Date: Wed, 16 Mar 2005 10:04:12 -0800
From: Discussion of travel in China
Subject: Re: [Oriental-List] A glimmer of hope for China's architectural heritage
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Susan forwarded an article from The Economist, and said:

I haven't been to Shanghai and I am curious if any list members have been to the Xintiandi complex and what their impressions are. I don't recall ever even hearing it mentioned, despite it being described below as both "a haven for expatriates" and "Shanghai's number one tourist attraction for Chinese visitors."

Shanghai is a kind of theme park maintained by the government especially to mislead stupid foreigners, and particularly lazy journalists and legions of lemming-like investors, and distract them from reality. And it works very well.

Nearly all the programmes and articles on China come from Shanghai these days, and fall into the 'Oooh!', 'Aaaah!' category, but few of the commentators, and none of those parachuted in for five minute visits (such as many involved in the BBC series of programmes on China last week) seem to have their eyes open. It's all, 'amazing', 'fast-growing', 'unstoppable', and then a repeat of some version of the usual canard that it's inevitable that China will be the world's dominant superpower or the largest economy by next Tuesday or 2020 or whenever. No one seems able to see just how many of the shiny towers are incomplete or complete but unoccupied, nor to venture, oh, 1km away from The Bund to see what a ramshackle mess the overwhelming majority of the city is, let alone to venture into the countryside for a dose of reality.

Really Shanghai is not the place to look for much hope of sensitivity towards architectural heritage, and Xin Tiandi is as much a sham as the rest. The Economist's article is shallow and at times fatuous.

The Economist said:

THESE days, the Chinese like to joke, their national bird is the crane.

Oh, definitely haven't read this one in several other places recently. Has anyone in China actually ever heard this said by a Chinese? Given that the Chinese for crane (the bird) and crane (the construction machine) are completely different it doesn't seem too likely. Or does it fall into the 'May you live in interesting times, as the Chinese say' category, when in fact there seems to be no evidence that they've ever said anything of the kind (Chris Patten, who used this on a radio programme broadcast from Shanghai last week, please note).

The results have been largely disastrous, reckons Benjamin Wood, of Wood + Zapata, a Boston-based architectural firm, who has worked in China since 1998 and blames foreign architects for much of what has transpired.

All those tens of thousands of square miles of shoddy, white-tiled, gimcrack buildings? Obviously foreigners' fault. Nothing to do with Chinese urban planning, bubble economy building, greed, lack of aesthetics, making do, or plain corruption on the part of the Chinese. I happened to sit next to a man on an airplane a while ago who was part of Shenzhen's town planning department, and who claimed that Shenzhen was now more beautiful than Paris or Rome. I assumed they must have pulled it down completely and started again, but no, when I woke up then next morning and looked out of the window it was as hideous and tawdry as ever. He wasn't handing out any credit to foreigners, luckily.

China's commercial capital is starting to take on the chic of Paris, the sophistication of New York and the futuristic vibes of Tokyo.

If there was any sentence likely to reinforce my view that The Economist is essentially the economic and political equivalent of a fashion magazine, this might be it. Apparently written entirely for its rhythm, this sentence contains barely a speck of truth.

It already boasts the world's fastest train (the Maglev that takes eight minutes to run the 30 km from Pudong airport into the city),

It doesn't run into the city. It stops on the edge, and is a white elephant which will never recoup its costs.

the longest underwater pedestrian tunnel (under the Huangpu river)

Unless something new has recently been built, it's not pedestrian. Passengers are carried across in little computer-controlled cars past a laser and neon light show which makes the average fairground haunted house look like something of Star Wars sophistication.

and the world's tallest hotel-the 88-storey Grand Hyatt, complete with the world's highest swimming pool and longest laundry chute.

It's the world's highest hotel, not the tallest, not least since the hotel only occupies the upper floors.

But who cares about accuracy. There's much else to complain about (or laugh at) in the article, but let's get back to Xin Tiandi and the saving of architectural heritage:

Most interesting, it has Xintiandi, a two-hectare (nine-acre) complex of hip restaurants, bars and shops in an open, elegant, low-rise style that cost $170m to develop and is one of the first examples of China preserving its own architecture.

Anyone else care to start the long list of all the 'preservation' projects in China which have preceded this?

