Making architecture in China is not easy; occupying it is even more difficult. In recent years, amazing stories have appeared in various media about China’s shoddy construction culture, copycat designs, empty icons, and building projects apparently doomed to remain unfinished forever. These are projects designed not only by local amateurs but also by global dealers in iconic architecture. The bad detailing of Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House, the lacuna that is Herzog & de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest, and the ongoing almost-finished status of Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters could give the impression that China has been constructing mainly empty shells over the past few years.

China also seems to be building too much, as exemplified by the overly discussed ghost city of Ordos 鄂尔多斯 (and the phantom villas of the Ordos 100 project) or, for that matter, any suburb of any large Chinese city. It’s often hard to find architectural pearls in China’s gigantic opaque pool of building blandness while scouting for Mark magazine. Hard but not impossible, as evidenced by the many Chinese projects that have appeared in the first 50 issues of the magazine.

Wondering how some of these buildings are holding up today, now that the media clamour aroused by their initial publication has died down, I ventured out in Shanghai 上海 to revisit three of them: the Himalayas Centre by Arata Isozaki (Mark 38), the 2010 Shanghai World Expo site (Mark 27) and the Giant Interactive Group’s headquarters by Morphosis (Mark 30).

Guangzhou Opera House (december, 2010) | MovingCities

Guangzhou Opera House (december, 2010) | MovingCities

Ordos 100 Babel for Billionaires | published in MARK Magazine#15, 2008

The Himalayas Centre – featured as a cameo in the movie Her – has a bit of a haunted sci-fi feel this drizzly Saturday morning. A new subway stop provides direct access to the building’s underground shopping areas, with their generic luxury outlets. Mr Bean, a small coffee shop with a larger-than-life Rowan Atkinson cut-out at the entrance, marks the transition between inside and outside, but I see no comedians drinking coffee and no shoppers either. The centre’s ground floor and the accompanying elephant-leglike space are home to nothing but a desolate, eerie and rather hazy atmosphere. I notice an occasional dog walker and a child on a bicycle. That’s it. I fear that revisiting this place is about to yield a depressing analysis, a told-you-so story about Chinese architecture distinguishing itself only in photographs.

Higher up, things are looking better. Despite a scarcity of security and signage in the mall, visitors have no trouble finding their way to a popular restaurant. At 11 a.m. it’s full of families enjoying lunch. A cinema is buzzing with parents and children digesting popcorn and 3D movies. The building’s main attraction – the Himalayas Art Museum (formerly the Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art) – takes a while to locate. After paying the entrance fee and rushing through an exhibition (‘A Fragment in the Course of Time: Landscape of Chinese Ink Art in the 1980s’), I wonder what the museum’s target audience might be. It’s certainly not tourists.

Reality Check Shanghai | published in MARK Magazine#50, 2014

Himalayas Centre by Arata Isozaki | MovingCities Instagram

Next stop is the Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel, which is part of the same complex. Business people are in the lobby; the staff is friendly and monitoring every move. Room rates and occupancy vary according to fairs and other major events taking place across the street. The lowest rate, for one of the hotel’s Deluxe Rooms, will set you back 3,408 RMB (€400) a night. At the other end of the spectrum is the Presidential Suite, at a cost of 88,008 RMB (€10,300). The hotel benefits from its strategic location, opposite Shanghai’s premier exhibition centre. On my stroll through the hotel, I discover the Shang-High restaurant. A small sign directs visitors to an ‘infinite garden’, but the glass door is closed. The roof terrace on the other side remains a purely visual experience.

All in all, the Himalayas Centre is functioning adequately, and its construction, materials and spaces are holding up well – much better than those of certain less iconic structures. Perhaps I’ve stumbled on the secret for preserving the original aesthetic of Chinese buildings: use them as little as possible and keep in mind that low occupancy – possibly interpreted as exclusivity by users – is better than no occupancy. Having said that, I feel no desire to return here. Not for the generic shopping experience, not for the cinema, not for the art gallery and not for an expensive night in the hotel.

Shanghai World Expo 2010 | Spanish pavillion | MovingCities

Shanghai World Expo 2010 | French pavillion | MovingCities

Shanghai World Expo 2010 | Danish pavillion | MovingCities

Shanghai World Expo 2010 | Swiss pavillion | MovingCities

A visit to the former Shanghai 2010 World Expo grounds takes me to a territory under transformation. My first impression is of a project that hasn’t changed much since the year before the big event opened to the public. After the World Expo closed, the Puxi side of the site – where corporate and city pavilions were located – drew some attention from the local media, largely through the conversion of the old power plant into the increasingly popular Power Station of Art, which hosts exhibitions attended by crowds of enthusiasts. When Wang Shu won the 2012 Pritzker Prize, the value of his Ningbo-Tengtou Pavilion followed suit, and Paul Bocuse’s restaurant is currently used as a training school and as a spot for Sunday morning brunch – the destination of many French expats living in Shanghai 上海.

