An interview with Benjamin Wood

Xin Tian Di is the most acclaimed urban and architectural revitalization project in Shanghai 上海. Located at the City Centre, one block south of the prestigious Huai Hai Zhong Road and its Metro station, Xin Tian Di, meaning “New Heaven and Earth”, has a site area of 30,000 sq meters and a gross floor area of 60,000 sq metres. Completed in 2002, it is a refined cluster of traditionally styled Shanghai brick town houses filled with restaurants, cafés, night clubs, and luxury boutiques, including Comme des Garçons and Christian Dior.

Hong Kong developers Shui on Land hired architect Benjamin Wood to design this area, and it turned out to be so successful that the developer has been asked to replicate its formula elsewhere in China, and other developers are trying to build copycat projects. Xin Tian Di sits on a plot of 128 acres and was the first development in the Taipingqiao Redevelopment Project, an urban tourist attraction imbued with the city’s historical and cultural legacies. Shui On Land rightly anticipated that Xin Tian Di would raise property values in the area. While developing the project, the developer retained Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to master plan the surrounding 52-hectare area and also hired Kohn Pederson Fox (KPF) and Palmer & Turner to design the area’s office buildings.

The unique architectural design of Xin Tian Di has won the national ‘Innovation China 2001 – Architecture Award’, ‘AIA Hong Kong Citation 2002’ and the 2003 Award for Excellence from US-based Urban Land Institute. Credit goes to Benjamin Wood, an American architect who oversaw the US$170 million restoration of the neighborhood of old apartment blocks with traditional courtyard-style of construction.

When I interviewed Ben Wood in November 2006, we talked about the issue of preservation, the Xin Tian Di project, public life in China and his plans for the renovation of Dazhalan in Beijing.

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Xin Tian Di is a much acclaimed project and while reading about it, I was struck by the fact that you had to accept this project within 24 hours. Could you tell me how the project came into being?

Benjamin Wood: Well the decision was made in 24 hours, 1998. You have to know that I had never been to China before 1998. At that time, I was invited by the developer, who already had commissioned SOM to do this project. But after one year doubts arose. To use the developer’s words – the proposal wasn’t fun. In my opinion the proposal was long on architecture and short on romance, if you know what I mean. The developer had one in-house architect, and he was sent him on a trip around the world to find a new architect. They found me and invited me to come over.

How they did they find you?

BW: At the time I was running Wood+Zapata, with Carlos Zapata, a talented guy. I renovated an entire street on Miami Beach, Lincoln Road, designed by the architect Morris Lapidus. In 1960 Lapidus pedestrianized ten city blocks but after twenty or thirty years the area had fallen in decay; all the shops were closed and the road was boarded up. The architecture was beautiful and there were vacant lots. I won the competition to redo Lincoln Road (Lincoln Road Rehabilitation and Renovation,1992) and contacted Mr Lapidus. Everybody thought he was dead. At the time he was 96 years old, I found him, had lunch at his house and invited him to become an advisor on the project. About 3 or 4 years later, and going through 100 public meetings, we finished the project. The difference between working in the US and here is that here you go through meetings also, but they are short and sweet. In the US you go through 100’s of them and they are not short and they are not sweet. I finished the project with 185 bars, shops, night clubs, restaurants… all very different in terms of culture from what happens here. It is Miami versus China, but because of the Miami project I was noticed. At that time SOM was still on the job and they were still trying to decide to stick with SOM or to go with a new architect. After a discussion with Mr Vincent Lo (Chairman and Chief Executive of the Shui On Land Group), they appointed me as the architect.

Today, Xin Tian Di is held as an example of how to deal with sensitive historic urban areas in China. Could you explain to me what you were able to do there?

BW: When I was hired, I inherited the SOM design, which removed 90 percent of the buildings and replaced them with neo-classical architecture. I found this to be less than desirable. SOM almost convinced the developer that the buildings were too small, the structural base too narrow. For them, the buildings could not be re-used. One of the reasons why I got the job, is because I was convinced that the most valuable thing to do was to keep most of the buildings. When I first came to Shanghai, in 1998, nobody cared about the area, not even the government; the stone door houses were considered to be expendable. The houses were perceived to be ordinary, even more ordinary than the hutongs in Beijing. I thought they were extraordinary, even more when later I was told that these buildings only exist in Shanghai, which turns out to be not totally true. They are certainly imbedded in Shanghai, due to French and other European architects, but managed to spread to Wuhan and Gaungzhou. At the time there were 600,000 of these structures within the city, now there are probably less than 50,000, but the remaining ones are largely preserved, primarily due to this project. It called people’s attention to something I thought was unique and extraordinary, unlike historians who only like to pick out iconographic buildings.

