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A few weeks ago a post on ArchDaily caught my eye:

http://www.archdaily.com/216171/tea-house-archi-union-architects/

Desipite the fact that the concrete tea house could be well suited for any corner of the world, it looks interesting. So I’m determined to pay it a visit during my trip to Shanghai.

One of the soft spots – or sweet spots – of photography is that it deceptively shows certain aspects and hides the rest. I have wondered how this building would connect with the street. When I got there, mystery solved. The building is not standing alone but located within a large previous industry complex site. “Industrial”, contrary to it sounds, is one of the hottest item in Shanghai’s current adative use market. One reason is that the brutal forms (a bit like the 1960s U.S.) feature unique attraction for businesses, especially graphic and design related ones. The other (though needing verification) is that land prices are possibly cheaper in these deserted industrial complexes, because as industrial centers they would most likely be located along the water and off the city center, which has remained more or less geographically stable over the past century.

So long story short. This tea house is located in one of these complexes named 五维空间创意园 (which means the fifth dimension), originally built as an industrial town for the looming business (上海第五化学纤维厂) in 1946 incorporating factories, living quarters, gardens, hall, hospital, etc. It started to transform itself to a “creative industrial garden” as people call them, or  工业创意园区. And unfortunately I didn’t see anything that looks like the ArchDaily post so I assumed I missed the Tea House since I had limited time. Still I saw some really interesting projectss in the complex.

Here we see some skelton of the building now acting as a parking lot with two transformer-looking intallations made from I-don’t-know-what mechanical parts, which I assume came from this very site.

Tall brick chimneys are indispensable to reused industrual complexes. They’re almost like spires to churches.

This little building had many surgeries: glass into wood, roll-up garage door, but most interesting is the selected removal of the roof tiles and new skylight to reveal 云纹 – a traditional Chinese design employed in many costumes and graphics.

The wedding photographer is about to catch the moment when the newly-wed is jumping into the sky (and against some buildings).

This is the structure that intrigued me the most, only did I know later that the Tea House I’m looking for is hiding inside, along with the architectu’s studio: Archi-Union .

The wall seems rippling, and it is. It has a very delicate Chinese name: 绸墙, or Silk Wall. The twisting angles and the placement of the CMUs give such unexpected dimensions to the under-rated material that the blocks look soft, touchy, and even dancing with the wind – just like silk does.

Imagine how sunshine would have played into this.

The sensous, whistling bamboos inside the walls have further softened the tone of concrete.

And it feels good to know that these CMU blocks are recycled from this site – a factory that has collapsed partially, and thus we have the Tea House.

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If you think this is cool, read on. There’s more. But if you are a vegan, please forward to the end of this entry.

Words are on the street that Shanghai’s most stunning restoration project to date is 1933 – a complex transformed from a 1933 slaughterhouse in Shanghai. The Chinese name is 19叁III老场坊

The official website is here, but don’t expect to see tons of historical or architectural information there, since money is the drive behind everything.

When built, this was the largest abattoir in the Far East, delivering 80% of the beef being consumed in Shanghai. (Try to refrain from thinking how much blood had washed over the concrete for hundreds of thousands of times.)

Unfortunately I cannot find the name of the architect anywhere. All I know is that he’s British, last name translated as 巴尔弗斯.

The real astonishing part of this structure is the exceptionally complicated and unexpected spatial organization. That is, from a pedestrian’s angle; but apparently it made sense for the cattles.

Today it contains some high-end boutique shops and restaurants, a cafe, a wine cellar, a spa center, a cigar club, and several photography studios. Parties, award events, celebrities constantly pop up to refresh things a bit. But how is it different than hosting the events in any other clubs?

A typical view of the bridges that connect the outer corridor and the central round core.

Despite all the initial wow moments, I find these adaptive use projects share something disturbing in common: history is under celebrated. For example, for a project as high-profile as 1933,  information on its original architect or how the structure actually functioned at the time with all these dazzling bridges is entirely missing. History has never played a major role in preservation or new architecture in China (preservation is not the perfect word for China; mostly it’s adaptive use). The main characters on the stage are materials, space, and more recently craftsmanship, that is excluding commercialization in the first place. Therefore these creative industrial sites look more or less the same. None of them is showcasing its own history within the specific context; rather, i’s waiting for the patrons to fill in: boutique shops, studios, etc. History, where things eventually boil down, is like ketchup, or anecdotes more precisely. It is such great poignancy to see that a nation in history as rich and diversified as China would not want to keep her most valuable treasures, while a country as young as the U.S. is pounding its history into everyone’s mind, the present, and the future.

I’m not sure if this has anything to do with the fact that the Chinese have been down-to-earth secular and pragmatical for thousands of years, an we still are. The idea is further strenghthened since 1949 that intangible and spiritual things are evil. Basically most of us grew up without religions. Not that being religious helps a lot in preservation, but the attitude towards intangible, non-material aspects of everything –  history for instance – is worrisome.

For the Western world, there might be many similarities between tradional Chinese and Japanese culture, which is true. But in terms of viewing intangible heritage, it’s two completely different stories.

I recently got to see some notes of a lecture by Kenya Hara – art director at MUJI – on “emptiness”. I’ll skip the philosophy of the brand but focus on what emptiness means for the Japanese. And we shall start with Ise Grand Shrine.

Credit: Google Earth

This is a screenshot from Google Earth showing the location of Ise Grand Shine. The lot next to it? For the very same shrine. Because the Japanese dismantle the current building and rebuild the shrine from scratch exactly every 20 years. Keep an eye on Google Earth/Satellite as 2013 will witness the born of the 62nd generation of the shrine, meaning the vacant lot and existing lot would swap.

The purpose? Death, renewal, transcience. And the goddess being worshiped can enjoy her renewed yet ancient home forever. This is almost unthinkable in China. To squander tons of money every 20 years to do something back and forth, over and over, on something hardly existing? Yet the materials are not the focal point here, but what is beneath and within the lumbers. It is the emptiness. As a by-prouct, the shrine’s construction techniques have virtually stayed the same for some 1200 years. If not for the 20-year renewal program, craftsmanship is destined to be lost among the modern preservation techniques and materials.

Ise Grand Shrine is an extreme case in preservation as almost no other cultures renew buildings so radically. But there’s definitely something to learn from how the Japanese view intangible yet valuable things. Maybe our life.

Well, I just realized there’s no proper place for some real historic Chinese architecture in this post any more. I’ll save it for the next one.

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