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Architect Ben Wooden desires to finish cities’ 50 Shades of Gray


Nov 10, 2023


In his 20 years in China, architect Ben Wooden has helped construct over a dozen industrial initiatives that mix historic architectural kinds with fashionable commerce—most famously in Shanghai’s buzzy Xintiandi space, the place yow will discover a Shake Shack or a Tiffany’s housed in a Nineteenth-century styled constructing.

Now Wooden desires extra of his fellow designers to ditch the glass and metal of recent buildings and embrace extra conventional supplies and designs. “Whether or not it’s pure stone, wooden…what’s essentially the most sustainable useful resource now we have on this world proper now?” Wooden stated final Thursday at Fortune China’s ESG Summit in Shanghai, China. These supplies are “ignored by the ‘50 Shades of Gray’ that high-rise architects are promoting individuals on this room at the moment.”

“Why purchase ‘50 Shades of Gray’ when you possibly can have colour?” Wooden stated. “It’s not a stylistic problem, it’s a that means problem, of what does that materials imply?”

For Chicago’s Soldier Discipline stadium, pictured quickly after its renovation in 2003, architect Ben Wooden tried to protect the unique facade whereas redoing the inside.

Jeff Haynes—AFP by way of Getty Photos

Wooden, who now runs Studio Shanghai, an architectural design agency based mostly within the Chinese language megacity, is known for wanting to guard historic kinds in his initiatives. The architect is probably greatest identified for his work on Xintiandi, a high-rise purchasing district close to town’s French Concession that opened in 2001, and the controversial 2003 redesign of Chicago’s Soldier Discipline, which preserved the exterior facade of the previous stadium whereas renovating the inside.

Shanghai awarded the Xintiandi redevelopment contract to Hong Kong-based developer Shui On and its proprietor Vincent Lo on one situation: That the billionaire tycoon protect a few of the native structure. 

Wooden remembers the necessity to protect the world’s “shikumen” structure, a novel mix of Chinese language and Western kinds from the mid-Nineteenth century. Upon visiting the French Concession for the primary time, Wooden says he remembered pondering, “All these buildings are going to be torn down.”

“My god, you possibly can’t try this,” he stated.

Customers sit and dine in the open air area of a restaurant in the Xintiandi retail district in Shanghai, China.
Shanghai’s Xintiandi emulates the “Shikumen,” or “stone gate,” model: a mixture of Chinese language and European designs that got here to the fore within the Nineteenth century.

Qilai Shen—Bloomberg by way of Getty Photos

When it got here time to rebuild Xintiandi, builders rigorously dismantled the previous buildings, then used the identical pure supplies to rebuild them in the identical architectural model, solely with fashionable trappings like up-to-date wiring and plumbing. 

Wooden’s fellow architects have since credited him for displaying the worth in preserving previous buildings. “China wanted somebody like Wooden to point out them you can also make extra money by saving relatively than tearing down previous buildings. Nobody had achieved that earlier than as a result of it was a lot simpler to work with a clean slate,” Cliff Pierson, an editor at Architectural File journal, advised The New York Occasions in 2006. 

At this time, Xintiandi is usually purchasing malls and high-rises, surrounding a historic-styled, low-rise compound of high-end outlets, standard eateries, and a museum honoring the birthplace of the Chinese language Communist Social gathering.

Xintiandi is a jumble of Chinese language historical past and fashionable commercialism, the place a Shake Shack is down the street from a museum honoring the delivery of the Communist Social gathering of China.

Qilai Shen—Bloomberg by way of Getty Photos

Ben Wooden’s newest challenge—once more developed with Vincent Lo and Shui On—is Panlong Tiandi, a industrial advanced constructed from a renovated suburban village in southwestern Shanghai that opened in Might. The developer says the purchasing district attracted about 200,000 guests a day after its launch, and has continued to draw comparable numbers within the months since.

Panlong Tiandi’s reputation with Chinese language customers is a brilliant spot amid a wider slowdown in China’s economic system, significantly in its property sector, which Wooden referred to final week. 

“China is dealing with an financial disaster,” Wooden stated. “It gained’t be solved by constructing extra tall buildings.” As an alternative, it “might be solved by returning…to a extra community-oriented life,” Wooden suggests. 

The nation’s financial restoration has stumbled because the nation lifted COVID restrictions virtually a 12 months in the past. Consumption isn’t recovering as shortly as officers had hoped, placing strain on native and international corporations alike. A property bust—triggered by non-public builders who borrowed extreme sums of cash to construct extra initiatives—can be dragging down a willingness to spend.

On Thursday, Wooden referred to as on convention attendees to push for higher city designs.

“You get the cities you deserve,” he stated. “So when you don’t insist on a livable metropolis? God assist them.”

Fortune’s Brainstorm Design convention is returning on Dec. 6 on the MGM Cotai in Macau, China. Panelists and attendees will debate and focus on “Empathy within the Age of AI” or how new applied sciences are revolutionizing the artistic trade.

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