This is also the place where the Communist party was found, some people analyzed the current high-end design as a contradiction, it would make, so to speak, Mao turn around in his sarcophagus.

BW: The contrast is indeed quiet remarkable. In fact, when Jiang Zemin came here on the 50th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution, in 1999, most of the project was still incomplete, a couple of alleyways were open, and the local Communist party hired a few actors, so it wouldn’t look like there were too many foreigners. When I first came to China, I wasn’t even allowed to mention the fact that these buildings were designed by foreign architects. I mentioned it during a presentation for the city, by making references to former street names, and afterwards they told me that I couldn’t do this again; don’t mention the fact that these buildings are designed by foreigners, don’t mention the streets names. For the first couple of years this was a very sensitive issue. But that has all changed now. I think it was an embarrassment to them to know that these buildings were not designed by Chinese people, although they are very Chinese, in the social arrangement of the rooms and the decoration. These were the first townhouses in China as townhouses didn’t exist back then, you would live in courtyard house or over a shop. This area was developed so people could have a small courtyard, with a very symmetrical arrangement. They were developed on speculation by real-estate developers, not unlike what is happening now. That is why they proliferated for a thirty year period; they couldn’t build them fast enough. At the time everybody wanted to live in a foreign concession, the police couldn’t come in and take you away, that is why Chairman Mao hit out here. Almost like Osama Bin Laden, he had to change his address every day.

This sounds like the Tora Bora of Shanghai. I’d like to ask you about how you used details, as I don’t know how dilapidated the area was when you started. Where did you gain your knowledge, how did you work with this?

BW: This is an interesting question. About half of what you see was not here. I was relatively ruthless; I am not a preservationist, so it was easy for me to alter buildings. Had I been a preservationist this project would have turned into a museum. So whenever I thought something should be new, I tore down some buildings to make room, and put a lot of windows in where there weren’t any. We actually tried to save some of the buildings but couldn’t, so we had to rebuild them and altered them a bit. Some of it, particularly this alley way, is totally original, it didn’t move at all. The big promenade changed dramatically; there we lost a lot of original buildings. What happened there is that during the Cultural Revolution they built a lot of bomb shelters, very heavy concrete structures that went down a couple of floors. The same very stiff concrete walls were used on the upper three or four walls, all very stiff concrete walls. The first thing we did was demolish all the bomb shelters (laughs). In the beginning, I also had to deceive the government, as they didn’t want any new buildings. Like this building right here (the Vidal Sassoon building), they never saw it on a drawing. They saw a different building. One day they walk in here, and asked, where did that one came from? (laughs) I said I didn’t know what happened; somebody must have switched the drawings.

You must find yourself in a paradoxical situation with this project, as it is emblematic for the debate about the preservation of the Chinese city, although you refrain from being a preservationist. What is your philosophy when dealing with this?

BW: Xin Tian Di created a public space that belongs to the public, of which they can take ownership of. It is not a big plaza, where you have an army parade, it is not a plaza where politicians speak, it is a public space dedicated to the enjoyment of life. That is quite remarkable in China (laughs). People in Europe take it for granted, go to Paris and you will find millions of places like this, but Xin Tian Di was the first one I know of in China. It was the first project in China where people can feel romantic about a place, without the government pulling the strings and telling them how to feel. So it gave them a sense of freedom about making choices, not political choices, but life style choices.

If a model works then it can be transplanted to other contexts, is that what happened with your project?

BW: Yes. I am working on two other ones right now. And I am learning. First of all because they are very different from this place, neither involve any historic buildings to speak off. One of them has a couple of old Japanese-designed residences, in the old Japanese concession in Wuhan, but most of it is gone, so 95 percent of the buildings are new. As for the one in Chongqing, the whole site was demolished, it was an old factory on the river. I always have a certain debate with myself because my client is very convinced the building needs a certain sense of nostalgia to it and I don’t disagree, by the way. I think there needs to be a healthy mix of some nostalgic reference with some really modern elements.

