Gaze at Shanghai’s avant-garde architecture, tangled flyovers and massive new shopping and housing districts, all of which seem to have sprung up with magical haste, like mushrooms after rain, and you can see the city of the twenty-first century emerging. The best place to see all this is from above – from very high above, on the observation deck at the top of the World Financial Building, to be precise. This blunt, tapering tower with a hole near the roof – locals nickname it “the bottle opener” – is, at 492m, the tallest building in China, its 100th-floor observation deck the second highest in the world.
Though Shanghai is often compared to Blade Runner’s dystopian city, the journey up the tower is more reminiscent of the space station in 2001, as greeters usher you along hushed corridors to the pod-like lift. Emerging a minute later, with your ears well and truly popped, you are confronted with a 360-degree view of the urban sublime. Space is at a premium in Shanghai, so the city has built up rather than out – by population it’s four times denser than New York. Those claustrophobic streets and jostling showcase buildings make for an astonishing cityscape.
To the south is Pudong: twenty years ago this was mostly paddy fields, but today it’s new-build as far as the eye can see, with the unreal sheen of an architectural model. Right next to you you’re looking down on one of the most beautiful modern buildings in Asia, the pagoda-like Jinmao Tower. Below, barges ply the Huangpu River, an example of the trade that is the source of the city’s wealth. Across the water are the fusty colonial-era buildings of the Bund, where Art Deco classics such as the Peace Hotel show why the city was once nicknamed the Paris of the East.
One caveat, though – this is not a place for the nervous. Hardened glass tiles in the floor allow you to look right down beneath your feet and, rather disconcertingly, a sign asks you not to jump on them.