Friday, October 28, 2011

Shanghai Musings

Shanghai- that curious mixing pot of post-Mao, post-colonial cultural hub meets urban explosion- provided a more than ample location for Mr and Mrs bikesandbuildings to celebrate their first wedding anniversary this weekend past. Blogspot is not the platform to dwell on such matters, but Shanghai is such a striking urban environment I thought i would try to write some reflections and post some photos for those less familiar with quite what this city has to offer.

I would not be the first to make comment on Shanghai as the 21st Century Manhattan, and by now it's Pudong skyline is surely almost as identifiable. 

Everyone knows the statistics abound this rapid urbanism on the make- more than 4000 bland curtain wall structures in Shanghai alone being representative enough. What is perhaps less coveted by the China media feeding frenzy, and what I would like to focus on in this post is some of the truly remarkable reinventions of historic structures and industrial areas into adaptive re-uses to accommodate such recent 'Euro' centric / non Mao-ist ideas as thriving commercial arts hubs and boutique hotels.  

What is more interesting still is the sense that China is not only doing these things bigger, but also better than their Western counterparts. That is not to deny the Western input to facilitate these transformations, be that through the use of Western Architects, hoteliers, chefs, or art buyers (and there are no shortage of Western faces); but truly the thing that surprised me most about Shanghai was the sheer quality of urban culture on offer. 

M50 Art Zone 
First up on the list of examples to articulate this point is the M50 art zone, just to the North of the city centre, where a group of warehouses have been turned into artist studio galleries, where the regular Western model of artist sells to gallery dealer who then sells in Gallery or Auction House, has been turned on its head to artists sell direct out of their studio.  

When you research this model's phenomenon more (Beijing's 798 district being another case in point), the success of this urban 'art village' model will also become its downfall - rising rents cost emergent artists out of the equation, and less commercial artists are slowly being pushed out by low brow profiteers who will poorly sculpt your face off a photo, or imitation specialists looking to sell you something disappointingly similar to the most famous modern Chinese artists of late.  

The phenomena of creatives setting up in the cheap streets of former industrial urban areas that subsequently gentrify is hardly new (witness Hoxton, Brooklyn etc etc) But, despite all this, M50 still provides an incredibly diverse mix of serious Art (with a Capitol 'A') across the 'serious' mediums of painting, sculpture, ink, pencil etc. with less serious mediocre tat. But, in that Chinese manner of 'more is more' there is so much Art on offer, and given the fact it's not difficult to differentiate the wheat from the chaff, M50 still provides a great day out for culture starved Hong Kongites.  

More refreshingly still is the fact Mr and Mrs bikesandbuildings were just about able to stretch our finances to actually buy some real Art (with a Capitol 'A'). Such phenomena would most likely not be possible in the galleries of Hoxton or London's West End (or in Hong Kong). On this topic, beyond affordability there is also a refreshing lack of pretension in M50.  

Outside of a museum context I can't think of a Western example that can match this area for not only the intense pure volume of artistic produce (as a commercial entity) on offer, but also quality. M50 has probably had its hey day as 'the next big thing', and the next generation have most likely already begun the process of transforming another unlikely area into another Factory, but if you haven't been already I don't think you'll be disappointed. 

1933 Abatoir 

Offering much less in terms of quality of produce on offer than M50, yet trumping it on the adaptive re-use stakes, is Shanghai's 1933 Abatoir, a remarkable maze of vintage monolithic concrete turned on its head from a former life as an Abatoir into another Arts hub to house everything from design agencies and modernist furniture boutiques to wedding planner shops and a Ducatti cafe. Try putting that one on any Archirecture school curriculum's brief...  

What makes this one quite so special is not so much the off the head mix of things in offer for prospective visitors, but the truly bonkers building that forms its framework. No shortage of Internet articles on this place will prepare you for "Escher inspired staircases", but none of them will explain why there are quite so many of the damn things...

From a rationalists point if view I couldn't make any sense of this building from a functional perspective, let alone how it functioned as an Abatoir. Or anything else for that matter. I could only revel in the joy of sheer modernist 'if in doubt use concrete' brutalism, and wonder how on earth this one escaped the bulldozer... 

I'm not an expert on emergent Moderism in early 20th Century China (is anyone?) and I thought the 30s was about Japanese occupation, not the social reform that usually provides the context for such structures. However, it's truly refreshing to see something like this in a city (and country) where everything is so new and when dull Neo-classicism is the default plat du jour, this transformation is all the more remarkable. Typically, I assume everything in China to be reproduction 'fake old', tapping columns being a rather sad hobby of mine. So hopefully i can be excused for getting a bit excited about this brutalist beast of a building. 

Refreshingly, China appears to have finally started to embrace the 'old', even when that means decaying Modernism. Even more refreshing within the greater context of China, is the fact Shanghai does have some beautiful true remnants of its Colonialst past. These remnants may be few and far between, and I'm really not sure how a seemingly gloriously dysfunctional modernist Abattoir sits inside this context as a piece of history, but I can enjoy it. 

The Waterhouse 
Last on my list of adaptive re-use examples in Shaghai, is the Waterhouse hotel in the South Bund, and right next to the self proclaimed 'Cool Docks'. This is not a joke- someone has put a sign up and everything. Of course, the cool docks are not 'cool' at all, but undoubtedly what was too cool for school, is the Waterhouse hotel next to it. 

Housing a quite wonderful contemporary Asian fusion restaurant by a Gordon Ramsey protégée on the ground floor, a small selection of achingly hip hotel rooms above, and a Corten steel clad roof bar, all adapted from an old shipping warehouse, this place is a hiphotel dream. 

Except, of course, it's so new you won't find it in the guide books yet. 

A quick example of just how fast things move in Shanghai came when we called a restaurant to get a table based on some Internet reviews, got there and found they'd changed the restaurant from being 'Imperial Chinese' cuisine, to bland over-priced Western with a view. 

But back to the Waterhouse. The food here was certainly not average Western, it was some of the most strikingly original I've ever eaten. But again, without the pretension you might expect at such an establishment in Paris or London. And the rest of the hotel was so achingly 'cool' I couldn't quite believe we were in China.

I guess it's symptomatic that they're 'catching up' so fast with the West, that in isolated aspects, they've taken over. And not always in the areas you most expect it. Just don't expect it to still be there when you return.

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