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China - From Before Mao to Now

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor-in-chief

Click photos for a closer look

Images © Robert Ivy

Along the rivers and canals that line China's old cities, the world floats away on a haze of incense and foggy air. Around a bend, new China beckons. Energy lies in the interstices. Nowhere is this energetic charge more apparent than towns where one of the world's most ancient civilizations encounters the Twenty-First Century, with architecture serving as proving ground. Two contemporary sites prove the point.

Qing Pu, about an hour from downtown Shanghai, serves as one pole. This satellite city of approximately 250,000 persons has been earmarked as one of nine loci of future development by Shanghai's planning authorities, in an ambitious scheme to promote additional growth outside of the burgeoning downtown.

For the new visitor to China, you might have encountered Qing Pu in the authoritative Shanghai Museum, where carved jade artifacts from 7000 years ago attest to the small city's status as one of China's oldest inhabited places. Do you remember from childhood history lessons studying the riverine Chinese cities? Think Qing Pu, a relative of its spiritual sister, Venice.

The city is more waterborne than riverine, for it lies adjacent to major lakes on a lacy network of canals like la serenissima. Like Venice, certain streets retain a strong medieval flavor, where pedestrians can almost touch adjacent walls of winding alleyways adjacent to the more open canals. High, arched bridges interconnect the urban fabric, creating geometric leaps of near perfection in stone.

Around the corner, from the old lies the newest of the new. Qing Pu, surrounded by one today's densest and most rapidly developing metro regions, today's Shanghai, poises for change. Fortunately, the city can count on visionary leadership. Dr. Sun Jiwei, the Vice District Chief and an architect, is leading a planning effort that recognizes the city's irreplaceable heritage at the same time that it steps forward to the modern era.

Under his leadership, the Qing Pu district has been divided into segments, each of which is being masterplanned by a leading architect or planner. In addition, a who's who of the best contemporary Chinese design talent--Ma Qingyung, Yung Ho Chang, and even American Ben Wood of Zapata and Wood, are engaged in designing and building in accordance with an overarching, sensitive new plan.

The work crystallizes in such projects as a reconstituted walkway for a historic Ming Dynasty garden, where architect Ma has designed both the reconstructed historic fabric, together with a contemporary small pavilion that announces the junction of new and old. Wood, who is largely responsible for the revitalization of the highly successful Shanghai Xintiandi has designed hundreds of villas in a variety of modes for easy living for the emerging middle class.


If Qing Pu represents China in microcosm, Beijiing, by contrast, is leaping forward with giant steps. In ten years, the smoggy capital city now glows with a thousand neon lights. An entertainment district, Ho Hai, sports totally chic restaurants surrounding three lakes, where the savvy perambulate to take the night air and check each other out. New industricla zones, an expanding airport, even a new street dedicated to nightlife enliven this urban paragon of hierarchy and ordered power.

The intellectual life seems to be heating up at a temperature that rivals the economy. As proof, visit the formerly run-down factory area in the Dashanzi Arts District, out near the airport. Led by pioneers like bookstore owner Robert Bernell and 798 founder Xu Yong, the aggregation of art galleries, shops, and restaurants now boasts 75 venues that rival any other city's hip arts quarters. For the recent Dashanzi International Arts Festival, for example, the Chinese Contemporary gallery featured the torsos of nude men and women hanging by the feet from a Soho-like loft space. This in the former worker's paradise of Chairman Mao?

The dusty streets invite wandering and discovery, encouraging visitors to peer into rundown masonry and tile factory buildings, where modern art meets machine shop: adjacent to a gallery space, the visitor will find gritty real life, as technicians take a break from oiling and repairing small engines to enjoy a lunch-pail of rice and vegetables.

Most spectacularly, the space called 798 occupies a large former factory designed by east German architects in the Bauhaus style for fellow Communist workers in the 1950s. Today, the monitor roofs provide ideal soft light washing through the curving monitors onto large-scale art exhibitions. A recent exhibit featured overscaled faces from today's China as well as period photographs from the Cultural Revolution that could only be called pitch-perfect.

At night, architects gather for presentations by their peers, and visitors move between galleries, bars, and restaurants. Toursits have discovered the district, and buses are beginning to lumber down the streets with New Yorkers and Germans, eager to find the newest new thing. While the delights of this ferment may seem obvious, Dashanzi's future has not been assured, as economic and social forces impinge on the valuable real estate. Visit it today, to see an authentic crystallization of people and a moment of tangible change. As certainly as this moment arcs through the architectural space, it will burn and discharge. The power is on in China, now.