October 12, 2004
Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor-in-chief
||Click photos for a
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
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,