James Fallows has some very interesting things to say about Shanghai, Beijing, and building at human scales:
Do I like these small streets and human-scale settings in Shanghai because I am foreign? Am I being like the French visitors who love Vietnam because it’s so easy to find baguettes there? Does the Chinese version of me really appreciate the huge grandeur of the Beijing-style approach? Or do I like them because I am human — and because something in human nature fits better with structures of a manageable size? And if this is so, what does it mean for the hundreds of millions of Chinese human beings living in these big concrete cities?
I feel compelled to ask because so much of modern China is being built on supra-human unmanageable scale. And presumably someone, at some level, must be doing this intentionally.
What makes a city grand, and not just beautiful, is the sublime, and every city that aspires to grandeur, from Baron Haussmann’s Paris to Albert Speer’s Berlin on down to Hu Jintao’s Beijing, must invoke the sublime — that is, must make human beings feel small. The implied totalitarianism of this architectural form has been well hashed out, and I’m saving my additional two cents on the question for later, but it strongly implies that Fallows’ preference for Shanghai-type cities is not merely cultural, but human. Especially when every street and building aspire to grandeur, the effect is dehumanizing. I’d be interested to know if Fallows is also delighted by the non-Western but human-scale architecture of Shanghai. I’ve never been to Shanghai (or Beijing, alas), but I understand that there are a few well preserved vernacular neighborhoods like Xintiandi, which has escaped displacement by skyscrapers to become a kitschy tourist attraction.