, its world of builders and architects, of building codes designed to identify and segregate peoples, but with a speculative property market that embraced cultural hybridity (of sorts). It describes an inherent tension between capitalism and governance. Chapters 5 to 8 are set in the twentieth century. These final chapters explore Shanghai’s metamorphosis from a protective enclave into a cultural influencer across Nationalist China and beyond. The fall of the Qing government in 1911 is prefigured by local Chinese calls for the destruction of old Shanghai’s city wall. The embarrassing eclecticism of recent architecture within newer the city was now seen as its characteristic strength. It offered itself as a precedent for Nationalist experiments with Western modernity. Moving into an architectural history more familiarly covered, Roskam’s architectural set pieces that lead this progress are convincingly explored and carefully laid out. It seems ironic and appropriate that the book ends with a series of international exhibitions in which Shanghai is projected onto the West as the ultimate metonym of Nationalist China, of modernity with Chinese characteristics.

6I mentioned the classic problem of convincing a reader of a history of the general by way of the specific. If there is a concern with the book, it is that it would have benefited from moments of wider exploration beyond the discreet building project. True, the author clarifies that his focus is on institutional (and other) architectural projects and not typologies, such as lilong lane houses [11]. Yet lane-house construction, we are later told, enabled tax collection and racial demarcation through building codes, while ushering in speculative building practices by both Chinese and foreign investors [68]. Silences must inevitably appear, certainly regarding the tensions between the various Chinese communities and the government and merchant elites, especially if the historical focus generally rests on notable government and commercial. Perhaps the preponderance towards project description could have been leavened by different registers of interrogation? Surely architecture can operate methodologically in more interstitial ways to explore, as the author states, “within the fissures”? One suspects that such shifts would not injure the extraterritorial thesis. This mobility of lens in describing Shanghai’s early morphology, such as its godowns (warehouses), compounds, and verandahs, makes those first chapters particularly fascinating, as does later accounts of the city’s planning. As declared [9], Shanghai's urban distinctiveness could also have been corroborated by briefly analyzing some of the other early treaty ports (Ningpo, Fuzhou, Xiamen, post-treaty Guangzhou), even colonial Hong Kong. This would enable us to understand what made Shanghai’s extraterritorial development spatially and legally distinct or similar to these other cases, at least initially.

7Nevertheless, Roskam’s book is a critically important study of treaty-port Shanghai, tracing the city's volatile and problematic relations between governance and architectural production. We now know from the likes of Eyal Weizman, Tariq Ali, and Keller Easterling, that extraterritoriality has proliferated, becoming spaces of unexceptional exception today. Roskam’s work adds a significant and disturbing formative history to this genealogy.

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Christopher Cowell, « Cole Roskam, Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843-1937 »ABE Journal [En ligne], 17 | 2020, mis en ligne le 25 septembre 2020, consulté le 23 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Christopher Cowell

Department of History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

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