After you got this commission, you came to Shanghai and founded Studio Shanghai. What happened?

BW: I shut my last US office down, sold it to my partner, and came to China because I can do ten times more here than I can in America, without fighting the politicians. Well, this might sound strange, but I hate George Bush, I hate everything he stands for, I hate everything he has done. It is not just him, he is ruining the country. I grew up in the sixties, I was a peace protester, and I eventually became a jet fighter pilot, but that is a different story. I came here, because all my work was here. In the beginning I carried on trying to work with people in the US. Moving here wasn’t a conscious decision, but an evolution. One day it occurred to me that all those people in my office in Boston and New York would never get to go to China, maybe some of the project architects would come, but most of the people were just drawing, and I was spending half of my time telling them about China. At that time, I was bringing work from China back to the US and the people who worked on the various projects had never been to China! So I was thinking about how I should change this. Due to fortuitous circumstances, I did a huge project, the Chicago Bears Stadium (US), a US$800 million project with 200 people working on it. When that was over I felt like a change, so I took the opportunity to move to China, otherwise I would have had to find work for 200 people, and there probably wouldn’t be any more stadiums, these things only come around once, maybe twice at the most. Moving to China made perfect sense, hiring people who are in China, even if half of them have foreign passports. At least they all want to be here, mostly European, Germans, Australians, a lot of Hong Kong people, Taiwanese, English and one American. The Germans working for me are quietly good, I am lucky and hope they will be able to stick around for a little while. The one difficulty about practicing in China is that your staff tends to be extremely young, they are here to have a good time and are not planning to be here forever.

Are you going to be here forever?

BW: I am building a house in Tibet, so I guess I am. It is an old Tibetan farmhouse with 700 mu of land and I am adding some more buildings to it. And I have also just purchased a house in Vietnam, on the beach.

You just negotiated the contract for the Qiamen/Dazhalan-area in Beijing, which is a very controversial area in Beijing. It could probably be the Xin Tian Di of Beijing, but they would not want to hear about that in Beijing. Can you tell me about that project?

BW: Exactly, the last thing Beijing wants to hear is that they get the second, not the first whatever it is. I turned the project down at least five times in the last five months, because I know the government will insist on totally traditional Chinese architecture. But the hutong is not a traditional architectural style of China, the hutong is a recent phenomenon. The hutong didn’t exist until the Chinese took over and kicked out all the aristocrats and let people squat in the alleys. Hutongs are nothing more than a squatters village, built with recycled materials. There is no history of the hutong that predates the twentieth century. I am not sure if people understand that basic concept that the hutong is a spatial idea, not an architectural idea. It is a wonderful way to increase density, once you get in the middle of the hutong, it is totally removed from the city. You can recreate all those things. The government in this is totally confused, they think a hutong is a courtyard house. Indeed, buried in the hutongs there are some courtyard houses, but the hutong is not a courtyard house. When they rebuilt it they want to create courtyards houses. I once worked on a project in Beijing, right outside the East Gate of the Forbidden City. I did 17 courtyard houses but quit the job, half way through. I had a huge argument with the local government who wanted me to make all the houses traditional. I told them I need to be able to do whatever I want I do. They said it doesn’t matter; every detail, every roofline, everything has to be traditional Chinese. I asked them by whose definition, is there a book I can look at? and they replied, you can hire a Tongji professor of history and he will tell you what to do. So I quit. On this project, Dazhalan, I am not doing the facades, I refused. I said, You go and find, not me, a Tongji or Tsjinhua professor, you pay that guy to do the facades, I am doing the public spaces, the circulation, lighting, everything, but I am not touching the facades, because that is too much brain damage for me. I suffer from that. They kept saying oh don’t worry, you go in there and you do what you want, and I said, I have been there, and I can’t do what I want. And I am right, if you are doing a big new hotel you can do the ugliest thing you want to, but when you go into in those historical neighborhood, there is going to be some professor who is going to tell you about every little detail.

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Benjamin Wood interviewed by Bert de Muynck
Shanghai, November 11, 2006
Published in Commercial Real in China | CRE#3, December 2006

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