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 pubic space. Topic for the next charette.