Shanghai's Tale Of Three Towers

In the early 1990s, planners in Shanghai envisioned a trio of mammoth skyscrapers that would symbolize the Chinese city’s rebirth. Nearly 20 years later, two of those towers are built. The third is 109 stories to go. Our writer strolls through this 21st c

View from the Shanghai World Financial Center (tyler_haglund)
View from the Shanghai World Financial Center (tyler_haglund)
Frédéric Thérin

SHANGHAI – Shanghai Tower will eventually be a sight to behold. But right now it's nothing more than an ugly concrete cube – 15 floors' worth, surrounded by steel girders. Hundreds of workers mill about the construction site, which is tucked in amid freeways. Passersby – women clad in pretty ensembles and elegantly dressed businessmen – don't even glance at the imposing sight. Residents of China's economic capital are used to seeing buildings crop up like mushrooms in a rainy autumn forest.

And yet this skyscraper marks the apotheosis of a daring project launched by Chinese authorities nearly two decades ago. It was 1993 when plans were unveiled to build three giant towers that would symbolize past, present and future. The first of the three behemoths was christened Jim Mao Tower, the second the Shanghai World Financial Center, and the third Shanghai Tower. All three were to be built on a piece of land that otherwise was home to run-down buildings and rice fields.

In the early 1990s, Pudong, as this particular area is called, didn't look very promising. While neighborhoods on the other side of the Huangpu River were developing quickly, this space interested no one. Central authorities decided to transform the zone into nothing less than a gigantic business quarter that could vie with Hong Kong or Singapore. And as is often the case in China, there was no pussy-footing around when authorities decided to move ahead with the project.

To attract promoters, the city financed construction of a 486-meter (1,535.5-foot) TV tower. The Oriental Pearl Tower resembles a giant display building comprised of three spheres of differing sizes linked by thick tubes of roughly-finished concrete. At night, it becomes a piece of illuminated kitsch– like the boats plying the river – in strident colors: candy pink, neon green, electric blue. Charming? The Chinese seem to like it. Every year, the tower – a symbol of Shanghai's renewal – is visited by 3 million people.

A skyscraping triumvirate

But the tower was just a first step. Hoping to impress lovers of beautiful architecture – which the Oriental Pearl Tower is not – the City of Shanghai decided to call on the best architectural firms to build the first of the three skyscrapers that would incarnate the rebirth of a great city. The result, Jim Mao Tower, is a genuine success. Designed according to the principles of Feng Shui, the 88-story tower (8 = prosperity) was the highest building in China when it was inaugurated in 1998.

Ten years later, the Shanghai World Financial Tower – at 492 meters (1,614 feet) – robbed it of that honor. Nicknamed "the bottle opener" because of its shape, the billion-dollar tower was originally supposed to feature a round aperture at the summit. But Shanghai residents felt that the design was too reminiscent of the Japanese flag, so the (Japanese) construction company in charge of the project had to change the design.

After 9/11, engineers also had to tweak the concept to accommodate empty floors on seven levels where people could gather in the event of fire or other catastrophe. On the 90th floor, at an extra cost of $200 million, two huge counterweights weighing 150 tons each were installed so that the tower wouldn't move too much during stormy weather.

Shanghai Tower will be even more "technological." Designed by the American firm Gensler, its concept comprises nine central tubular structures posed one on top of the other, enveloped by a spiral glass casing that is supposed to act like a thermos, preserving the evening cool during the summer months and afternoon warmth during the winter. Huge green spaces, a rainwater recovery system and wind turbines on the roof should mean considerable energy savings for the 632-meter (2,073-foot), 124-story building. An ecological future… even in China.

Slowing sinking in

Shanghai's high rise building boom has also had some misses. Another tower, Tomorrow Square in the Puxi district, is indescribably ugly. In some cases, the developments have also been preceded by wide scale demolition – colonial neighborhoods have been razed to make room for unattractive apartment buildings and freeways.

In the heart of the city, nine lanes crisscross each other around a central pillar representing nine dragons. And the city's rapid expansion shows no signs of slowing down. "There are 12,000 buildings in Shanghai – two new ones are inaugurated every single day," says Tan Rong­hua, a local guide.

"The first bridge crossing the river to Pudong was inaugurated in 1994. Today, there are six bridges and 27 tunnels. But you need that because 20% of the city's 18.5 million inhabitants now live here and they need to be able to get around," he adds.

This construction fever also harbors dangers. Built in a water-gorged seismic zone, the city is sinking at the rate of one centimeter per year. In his book Empire of the Sun, James Graham Ballard evoked the decadence of Shanghai in the 1930s, a city described as living only in an intense present with no thought of tomorrow. Along the banks of the Huangpu, that's probably about the only thing that hasn't changed in the last eight decades.

Read more from Le Temps in French

Photo - tyler_haglund

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!