It's become an urban myth that at one time, one-quarter of the world's construction cranes were in Shanghai. Indeed, it now has more skyscrapers than New York City.
Shanghai's historical upheavals and rebirths can be traced through architecture, with its colonial legacy and capitalist boom. Ahead of the World Expo in 2010, the city is being transformed again, with mind-bogglingly ambitious plans.
The latest symbol of Shanghai's urban hipness is Xintiandi, a bustling shopping and entertainment district. But these luxury boutiques, which appear to be housed in traditional lanehouses, are not what they seem.
In fact, Xintiandi is a re-imagining of Shanghai's old streetscape as consumer experience, dreamed up by American architect Ben Wood.
"In order for a place to be fashionable, it has to transcend the nostalgia of historic preservation," Wood says. "I was quite resourceful. Some preservationists say I was ruthless. ... I made openings where openings didn't exist if I thought it would improve the cinematic experience of walking the neighborhood."
Traditional music wafts along the street, heightening the film-set feel of the place. This is Shanghai's most hyped urban development of recent years. But the decision to leave some old buildings standing is the exception rather than the rule.
The more-accepted new face of Shanghai is an ever-growing labyrinth of skyscrapers. From an observation deck in Pudong, a district across the river from Shanghai's original settlement, skyscrapers stretch out into the distance as far as the eye can see.
Twenty years ago, this area was just farmland. Now, this viral growth of skyscrapers, this city on steroids, symbolizes China's urban future.
Architect Ma Qingyun, who has just been appointed dean of the school of architecture at the University of Southern California, says Pudong's frenzied development "has certain dimensions of symbolic quality, to represent ambition and achievement in its new form of urbanization."
But for Wood, the American architect, Pudong's new cityscape is all about show.
"It's designed to create plots of land for monuments to corporate power, the global economy," says Wood.
He says you can't cross the street in Pudong because the red lights aren't long enough. "Sometimes it takes as long as three changes of the stoplight to get to the other side of the street. So it's really not a humane place."
Yet Pudong, too, is part of Shanghai's strategy to build for its surging humanity. Almost 18 million people live in greater Shanghai. But that figure is expected to rise by one-third before 2020.
As a result, the city is spreading unbelievably fast. In just five years, nine new satellite towns have been built literally from scratch — each housing about the same number of people as the city of Atlanta.
Senior city planner Tang Zhiping says the need is pressing.
"We feel that the development and construction of these small towns is pretty urgent. But these experts are even more impatient than us; they want us to build lively, bustling towns in just two or three years. That's impossible."
So Shanghai is re-inventing itself anew, this time as the center of an urban megalopolis.
But as its lanehouses are leveled to make way for a forest of skyscrapers, is it in danger of losing its Chineseness?
No, says architect Ma Qingyun, because Shanghai's soul is in its openness to change, its tolerance and its absolute pragmatism.
"That's true Chineseness," Ma says. "Everything is in constant mutation, nothing is set as a fixity. We don't follow any spatial models. We don't care about the look of the building, so much so everybody still lives in Shanghai in ugly buildings. We care about how convenient life is."
Shanghai literally means "on the sea": It's the city that looks outward to the rest of the world, to the future. But what will Shanghai of the future look like in 20 years' time? With change so rapid and overarching, even architects working here designing that future can't answer that question. Ma worries about endless urban sprawl swallowing up the countryside.
"I have hope," he says, "but what I'm so afraid of is my vision" of the future.