Read Sunand Prasad’s recent blog from an RIBA/UKTI Trade Mission to the Shanghai Expo

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07/2010

Blog 1

On the way from the airport the elevated road flies some 30 metres above ground over the Shanghai Expo site. A fine early introduction on Sunday to the extravaganza. Also a definite danger to traffic when the very obliging taxi driver cheerfully ignored the two hundred metre tail back he instigated to indulge happy snappy UK architects craning out of the window, checking out the corten fort of the Australian Pavilion or the aluminium coil of the Danish one. The resplendently red Chinese pavilion towers over everything.

Following an open invitation, 13 British architectural practices of different sizes have joined this joint UKTI/RIBA trade mission to explore the possibilities of working in China. The ideas came out of an RIBA seminar at Beijing during the 2008 Olympics on the topic of sustainable cities, the title translating back elegantly from Chinese as ‘Cities for Future Fulfilment’. Carma Elliot the British Consul General in Shanghai was impressed and offered help. We expanded it beyond a trade mission to include a one day design workshop: taking three real sites in and around Shanghai and making proposals for them, working in groups including 2-3 RIBA ‘missioners’ and 6-7 local architects, planners and engineers. Afterwards practices meet potential clients and will also others involved in regeneration and development. Its an intense introduction to the Shanghai scene, which should help communications.

Of course a venture like this by itself will not help much with the drop in UK architects’ work prospects. It has to be part of a larger project of expanding the market, embracing the opportunities of a globalised economy. A significant expansion of the market should help the UK profession as a whole, including those who don’t wish to, or feel they can’t, work outside the UK.

Today was allocated to a tour of the Expo in the afternoon. Like everything in urban China the scale and pace of construction is mind blowing. Staging the Expo – theme “Better City- Better Life” – has cost £40bn. The website posts daily attendance figures: 448,400 yesterday and almost 30m to date, with the event just about halfway through. With the tickets at £16 each that hardly makes a dent in the cost. More figures: in the 7 years since winning the bid 2.6 sq km were cleared along the river re-housing 18,000 families and 270 factories including a shipyard with 10,000 workers. 6 new subway lines have opened in the last two years, 4000 taxis added and 1.7 million volunteers trained to help visitors. Even not knowing all that, walking around the 5.3 sq km site on two sides of the river makes the sheer size very real.

First then to the Vanke pavilion, one of the corporate pavilions, which consists of 4 huge beautiful cones, some this way up and some that, clad in chipboard ‘tiles’ under a big framed glass canopy. Held between them is a lofty breezy plaza from which you enter the ‘halls’ each with an ecological message delivered by multi media sense-surround shows. One show is called “2049 The Possibility of Respect”. A minute into the show a giant caption asks “Is the sky to be polluted by the smog of human desires?”. Quite an exciting thought; sadly it turns out this is bad thing. But the weary European cynicism of the party cannot but be won over by the unashamed idealism of the shows aimed very much at school students. OK, there is serious mismatch between the eco messages and the reality of prevailing mode of urban expansion; but if young people in China today grow up infused with these messages they will surely show the rest of the world how to do sustainability by the thousand square kilometre and fast.

Then to the large double pavilion by Bill Dunster’s Zed Factory with its familiar cowls, PVs and grass slopes. The guide tells us that at zero carbon Bedzed in London no one has to pay gas and electricity bills. Makes you realise the connection between brand and myth. Bedzed is amazing enough as the pioneering 21st Century example of design and construction in which complete individual and communal lifestyles were re-considered from the low carbon point of view. It does not need the myths that when exploded could undermine the larger project. In one section is the London exhibit with a witty and highly communicative travelling exhibition ‘Unpacking London’ with all the displays in open suitcases, what else?

And finally Thomas Heatherwick shows us around the literally and metaphorically, and truly moving British pavilion, the most highly visited of the Expo; 3.8 million visitors, almost 4 times what was expected. All our expectations also exceeded.

Blog 2

The 2010 Expo Shanghai UKTI/RIBA Architecture Workshop – aka the charette – is in full swing with six groups of around ten each tackling three sites in and around the city. Through a combination of luck and judgement the selected sites highlight very distinct but equally edgy problems thrown up by the hyperfast expansion of Shanghai – or any comparable metropolis.

Yesterday was mainly spent on site visits. I went with the two groups tackling a site in Qingpu, an old town nestling amongst canals and waterways 20km west of central Shanghai, which is now taking a lot of the development pressure of the region. Along with the farmland the farmers are displaced and so far they have been resettled in blocks of flats which, as the Urban Planning Bureau of Quingpu recognises, were designed for a quite alien lifestyle. The allocated site is 5 hectares of verdant, hand tended market garden on very fertile land and our group’s natural reaction was dismay at the loss of a way of life, and instant speculation about designing housing which would have cultivated, productive gardens instead of public areas with hard paving and raised beds, as the norm. Then we got to talk to one of the resettled farmers who said farming life was hard and unpredictable and things were much better with his regular state allowance. He would like a patch of ground to grow vegetables for himself, but not for selling; and he liked the hard paving which was easier to walk on. What really spells the end of a centuries old way of life is that young people are not interested in smallholdings and would rather have a job in the city. The challenge then is to design housing and other community facilities for an entirely new condition, exploring and inventing typologies other than the standard ranges of parallel six-storey blocks.

