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December 2, 2009

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Envisioning an urban future beyond Xintiandi and Bridge 8

STAR architects are often credited with iconic buildings, but behind them the developers are a crucial yet overlooked part of the equation. They make the fundamental decisions of why a structure is built and how it relates to its city.

Developer Tony Wong was behind two trendsetting projects that have spawned many copies in Shanghai and across China. Wong launched Xintiandi with Shui On Land from 1998 - a renovation of old lane houses for modern upscale nightlife and entertainment venues.

With his own company Lifestyle Centre, Wong also went on to pioneer creative parks in Shanghai with Bridge 8 in 2004. There are now 300 official creative parks, most of which replicate the format of renovating old factory spaces in the city center.

Shanghai Daily talks to developer Wong about new lifestyles and anticipating social trends.

Q: Your projects are unique - how do you choose them?

A: We're a non-traditional developer in that we anticipate social trends and create projects that bring in new lifestyle concepts. They often come from international examples that have no precedence in China so it takes time for customers to understand what we're trying to do.

Many projects are here because Shanghai is most open to new ideas, which gets absorbed and spread very quickly.

Q: How did the Xintiandi concept come about, and how was it received at the time?

A: In 2001 when we got the project, Shanghai was on the cusp of true internationalization. It hosted a big international event, APEC that year.

At the time nighttime activities for visitors from abroad was pretty much sauna or KTV, or the bar strip on Hengshan Road. We felt Shanghai lacked a pedestrian area with some historical character for eating, drinking and relaxing that was common in major developed cities in the world, such as Covent Garden in London.

Creating Xintiandi was like directing a movie. I had to find the right characters to go with the movie and with each other, ie, carefully choose the right businesses to enter the project, who understood that we are trying to create a place with a story to tell.

It was also hard to attract tenants at first because it was not Huaihai Road, which at the time had the greatest pedestrian traffic. Our formula for success involves starting with a place of character, carefully picking the tenants to fit that character, then doing lots of marketing and events to broadcast that vision - and it has worked well on many projects not just Xintiandi.

Q: What's your view of the proliferation of Xintiandis across China? And their commercialization?

A: The problem with film sequels is that they are never as good as the first one! I would prefer if each project had its own identity instead of just copying Xintiandi. People should be able to find some uniqueness in each project. There should also be a balance between culture and commercialization, both are of value and needed for it to work. If it's purely cultural there will be no one who will invest, but purely commercial projects aren't as attractive for consumers. If the balance exists then there's a future for development of many kinds of historical architecture.

Q: What's the future of renovations of historical architecture?

A: It's hard to say what is "historical." In the future renovations of buildings from all periods will be frequent as the pace of change is so fast, uses are changing and quality was not very good in the past.

It's always difficult to redevelop old buildings because you will run into experts who want to protect it to the tune of keeping every nail and every tile. I think this is too extreme because then it can only be a museum piece and only applicable to very few buildings of great historical significance. Xintiandi was special opportunity because at the time no one thought it was worth protecting.

So we need to solve this conflict otherwise old buildings can't be developed for new uses. New uses depend very much on its geography which determine what kind of consumers it can attract. There are many beautiful old factories in Baoshan District for example, but we would never consider them for creative parks as it's too far away for that consumer group.

Q: How did Bridge 8 come about?

A: By the end of 2003 when we got the disused factory in Luwan District, there was a new kind of creative community taking root in Shanghai. Before then creative industries such as advertising, design, PR and media were international, and they came and went with temporary projects in Shanghai. But then industries started putting down roots here and domestic industries also developed.

These are not penniless artists, they have financial resources but they were scattered across the city in traditional high-rise offices that didn't suit their needs. We ourselves were an example. Boxed in cubicles might be good for accountants, but creatives need an inspiring space. They need high ceilings, open rooms, flexible working hours and common areas to walk around. Being in a park with other creative industries is good for sharing ideas and meetings. A disused factory with its large spaces was perfect for these needs.

The idea was very quickly accepted by the creative community and Bridge 8 was filled by the time it was finished. But again we chose our tenants carefully to maintain the character of the project. They know it's not about renting a space, but enjoying a lifestyle and a community.

Now there are also many copies of the creative park concept. But a successful creative park is not just renovating old factories - it's about creating commercial value to the creative business through design and management.

Q: What are some lifestyle trends of the future?

A: The rural-urban divide is an increasing problem - migrant workers from the countryside have to go into cities for work, but find it hard to adapt to city life with vast differences in education and culture. City people on the other hand are stressed and tired of city living and long for more natural environments, but not the poor conditions of the countryside.

Our latest project Mosaic Commune in Zhujiajiao (Qingpu District) on the outskirts of Shanghai proposes a suburban town as a solution. It has city facilities but it is set in the countryside. We are also trying to foster an artistic and design community there to give it life.

Many real estate complexes on the outskirts of Shanghai are empty ghost towns because properties are bought for investment not for living. We don't want that to happen.

So this means again carefully choosing the initial tenants including artists, designers, spas and creatives who want a better environment and don't need to work downtown. They have more room for workshops, showrooms and living space. With them will come cafes and restaurants. This creates life in the compound for residents to enjoy. They will be coming for varied, cultured, modern lifestyle but in nature with a green environment. It also creates work for locals in the area and an alternative to migrating to the city.

In the West living in suburbia and commuting to work is common, but one hour out of Shanghai is still considered far away here. So it's very important to get the first core tenants right. Initially people may use it as a second home to relax, until the idea gets broader acceptance.

Q: What's the future of architecture in China?

A: The past focus on skyscrapers is a mistake. The Chinese mainland is not like Hong Kong where we have no land and literally don't have a choice. There's more than enough land here and working and living in skyscrapers is a form of showing off. Actually people need to be close to the earth to feel comfortable. It's especially true at home where everyone needs to feel ordinary intimacy rather than be the king of an empire. But I believe this will change, and more and more people will focus on what really gives them happiness.


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