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Heritage on the hammer Urban preservation under pressure

SHANGHAI is often criticized for bulldozing its built heritage, over-commercializing what remains and paying scant regard to residents when the developers come calling. But what do the experts say?

"First things first, we must remember that a complex set of relationships influence urban planning," says Dr Iris Reuther, a German city planner speaking at a recent forum on sustainable development at Tongji University. "You have the developers, the architects, the municipal authorities and the people - it's hard to keep all of them satisfied."

That is especially true in Shanghai, where the unprecedented pace of urbanization is putting a huge strain on the city's goal of "Better City, Better Life," the World Expo theme.

With migrant workers bolstering the urban population and a generation of young professionals seeking a foothold on the soaring housing ladder, the preservation of historic buildings is far from the top of urban planners' priority list.

"There are still hundreds of thousands of people in the city living without basic amenities," says Wang Lin, chief of the Shanghai Urban Planning Bureau's Culture and Landscape Department. "So while we save what we can, the main aim is to improve people's living standards and create affordable housing."

Wang says romantic ideas about Shanghai's old neighborhoods are off the mark. Before the redevelopment of Xintiandi, the glitzy bar and restaurant area on Taicang Road, more than 2,000 residents were crowded into narrow, squalid lanes on the site.

Prickly issues

Not far from Xintiandi, at Tianzifang, just a few dingy corners remain. This old shikumen-style (stone-gated house) neighborhood has been transformed since 1998 into a cultural hub for artists and restaurateurs. But unlike Xintiandi, around 300 residents still live there, making the complex a creative fusion of preservation and redevelopment.

Nevertheless, opposition from residents to urban redevelopment is a stand-out issue across China. Planner Wang says: "Unfortunately, relocation is sometimes unavoidable, because if residents don't move, living standards can't be improved."

The link between historical preservation and tourism, with commercial needs often superseding the cultural benefits of restoration projects, is also a prickly issue.

Chang Qing, head of Tongji University's Architecture Department, says this link is inevitable, and isn't necessarily harmful. He cites the retrofit of an historical street, Beixingjiao, in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province.

"It's better that the buildings are used for tourism than simply demolished," Chang observes.

Scholars point out that commercialization is often necessary to fund preservation.

"Someone has to pay for it," says Wang Hui, partner of the urban development think-tank, Urbanus.

Influenced by pressing economic and demographic concerns, the process of selecting urban sites for protection is as complex as the ideas that inform it.

The debates about the future of historical preservation and renovation in Shanghai look certain to rumble on. "Architects and planners aren't simply administrators of urban design," Dr Reuter observes, "but companions to a greater process."

These issues are being discussed during the German Goethe Institute's forum for sustainable development. They are open to the public. For information, call the German Consulate, 6391-2068 ext 603, or e-mail

Tianzifang Shanghai

SINCE developing in the 1950s as a labyrinthine collection of small-scale factories and three-story residential shikumen buildings, Tianzifang is now one of Shanghai's most recognizable urban preservation areas.

Around 300 residents remain in the upper levels of the shikumen buildings, overlooking ground floor havens of art, fashion, gastronomy and plush cafe-bars.

Project founder Wu Meisen says he is proud of what has been achieved here, in an area slated for demolition before 1998. A combination of creativity, commercial opportunism and broad support from residents put off the bulldozers.

The local government was convinced of the merits of the project, and awarded business permits so residential buildings could be used for commercial purposes.

More than 400 ventures are now bunched together in and around Tianzifang. The site is popular with Chinese and foreigners alike, and has received many awards for creativity since the mid-2000s.

Wu says the 1,400 families who did leave were given a good deal.

Those who remained still add a unique flavor to the area, as the clean smell of washing lines permeates the outdoor seating areas of cozy cafe-bars.

"People may question the authenticity of the culture on show there," admits Wu, "but with residents in place and art allowed to flourish, it's a great advert for how preservation, creativity and entrepreneurship can work together."

Wenyuan Building Tongji University, Shanghai

After an extensive 20-million-yuan-plus (US$2.9 million) eco-friendly retrofit in 2006, the 57-year-old Wenyuan Building is Tongji University's architectural gem.

The first structure built in China using the 1920s-origin Bauhaus style, which recognized the need for designs in tune with the mass-producing scale of the modern world, the building's white facade is unchanged despite the retrofit.

Qian Feng, vice dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at Tongji University, says "too many retrofits destroy the original appearance of buildings; we wanted to avoid that here."

Completed in 2006, the retrofit has combined historical preservation with environmentally friendly innovation, and is now a useful on-site educational tool for students and faculty. It is also a fitting home for the UNESCO World Heritage Institute of Training and Research (Asia-Pacific).

The building's energy-saving highlight is a geo-thermal pump used to heat or cool its interior, involving over 200 underground pipes at depths of up to 60 meters - this innovation means there's no need for a large water-based temperature control system, the staple of most large buildings.

Beixingjiao Street Taizhou, Zhejiang Province

Not long ago this bustling street of late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) architecture was sorely run-down, lacking in basic amenities and due for demolition. But a combination of architectural enthusiasm and support from residents ensured the street, known locally as "Little Shanghai," wouldn't disappear into the sea of modern development.

While the 225-meter-long strip was nearly facing bulldozers, along with neighboring areas, in the late 1990s, a plea from architect Chang Qing, architect and faculty member at Tongji University, convinced residents to back a retrofitting project.

"We wanted to preserve the history and culture of the place, but most important was to improve living standards," says Chang.

The main retrofit, which lasted three years, began with the installation of sewage and water pipes, followed by detailed work to restore the once-grand facades of buildings and archways. The work is ongoing, but many of the buildings have had their sharp faces restored, with brickwork repaired and exterior cracks painted over.

The riverside street has been a commercial thoroughfare for well over 100 years.

Commerce remains the life-blood of this community, which Chang insists doesn't detract from the cultural preservation element of the project.


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