Another site is that around the disused 10th Steel Factory of Shanghai. Here the developer’s concern is how to protect the last remnants of a historic architecture while realising profit. It is clear that the neither is negotiable. People now realise how much built heritage has been irrevocably lost in the last decade and lament its loss, however proud they are of the rapid development of the city. That is of course one of the overarching concerns of our workshop, underlined by its location in a disused warehouse on the Creek. We are in a wonderful set of raw spaces that the owner, said to be the Chinese equivalent of Ridley Scott, has committed to conserve and re-use as a cultural and arts centre. Such re-use is still very rare in China, interesting contrast to the huge scale of the recycling business.

As the architects sketch and draw the people from the graphics company Crystal CG, one of the sponsors, create CAD models so that at the final presentation this evening the proposals will all be easy to visualise. So much of this event is about the confounding of preconceptions, both ways. Many of our local partners are surprised that despite the availability of virtual modelling I go shopping for plasticine and card, in hot demand at the tables. They are also surprised that the Brits in their design speculations are ignoring the Codes laid down for the sites. My own preconception reverse is a growing affection for Shanghai’s elevated roads and flyovers (can’t believe I am writing this). They leave a functioning and permeable urban space underneath. It could be made much more pedestrian friendly but the shading helps and many of the roads are so high up that quite a lot of sky remains visible. They have all been painted semi-gloss white (for the Expo I believe) and that makes a big difference to the light quality underneath. Personal transport is not going to wither away even with good public transport infrastructure. There is the germ of a new settlement between car and pedestrian here, but at real ground level there needs be an entirely new approach to buildings, circulation and public space. Topic for the next charette.

Blog 3

A kindly rather than aggressive critical stance was to be expected at an end of charette review in front of an audience that included 60 invited guests: Shanghai planning officials, developers and journalists. But the consistent appreciation by my co-critics – Terry Farrell, Thomas Heatherwick and Zhi Wenjun – of the quantity of output and quality and range of thinking of the 60 participants was genuine. It was also obvious that both the UK and Chinese architects had enjoyed themselves and engaged intensely with highly pertinent urban issues, presenting analyses and solutions that obviously implied a critique of current policies. It was notable that in his summary Zhi Wenjun, Editor of the Shanghai based magazine T+A (Time + Architecture), while recognising the enormous pressures of rapid urbanization, was openly critical of the lack of care at present for the grain of the city and failure to create a network of public space.

Both proposals for the 10th Steel Factory site showed how a poetic reading of the site, centred on how it is experienced, can lead to the complete transformation of the spirit of a place with quite a light touch. The teams tackling the Qingpu site offered systematic studies of family and social life of the farmers, of the possible housing typologies and their capacities to achieve the required densities, and of previous examples from around the world as well as China of water cities. Their proposals, compressing what would be a six month masterplanning exercise into six hours, while quite pragmatic, offered a convincing theoretical framework. Both proposals for the Nanjing Road site with its perimeter of early 20th century buildings were based on a single intuitive gesture: one modest – relocating the UK Pavilion in a new delightfully hidden public square – and the other flamboyant – an inverted pyramid rising out of the centre of the almost square site plan, leaving the existing buildings intact while creating large amount of new floor space and a roof garden.

In the time available for discussion we barely started drawing out the lessons from the range of approaches. It would be very interesting to see what traction these distinct and well practiced lines of thinking, demonstrated by a rather distinguished bunch of architects, might have with the Shanghai developers and the city authorities. As it happens the developers of the Nanjing Road site took part in the workshop for a spell, and despite reservations, based on a great familiarity with the site, entered into the speculative spirit of the charette.

On Thursday the UK architects had meetings with potential clients, set up by the China Britain Business Council. Then to the UK Expo pavilion for the final event: a straight sales pitch by all the UK architects with me joining in as well. The format was quick fire 3 minute presentations of our practices in rapid succession. Great feedback from the capacity audience but also uplifting for all of us to see some excellent design work sharply presented.

Terry Farrell ended the evening with a short lecture on current British architecture and urbanism. He started with the observation that the Chinese and British traditionally had similarly ‘organic’ approaches to landscape and its relationship to buildings; looking carefully at what was there and building upon it, in contrast to the European preference for the replacement of what is with an ideal conception of what should be. I thought this convincing and am attracted by an additive approach to urban development mixing conservation, replacement and intensification. But the playing out of traditional cultural strains in the modern world exhibits so many paradoxes. In Britain tradition and nostalgia are utterly entangled. In contrast there is little sign of nostalgia here (yet) and even when it arrives – how could it not, this essential component of modernity? – it will be very different from our version. In the buzz afterwards some of the Chinese guests mentioned that they were surprised that the UK architects’ presentations were all about the re-use of old buildings – actually, the majority of examples were newbuild. What the remark shows is that the concept of re-use is mystifying in itself, and not just because Shanghai has to absorb another 10m citizens in the next couple of decades. It is so intriguing that in a nation that recycles the world’s waste, recycling of urban fabric barely features. It’s the same in India. Behaviour, not the physical environment, is the real conduit for the past. Most of Shanghai, like all modern urban China, is no longer an Eastern city. But, as any outsider trading in China will find, such appearances are deceptive.