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Reviewed by:
  • Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843–1937 by Cole Roskam
  • Lena Scheen (bio)
Cole Roskam. Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843–1937. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019. viii, 293 pp. Hardcover $65.00, isbn 978-0-295-74478-0.

Let's start with a confession. I am a Shanghai scholar obsessed with old maps. Just holding Improvised City in my hands, with its beautiful Carl Crow map on [End Page 156] the cover, and flipping through pages of maps, urban plans, and architectural drawings and pictures, brought me unadulterated joy. I knew, before even having read a word, this review had to include two observations: (1) despite the dazzling number of works on Treaty Port Shanghai, Roskam has found unique visual material never published before; and (2) more academic presses should follow the University of Washington Press's example and invest in the physical quality of their books (paper, layout, typeface, etc.). Now let me turn to the book's contents.

Improvised City examines the role of architecture in the political and cultural formation of Shanghai's foreign concessions. It "aims to provide a new theoretical framework for understanding the city as an extraterritorial environment" (p. 11), referring to the system of judicial exception that ensured foreign merchants would not be subject to Chinese law. "Ultimately, understanding architecture's engagement with the legal abstractions of extraterritoriality expands our understanding of architecture's representational capacity to convey and command meaning within a uniquely global urban context" (p. 12). It is precisely this insightful linking of architecture, governance, and law which makes the book truly stand out in a widely researched field.

Its different approach leads first of all to the selection of buildings overlooked by other works on Treaty Port Shanghai. Existing architectural studies focus on iconic buildings (such as the Sassoon House/Peace Hotel, Great World, or Astor House), whereas cultural studies tend to focus on representational spaces of urban modernity (department stores, theaters, cinemas, dance halls, coffee/teahouses, opium dens, and brothels).1 Improvised City analyzes those buildings that "constituted new technologies and types in China designed to delineate some particular contour of Shanghai's uncertain geopolitical, legal, and cultural terrain," that is, "consulates, town halls, memorials, exhibition halls, and large-scale public works initiatives" (p. 7). These buildings did not just bear witness to the city's turbulent history, but also "actively produced" the city's "changeable political and economic conditions over time" (p. 12).

The Treaty Port was established after the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), which ended the Opium Wars, creating a Shanghai divided into three municipalities: the Chinese city, the International Settlement (a fusion of the British and American Settlements), and the French Concession. To fully understand the complexity of the city's governmental and legal structure, one has to add to all this the unique historical context of both a millennia-old Chinese empire and the Western colonial empires on the brink of collapse, two World Wars on top of civil wars, and a global economic crisis. Interestingly, Improvised City shows how it was precisely the experimental rulemaking of extraterritoriality that provided the unique legal, economic, and political flexibility fundamental to the development of Shanghai into a modern city. [End Page 157] Moreover, it was the architectural objects that "helped to produce an extraterritorial spatial imagination—a vision of urban organization intended to enable foreign officials to disrupt but not devastate established logics of governance, and the conceptual basis for a physical environment that was believed to be somehow distinct from preexisting colonial enterprises in other parts of the world" (p. 8).

Based on an impressively rich collection of archival material, the first chapter ("The Architecture of Extraterritoriality") traces the formation process of the foreign concessions, elaborating on the concept of extraterritoriality and the "unbridled" cosmopolitanism it generated. While the settlements were largely founded by merchants looking for a free haven of lassaiz-faire capitalism, the Small Swords occupation and the Taiping Rebellion "produced new commercial, social, and political alliances that inalterably changed the city's demographics, its collective psyche, and its physical composition" (p. 54)2 The second chapter ("Commemoration and the Construction of...


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