What Life Is Like In One Of The World’s Fastest Growing Cities

Through the photographs of Shaun Fynn, Shanghai’s architecture becomes a symbol for future modern cities.

All over Shanghai–and the rest of China–cranes erect high-rise apartment towers in record time. Shopping districts are quickly planned and just as quickly realized, while new transit stations seemingly appear overnight. In the hands of designer-photographer Shaun Fynn, the construction boom becomes the face of a “Brave New Modernism.”


“I think China’s rapid industrial revolution is defining modernism in a new way, very different from the traditional views in the 20th century,” Fynn tells Co.Design.

The photographer has traveled to China before, but this recent photo essay documents his first encounter with Shanghai. In 1993, the state established a special economic zone on a shallow clearing of underdeveloped land on what is now known as Pudong. Twenty years later, the same land mass is now overrun with office towers, illuminated billboards, and more evidence of breakneck urbanization. The city’s metamorphosis in the last couple decades, and the construction projects that fueled that process, have obliterated the traditional scale of the city, he says. “Shanghai adds a new dimension on how big a city can be and how small one can feel amongst it.”

For Fynn, the expansion and growth of Shanghai into one of the world’s largest cities is synonymous with a “new industrial revolution.” He says the huge mobilization of labor, material, and policy commensurate with this kind of city building can be pinpointed geographically to the centers of emerging markets. That is to say, Asia, from Dubai to Chongqing.

While these Asian cities might be both geographically and culturally disconnected, the “brave new modernism” exhibited in these evolving cities finds similar forms of expression. Fynn, whose previous documentary work has focused on central and southeast Asia and the pockets of modernity springing up in those regions, finds that this nascent modernism lacks the formalized urban planning–utopian or otherwise–that informed the modernist movement of the previous century.

Instead, this new modernism is “defined by the endless skylines, the brand-ladened shopping malls and brand obsessions, the absurd underwater hotels and shopping mall aquariums in Dubai, rapid labour migration and high-density living, connectivity and getting places quickly and the theatrically emphasized city illuminations and cityscape experiences.”

Everything, that is, that you find in Fynn’s photographs. His lens inspects the sparkling new monuments and high-rise residential blocks that cut across contemporary Shanghai, while teasing out the discontinuities of the old urban fabric and the construction projects that have swept them away. This is the modernism of the essay’s title, the one the city has so swiftly cultivated; the modernity exemplified by Shanghai, on the other hand, can be found in the underground–or the overhead– in the night clubs, bars, and eateries Fynn’s lens captures.


Historically, the terms “modernity” and “modernism” have been casually conflated, a semantic abuse that Fynn is well aware of. He is, conversely, very deliberate with his terminology: where modernism “implies some degree of celebration of our times and the processes through which we build and define our environments, habitats and products,” modernity, he says, is the enactment and subsequent confluence of those developments. “Modernism and modernity reflect the cultures and technologies we live with and create a powerful visual landscape, for better or for worse.”

About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.