On the Pudong side, the former Chinese pavilion has become the China Art Palace, which showcases collections from the Shanghai Art Museum. Visitors can also find the Mercedes-Benz Arena in this area, a performance venue classy enough for the likes of Bruno Mars and the Rolling Stones. The former Saudi Arabian pavilion – the Expo’s most expensive, at a cost of US$29.3 million (€21.2 milion) – has been rebranded as the Moon Boat. It must be said, however, that most expo participants have abandoned their sustainable green pavilions, leaving Chinese construction cranes free to infiltrate the site.

The area where once the European, Asian and American pavilions were located is in a serious state of disrepair. The French pavilion seems to be under (re)construction, the skin of EMBT’s Spanish pavilion has been removed, some of the Portuguese pavilion’s cork has disappeared, and a few of my favourites – pavilions representing the UK, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Finland, Germany and Switzerland – have vanished into thin air. As I walk, a taxi driver stops to ask whether I want to see the Italian pavilion.

Wondering why, I take him up on his offer out of curiosity and soon realize that the Italian pavilion is the only nearby attraction. A sign tells me that the newly named Shanghai Italian Center is ‘the privileged platform for the promotion of the cultural and economic linkage between China and Italy.’ The complex, which looks like a metropolitan ‘Little Italy’, has absorbed the Luxembourg and Dutch pavilions in its bid for expansion. The former, which Luxembourg had donated to the city of Shanghai 上海, houses the Marangoni Training Center (advertised as ‘the first international fashion school to enter the Chinese market’) and the Da Marco Italian restaurant. The Dutch pavilion accommodates commercial spaces, offices and a ticket centre. A few tourists are wandering around, but they seem as lost as I am.

Danish architecture firm schmidt hammer lassen architects recently won a competition for the redevelopment of part of the expo area into a ‘Green Valley’. Chris Hardie, associate partner at SHL in Shanghai 上海, fills me in on the latest plans:

Considering things from an outsiders’ point of view, I can understand that it doesn’t look great to have swaths of vacant land lying almost derelict. It might even seem that nothing is happening. But as an architect who’s close to the site and to the client, I can assure you that a lot is happening. The client is serious about developing the site in the right way. It just takes time. Being so used to stories of high-speed building processes in China, we’re at a loss when things go at a more normal, healthier pace.

With an overall area of about 5.2 km2, the former expo site is of crucial importance to the redevelopment of Shanghai 上海. The magic of the event itself has disappeared, but the space and the need to capitalize on its memory through reconstruction still exists.

Shanghai 2010 World Expo - April 2014 | MovingCities Instagram

Giant Interactive Group by Morphosis | MovingCities Instagram

The 2010 Shanghai World Expo can be seen as an intermediate phase in the development of this piece of land. My last stop is in the suburbs of Shanghai 上海, where Morphosis realized a project for online-games operator Giant Interactive Group. This time around, I get the official tour and am informed that a staff of 1,000 works here, in what seems to be a well-functioning office space pulsating with creativity. ‘The shape of the building is like a dragon,’ I’m told. ‘It matches the feel of a computer game.’ The building has occasionally provided film sets, such as the car park, café bar and meeting room featured in So Young, a love story directed by Zhao Wei.

Here at Giant Interactive, my inquiries about bad detailing, strangely designed spaces or faulty materials are met with surprise. Indeed, the building has been well maintained. Concrete surfaces are clean and I can see no damage to the original design. Among the minor complaints I overhear is a wish for a more well-balanced distribution of temperature throughout a building that falls under the category ‘architecture of analogy’: the structure resembles a dragon with a head, body and tail. The head is a meeting space for executives; the body houses the employees; and the tail, which features a gym, is for relaxation, exercise and sports. I’m told that until last year the CEO lived across from the gym in a small pavilion known as the Sunlight Room, but I don’t have permission to enter it.

Revisiting these projects, I find all three in good condition. The Himalayas Centre survives and surprises me by its ability to continue, despite low occupancy. It has failed to become a destination in its own right. The grounds of the former 2010 World Expo are experiencing another round of development, turning remembrance into an alibi for metropolitan change supported by SHL’s Green Valley proposal. Morphosis’s suburban dragon is a well-functioning office space whose fate is linked, admittedly, to the commercial ambitions and success of its client. Perhaps Chinese architecture is headed in the right direction, after all. At least these three buildings are holding up well.

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Pictures by Mónica Carriço /

Reality Check Shanghai [2014] by Bert de Muynck
published in Mark magazine #50 | June-July 2014

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