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Building boom in the Far East

/ Source: CNBC

Your mind tells you there is simply no way all of this really exists, but your eyes say it does. Four thousand skyscrapers and growing, the most dynamic skyline in the world ... heck — it could be in the movies.

It is a testament to what capital and labor and land can do, and it's also a testament to the fact that architecture is as much art as since. And since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, much of what you see in Shanghai is architecturally abominable.

“I'm not happy with 90 percent of what we see out the window,” said Dan Winey of Gensler Managing Principal. “I think 90 percent of it is actually pretty bad, but there's 10 percent that are real jewels.”

Winey works for a U.S.-based mega-architectural firm with projects all over the world. But in Shanghai, a city of nearly 20 million people, that has captured his attention and imagination for the past six years. And he says there are drastic changes on the horizon.

“You won't recognize the skyline six months from now. Every time I come back, a new building has gone up, and every time I come back, I had a reference point which might have been a building and all of a sudden it's gone because there's another building in front of it.”

Waves of foreign investment have been the drivers behind the building boom over the past 14 years — early on it was Taiwanese and Japanese capital, but more U.S. investors have gotten into the game over the past few years — the latest spurt is being pushed along by the 2010 World Expo. Shanghai is the host city for what is being called the financial Olympics of the first half of the 21st century. The infrastructure being built from high-speed trains to elevated highways to a new ship terminal makes Boston's Big Dig look like a pothole.

“Fifty-story buildings are not all that uncommon,” Winey said.

What is becoming uncommon is ‘old’ China. When the cranes come in, the 5,000-year-old buildings end up going. By the time the 2010 World Expo opens, some estimate only five percent of the old neighborhoods that existed a few years ago will still be standing.

But that might be changing.

“On the west side of Shanghai, it's really about how they preserve old buildings and refurbish it, keep it part of history,” said Jun Xia, the design director for Gensler in China. “It's very trendy.”

“There are very strict laws about protecting history buildings. Before it was specific buildings. Now it's districts — blocks and blocks.”

He said recent moves to save old structures in many of the city's 12 districts have him feeling better about the explosive growth — that and the fact that as land becomes more expensive and the design review improves, the buildings are getting better. But there's still plenty of the wild west in the system.

“It's really about risk management. A lot of the time you have no idea if you're going to get paid or not,” Winey said. “So there's all these kinds of complexities and issues but when it's all said and done, it's one of the best places to live and work.”

Shanghai — where architects go when they want to build ... almost anything.