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November 8, 2017

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Giving fresh paint to industrial legacy should be encouraged as they may not be built again

THE imposing complex of silos near Minsheng Road Wharf is a familiar sight for passers-by.

Viewed from afar, the complex looks like dozens of gigantically tall concrete cylinders bound together and topped with a substantial flat superstructure.

It is not immediately evocative of aesthetic stirrings, but occasionally I could not help but marvel at the hands that framed its fearful symmetry.

Distant view of the structure had piqued my curiosity many times, but I never had the chance to have a close-up appraisal of it, for these silos, built more than two decades ago, had ceased to be functional, remaining just a silent testimonial to the age when Huangpu River was the major artery of traffic.

They originally served as a storage for grain and sugar, and were the largest in Asia at one time.

This Saturday, along with family and friends, we threaded our way to the complex — I had vaguely heard that there was an exhibition going on there following a major renovation — but I became less sure as we neared the site. They looked unchanged, and there were obvious signs of renovation and work in progress.

We became more hopeful when makeshift boards appeared and directed us, together with a gathering stream of visitors, irreversibly to the silos now dedicated to the exhibition titled “thisCONNECTION — Sharing a Future Public Space.” Only the east wing of the silos was ready for visitors.

There were plenty of objects of arts that intended to flatter the imaginative power of an avant-garde artist — and probably that of children too.

There were a pair of leather-like structure hung from above that looked like the wings of an oversized bat; golden or glittering metal chains littered on the ground in the form of words; colored strips of cloth hanging from the side of the huge conic funnel of the silo; pairs of women’s legs planted on the ground upside down, and gadgets that give you VR experience — all installed with a view of the original structure of the silos.

My son asked my opinion as to the significance of some balls of various sizes fixed in midair. I attempted an explanation along the ecological lines, about devastating human impact on our planet. But then I overheard a tourist guide saying something about “you can all pass between these balls.” I then saw many guests in Western suits bow their heads and thread their way among the balls in a flutter of excitement.

There were many HD screens, even iPads that afforded you a view of the Martian landscape after being adapted for human habitation, with forest. But what really drew my attention was a video featuring a family of four perpetually rushing forward, nudging their daughter at the front while holding by turns a younger daughter in their arms, against a background of nowhere, as if they were afraid of missing a train. It, in my understanding, neatly captured the essence of the human rat race.

These neatly crafted artifacts and electronic devices were all housed within the silos with minimal changes to the original structure. The ground was rough concrete pavement. You could even see traces of grains stuck on the interior of the silos.

The elevators were the new additions, which took us to the seventh floor. It offered a great view of the riverfront, and presented books and graphics showcasing Shanghai’s experience in renovating old neighborhood. On one side of the floor, a researcher from Nanjing University was giving a lecture to a packed audience on how Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge differed from Wuhan Yangtze River Bridge, and about a project aimed at reviving the memory about the bridge in Nanjing that once signified so much about China’s national independence and pride.

These attempts at using old bottles for new wines are advisable — for making the most of old buildings. To say the least, just think of the amount of debris produced if these dozens of silos, each measuring 12 meters in diameters and 34 meters in height, were pulverized.

As explained in the exhibition, these gigantic cylinders, which was built not so long ago, are worthy of protection as heritages, simply because similar structures will never appear again.

They certainly provide a welcome relief to the monotony of modern urban landscape dominated by glittering, look-alike match boxes or high rises.


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