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Many of you may have heard Xin Tian Di  (新天地) or even been there – a 2003 Urban Land Institute Award of Excellence renovation project in Shanghai. Despite its world-wide reputation and huge commercial success, I’m going to contend how this project is totally disasterous and dangerous.

Xin Tian Di is best known for renovated vernacular Shanghai residences, more precisely two-to-three-story apartment buildings, or known locally as Shi Ku Men (石库门). The architect was Benjamin T. Wood. To see a gallery of the project from his studio, click here.

You’d hear descriptions such as this all the time: “Xin Tian Di has absorbed the essence of Shanghai Shi Ku Men and revived an old architectural form into new vitality, revealing Shanghai’s gem to the world.”

And this is wrong.

We’ll do a very simple diagram comparing the spatial configuration of Xin Tian Di and a typical Ski Ku Men block.


First we have Xin Tian Di, then we have one block west of the first image. Both are oriented north up. It’s quite obvious that the classed-organization from street to units have been broken and shuffled to make way for the new public space. And in order to make the public space tick, the orientation of many units have been modified as well. As we can see, most units were originally oriented south-north (like most of all other traditional Chinese dwelling units). But since the public plaza runs south-north, the remaining fabric has to be turned 90 degrees within the confining shell of the house.

Undoubtedly urban revitalization will require some degree of dismantling or nothing new will ever live. But I say Xin Tian Di is dangerous, because for most Westeners (even those with professional architecture and urban planning knowledge), this is the most accessible and loud project representing hundreds of thousands of mundane but original apartment buildings of Shanghai, which we just proved is entirely disingenuous and misleading.

To make my point clearer, Xin Tian Di is not to blame for its own sake – it is indeed a great urban design project – but rather how it has been publicized as the epitome of local renovation project. Since its huge success, many more projects have aimed at “becoming another Xin Tian Di”.

With that cover, our true cultural identity is being silently lost. Take a look at the list of the restoration projects in the past decade: Bund 18, Peace Hotel, Rock Bund (外滩源), big banks, you name it. Similarities? Sources of funding. Essentially preservation is almost never government-funded, either state-wise or local, which directly results in the current “whichever-building-gets-more-money-will-be-restored” situation. Sounds a bit familiar? Like a century ago when the city was colonized (by investment) and the natives fended themselves in a walled city? Only that the wall has long gone and we are now wildly exposed. That’s, sadly, how our collective identity is being stolen, by ourselves. Because only part of the story is being told, and the rest sits in distant memories. Regarding how momories, though not generating material gains, is vital to our living, see my previous argument here.

Hopefully we'll go beyond just this.

On a not entirely separate note, Benjamin Wood was also one of the chief architects for Chicago’s Soldier Field renovation in 2003, which was dramatically de-listed from the National Historic Landmark after the renovation, because the historic integrity had been tremendously compromised. Vince wrote some very interesting piece here.

Finally it’s not just we make our identity stolen, we also steal others’. Let’s see some images in a non-descriptive residential neighborhood in Shanghai. (Note: this is actually a very genuine local neighborhood WITHOUT bars and nightclubs and high-end boutique shops. All the elements below were born in an attempted city-beautification program a few years ago.)

See the violinist and the arches? This is a traffic-loaded and confusing intersection where horns and dust prevail. The shops beyond are tiny body shops and such. On the right is some public trash receptacles. On further right, there is Shanghai Music Academy, which slightly explains what the violinist can possibly do here. I think the idea is that people on the main street (perpendicular to the one in the photo) would see the statue which serves as a visual clue.

This is a wild facade over a modest brick structure that houses a French restaurant. Supposedly the food is not bad since many Westerners frequent here.

And not just Gaudi, we have the American identity too.

Siding and shutters. And they are the worst type of shutters that don’t even close all the way to the center. This is also a brick building.

Efflorescence and some concrete relief patterns.

An interesting curve of the lot line makes the pedestrian versatile and available for street sculptures. A gentleman playing Saxophone next to an old-fashioned clock. This little triangular space used to be locals’ favorite spot for a popular summer-night activity – 乘凉-or sitting on a deck chair while enjoying breezes and chatting away with friends after a long steamy day. On the left we can see the sidings.

Newly-weds take wedding photographs on this street all the time.

This is actually one of the better sculptures – pointless but at least not jarring.

And on the opposite side:

As cultures merge in the inevitable globalization, they also start to lose their original identities. Only those strong enough survive. My worry is in the present preservation industry in China, money is the substitute word for strong.