An Improvised City: Architecture and Extraterritoriality in Shanghai, 1843-1937

Research Centre: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Initiative
Active Dates: September 2010 - ongoing

Principal Investigator: Cole Roskam


An Improvised City is a book-length project, currently under contract with the University of Washington Press, that offers new architectural historical perspective on one of the most complex and influential urban environments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Relying upon a range of previously unpublished projects and infrastructural works built or imagined within each of Shanghai’s three municipalities, including the International Settlement, the French Concession, and the Chinese city, this book illuminates the interplay between the city’s renowned commercial raison d’être and the range of institutional architectural forms and practices designed to manage it.

Particular attention is paid to the city’s extraterritorial condition—the system of governance designed by Chinese and British authorities whereby all foreign nationals, left to their own capitalistic devices, remained subject to the legal codes of their own respective governments. Through a careful reading of town halls, post offices, municipal offices, war memorials, water works, as well as consulates, both imagined and realized, An Improvised City traces the complex series of cultural, political, and spatial negotiations responsible for much of Shanghai’s built environment. Architecture’s unique ability to create new environments and concretize the economic, political, as well as cultural forces behind them made it a vital instrument in demarcating and defining Shanghai’s extraterritorial terrain over time.

More generally, this book contributes to burgeoning academic interest in the history of modern and contemporary Chinese architecture and urbanism, ongoing discourse concerning capitalism’s relationship to political sovereignty and architecture, as well as the study of variegated forms of urban exceptionality—special economic zones, tax-free trading spheres, and commercial enclaves, among others—currently reshaping cities around the world.

Enlarge Photo: An Improvised City: Architecture and Extraterritoriality in Shanghai, 1843-1937 1