Shanghai's rive gauche
Real estate development is threatening the artist's colony that has sprung up along the banks of the Suzhou Creek. Worse still, it is threatening the old warehouses that line its banks. Now, two architecture professors are on a mission to save this slice of Shanghai's built history.
The left bank of the River Seine in Paris has long been known as a haven for artists. Not long ago, the Suzhou Creek looked as if it, too, was poised to become Shanghai's Rive Gauche, with a colony of artists setting up studios in its dilapidated riverfront warehouses.
But the kinetic economic advance in the city sent property values around the river area sky high. As a result, the warehouses and old buildings, many dating to the 1920s and 30s, that line the creek were threatened with imminent demolition to make room for real estate developers. Today, many historic buildings have already been bulldozed and artists were forced to relocate. The grim situation prompted a campaign to protect the old buildings along the creek, which, in turn, produced a picture book: ``Left Bank of the Seine of the East:
The Art Warehouses of the Suzhou Creek'' (bilingual, published by the Shanghai Guji Publishing House, 180 yuan). Edited by Zhang Song and Han Yuqi, the book originated from a research program headed by the two professors. Last year, they applied to the Ministry of Culture for approval of their study project of the art studios along Suzhou Creek, including discussions on the construction of urban environments and the reconstruction of the old section of the city. This book tells the stories of the art warehouses, those that have already disappeared and those that remain, and will, the authors hope, contribute to preventing the loss of any more of these buildings. Han, a professor at the architecture department of the Shanghai Institute of Technology, paints a vivid picture of her first visit to the old warehouse studios at 50 Moganshan Road two years ago, passing 1131 and 1133 Suzhouhe Road along the way.
``The sky was always gray and overcast, with a continuous drizzle falling,'' she reminisces. ``Later, I watched helplessly as they, along with some other buildings, were torn down. They were stripped away layer by layer, dismantled until all that was left was a single wall. The desolate scene became cemented in my mind. I couldn't get rid of it.'' Zhang, a painter and professor at the urban planning department at Tongji University, echoes the feeling.
``During the whole research process, I was thrown into a deep melancholy, because I realized that over the past 20 years, we have demolished too much and preserved too little,'' he says. ``Now, there is some consensus that we should protect old villas and town houses. But most still don't understand why we should keep flour mills and beer factories along the Suzhou Creek, some of which possess no architectural beauty. Some even think that they are a blot on the landscape. ``When we were shooting in Paris, we found that one of the city's unique features are its iron and steel buildings. They symbolize Paris' industrialization in the past,'' Zhang adds. ``Similarly, the warehouses along Suzhou Creek are a symbol of Shanghai's past. We often heard whinings about how Shanghai has no `flavor.' We do. But we just don't realize that we do.'' The deserted warehouses and workshops along the creek date back to the 1930s, when the creek nurtured a major industrial base in Shanghai. When the manufacturing industries withdrew from the city amid the urbanization drive, the riverside grew into an enclave for artists, many of whom have opened studios and galleries in the abandoned buildings out of their deep affection for the river.
Architect and interior designer Teng Kun-yen from Taiwan was one of the earliest to make his workshop out of the deserted warehouses beside the Suzhou Creek. Teng rode his bicycle along the creek in 1997, looking into old warehouses, when he spotted the eroded No. 1933 on the wall of No. 1305 Suzhouhe Road S. Its reputation as a breeding ground for unconventional artists spread by word of mouth. More artists, designers and advertising people followed the Teng's step, setting up more than 100 workshops in about 30 old warehouses by Suzhou Creek.
The buzz was that the area had the potential to become the SOHO of Manhattan. But it wasn't long before soaring real estate prices in the area resulted in the eviction of the artists and the demolition of the warehouses to make way for property development. Fortunately, the Art Deco warehouse that Teng put so much effort into redesigning and restoring won't be razed, as it was added to the list of cultural relic buildings (Teng claims that it was once one of gangster Du Yuesheng's warehouses). Ruan Yisan, head of Tongji University's State Designated Historic and Cultural City Research Center, points out that in the United States, buildings of 30 years old or more can not be torn down haphazardly. In France, the budget dedicated to preserving old buildings is 600 times ours. Situated in a bend of the creek, the Chunming Industrial Park at 50 Moganshan Road houses more than 30 art studios.
They are clusters of old warehouses and factory buildings in styles of different eras, which has transformed into a booming art community. As commercial buildings nudge up close to its borders, the art area may be doomed as well. But this is exactly what Zhang and Han are working against. And this time, they get support from the authorities. Last July, they learned that three factory buildings, which were once part of the Shanghai Flour Mill and built in unique styles, would be torn down within two weeks. Zhang and Han worked through the night to work out a report entitled ``On the Feasibility of a Conservation and Utilization Plan for the Modern Industrial Building in the Moganshan Road Area on the South Bank of Suzhou Creek.''
With assistance from Tongji University, they sent out an urgent appeal to the community. It's gratifying to see the three unique buildings still standing tall today. ``Industrial buildings are part of what defines this city. Modern avant-garde artists are going about their creative work in stark contrast with the old mysterious warehouse. It's a perfect interaction. They impart the area with a `hip factor' that money can't buy,'' says Wu Jiang, a professor at Tongji University and deputy director of the Shanghai Urban Planning Administration Bureau. In addition, the Shanghai Municipal Government has made a clear stand recently that the industrial park may stay safe and sound, Wu adds. The dilapidated state of the walls, pillars, roofs and stairways holds so much appeal for artists. ``They bear the traces of history, telling us riddle-like stories of the bygone era, the great changes wrought by time are condensed in the buildings, giving them a power and dignity that excite and move us,'' says Han, who has set up a painting studio in the warehouse, too.
The marks on the walls, the symbols painted on the red and gray bricks, the skylights in the ceiling, the industrial pipes in all shapes and sizes: Their peculiarity fascinates the young artists, giving rise to many strange imaginings and passions. At the same time, the artists endow the old warehouses with vitality. Lorenz Helbling, art director of ShanghART Gallery, says that artists' unconscious spontaneous activities have evolved into conscious, active social activities, eventually forming burgeoning cultural industries that bring history and culture together. They create a broad social benefit.
"Artists imbue vitality into a city's future,'' says Hu Xiangbin, an exhibition organizer. ``These sleek skyscrapers may look fresh and modern, but they're like wearing makeup. On the contrary, these old buildings reveal their true self under the test of time. They have witnessed the growth of the city. They tell fascinating stories."