Wandering around there reviewing restaurants in October last year, I wondered if there was a single original brick. Xin Tiandi is 'preserved' in the sense of taking everything down and putting it up again. It's less 'preserved' than even the Old Railway Station building in Beijing, which has become a shopping mall. The perfectly mortared exteriors carry signs for familiar brands such as Starbucks, and the interiors entirely remodeled with the removal of most internal walls in order to make spaces large enough to function as shops as restaurants, and there are other structural adjustments wherever it's convenient to make them. It doesn't cost the quote $170 million just to tidy up some old buildings. It costs that to more-or-less rebuild them from scratch. Little of it is now the housing it originally was, but if you want a sophisticated foreign meal at New York prices, it's the place to go. It's Disneyfied China, with the stress on souvenirs and sake-based cocktails (or whatever the latest fad is). It's a pleasant, safe, and utterly sanitized. And in a move which ought to make anyone cackle, in what is effectively a vast temple to consumerism affordably only by a tiny percentage of China's population, there's a museum to the founding of the Communist Party of China, the soi-disant party of the people, which took place here.

Shui On, the Hong Kong developer behind the project, and Mr Wood, hired as its architect, have spent the past seven years painstakingly preserving original materials like Shanghai's unique grey bricks and art deco features such as 1920s lintels and columns.

I have to wonder what makes Shanghai's 'unique' grey bricks different from all the grey bricks one sees in old buildings across the country. I also have to wonder what 'art deco features' are doing in 'one of the first examples of China preserving its own architecture' unless art deco was another one of those things that the Chinese actually invented when we thought it was us. There may be 1920s material in Xin Tiandi, but that doesn't make it art deco, of course.

The group also hunted down the original drawings to replicate structures that had decayed beyond repair. Nothing like it had been attempted before.

Pure nonsense. The Chinese regularly rebuild ancient buildings from scratch and have been doing so for a long time, sometimes claiming to be working from original plans, sometimes just making it up. I think the writer has merely read the press release and taken his research no further than a comfy chair, possibly in a different country.

Xintiandi, originally a haven for expatriates, is now Shanghai's number one tourist attraction for Chinese visitors, says Vincent Lo, chairman of Shui On.

It's still a haven for expatriates and a number of sufficiently wealthy Chinese. As at foreigner hang-outs elsewhere in China, everyone else is coming to gawp at foreign behaviour and the gentrification and airbrushing of their own heritage in pursuit of the tourist dollar. But it's look, don't touch.

While the preservation costs mean Xintiandi itself is not making money, it has had a halo effect, pushing property prices in the surrounding area to the highest in Shanghai-and hence mainland China.

And, of course, much of the surrounding property has been developed by Shui On or its partners. Hong Kong development companies are not noted for their philanthropy.

"Xintiandi shows that Chinese architecture can be fashionable. It shows old buildings can have both economic and social value," says Mr Lo.

But apparently you must kick out the residents, and transform their homes almost out of all recognition into trendy shops. Presumably they had an 'economic and social value' to their residents before probably (as happens all the time in China) an unholy alliance of bribed local government officials and property developers likely kicked them out against their will for compensation completely inadequate either to the costs of finding somewhere else or the vast profits to be made from redevelopment, directly or indirectly. No mention of this aspect of redevelopment in the generally joy joy luck luck happy happy article.

Indeed Xintiandi is being replicated in cities throughout China, both by Shui On, which has a similar project in Hangzhou, south-west of Shanghai, and by copycats, who have been caught photographing the original's features, down to the carvings above the lintels.

I'll admit to having missed the carvings. Perhaps these were art deco after all, and borrowed from the West, or added in the 'preservation'. I've also visited the Shui On development in Hangzhou. It's on a much smaller scale and about as authentic as Xin Tiandi.

Chinese architecture has rarely been this confident.

Um... So if we're really talking about 'preservation' what's that got to do with how Chinese architecture feels about itself now?

Pleasant as Xin Tiandi is, in an air-con, air-brushed kind of way, there's only one word for all of this:


The 'glimmer of hope' is someone striking a match to blow architectural heritage sky high.

[One final thought in the defence of the author. Stories have their own momentum, that momentum is currently of seeing Shanghai as representing China's shining future however blind this may be, that's the story that editors who've never been there want to see, and there's little market for anything else.]

Peter N-H