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  • UNStudio China

    by Ondrej Janku

    On Tuesday 18th we have visited UNStudio office in Shanghai. UNStudio is well recognized architecture company with project all around the world:

    UNStudio (UNITED NETWORK STUDIO), founded in 1988 by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, is a Dutch architectural design studio specialising in architecture, urban development and infrastructural projects. The name, UNStudio, stands for United Network Studio, referring to the collaborative nature of the practice. In 2009 UNStudio Asia was established, with its first office located in Shanghai, China. UNStudio Asia is a full daughter of UNStudio and is intricately connected to UNStudio Amsterdam. Initially serving to facilitate the design process for the Raffles City project in Hangzhou, UNStudio Asia has expanded into a full-service design office with a multinational team of all-round and specialist architects.

    Strelka visited UNStudio to see how such recognized European architecture office developed in China and how Shanghai has changed the way of managing and designing their projects. Strelka's aim was to compare this office with other companies visited in Shanghai during the field trip and see how seemingly similar western based companies develop different approaches in dealing with the new foreign location.

    To start the discussion with UNStudio from the good end Strelka Institute presented itself first explaining why did we come to Shanghai. But also who we are and where are we coming from and why did we chose to visit UNStudio among the other so interesting places. It was not the first meeting on our field trip where the visiting subjects were equally interested in Strelka as Strelka was curious about them. As a result of that, the formate of student's visit turned almost into the panel discussion between Strelka Institute represented by students and UNStudio represented by MARKUS VAN AALDEREN Senior Architect / Associate who was also so kind and made this interesting event happen.
    For UNStudio the panel discussion was an effective way haw to avoid talking only about their work and for Strelka an interesting comparison of opinions not only about Shanghai but also about Moscow. The transcript of the most interesting parts of the discussion could be found in the text below. And even though it may not be strictly following the topic of East/West Day program we left it in this category as a reflection of westerners who are in Shanghai for a longer time already versus freshers who have just come to visit for the first time.

    — Projects we do in our studios in Amsterdam and Shanghai are not interested in specific location or scale. We are not specifically urban, housing architecture firm. And we don't only want to study and design but also build our buildings. The types of projects we want to design goes from infrastructure, high-rising, mixed-used, public buildings, retail to furniture and study materials. We are also very international company with employees from all over the globe. So it is difficult to say that we are western company operating in China.

    What do you thing about Shanghai from micro level and macro level in a comparison to Moscow?

    — We see two Shanghais. Bottom up Shanghai of all its inhabitants separated from big corporate buildings and international, global Shanghai as seen from outside.

    — I think that is correct observation. But the question is if it is that much different from other cities?

    — In Moscow, for instance, the situation is quite different. The diversity between bottom up and top down society is much bigger. If we compare lifestyle in Moscow with the one in Shanghai it seems to work almost the other way round. In Moscow people have its privacy at home, behind the closed door. When they step out form the boundary of its apartment its like nobody's land and nobody takes care of whatever is happening in a public space outside. People do not live lives outside there in Moscow. Whereas here we visited a couple of neighbourhoods and it seems that people almost do not care that much where they sleep and they stay outside during the whole day. Socialising, making business, living, cooking. They are quite normally dressed with sometimes expensive cars yet they live in very trashy conditions. Here in Shanghai we did not see anything like: My home my fortress as we have it in Moscow.

    — Yes, that could be true. Normally in centre it is all rich and all the poor people go out of the city. I think that here it is still all completely mixed. High-rises just next to neighbourhoods with people that lives almost on the street. Therefor the gap seems big here because it is visible everywhere. The question would be, how to preserve this diversity of neighbourhoods in the city centre and not to replace everything with the new development. I thing that in Moscow the gap between poor and rich is also very big. But now, how that would translate into where they are within urban fabric?

    — In Moscow it is also visible but not that much. We have also these neighbourhoods that are very rich and those that are normal. But we do not really have neighbourhoods that are just very poor. I think one of the reasons could be the climate. In Moscow it would not be possible to live in conditions that are not heated and just improvised like cardboard slams. The most of the people, poor and rich, live in the Micro-rayons that are in a way comparable with what is now being build so much in Shanghai.

    It could be that poor people were already pushed out of Moscow. Here in Shanghai we went to one of those slams where we talked to a guy who said that in two years he is going to be compensated. He is going to get a new apartment in a block but not it the center as he is living now. He did not really think bad about it. Maybe Shanghai is going to turn into something we have in Moscow. That there are no slams in the city but one can find very weird neighborhoods on its outskirts. I think that in Shanghai it is just a matter of time when they move people with less resources outside of the city.

    Today we visited one of the district where people live in half demolished houses being replaced with high-rise development. But despite of that it was quite lively neighborhood. People were happy, business was going on. It worked as a normal city, just in this special form. We do not have anything like that in Moscow.

    — In Moscow it is also about centralized government. We are talking about two types of centralized government and that makes the comparison interesting. Also Shanghai is very safe and that is one of the reasons why you felt comfortable everywhere.

    — Talking about the city centre and surrounding areas, what is your opinion about a trent of development of new high-rises that are replacing old town dense settlements from 20s and 30s that are now being demolished as we talked about it earlier. Do you thing it will improve immediately the condition of the neighbourhood or does it take something irreplaceable from the city? What do you think will be the result of that change?

    — Here, this is 20 millions city and China is fast urbanizing. I of course like to keep old building because they are nice and streets are nice but in the end it will not make the city work. So you could say, ok we preserve this, we keep the city as we have it now. The other thing is that the social condition of the inhabitants is also important. Shanghai is very complex city. It had very high density in low rise buildings. In beginning of 20s and 30s there were a lot of refugees coming to the city. In one traditional house there were multiple families living. And this is the condition that still prevails that in one small house there are 3 to 4 to 5 families living on the same sewage system as designed in 20s. So if you tell people that they have to stay there and that it is nice, that is a difficult story. Now, the money that city has to run the city infrastructure is not from the central government. It is from the city itself. So for the change in city development you would have to change the money flow that maintains the city and also the country structure but also the social awareness of people who see a different values in different things in the city. And I still thing it is important to find the balance and it is till valid to rebuild old parts of the city. And at the same time it is very important to work on large scale projects to see how this urban fabric, large vs. very small, really works. I thing there are now in Shanghai some places where the traditional houses are remade and the value goes up and people are interested in buying them and using them. But all this is very complex question. Should this be the way? I do not know. You have to work with all these parameters and get the best of it. And I thing it is the same situation as in Moscow. If you keep all the city center as a preserved nice place it probably cannot house the mega-city so we still need the large infrastructure to house all these people and so on.

    — Are people from demolished neighborhood relocated to new buildings at the same place or moved somewhere else?

    — The place is too valuable. People are moved on the outskirt of town. Out of interest into cheap residential towers. But the city is growing really fast and these people will happen to be in the center of the city again and then they sell their flats or the plot for really high price and move again. It took me a while to understand this, but what you see here is not older than 20 years. The whole Pudong area was a farmland but also the whole infrastructure is new. So while we are discussing these things, they are changing. That makes to study it really interesting.

    — Why UNStudio has decided to open up the office in Shanghai?

    — Very pragmatic reasons. Amsterdam office have been working on many locations. We even did project in Korea and Taiwan from the Amsterdam office. But then we got a commission in Hangzhou. Working on such a big project we realized that China is really difficult to work with if you are not here. The communication works a lot on person to person level so if you are not there nothing happens. It is also a closed country. The currency is different. It is hard to make contracts. For Chinese it is hard to make contracts out of the country. So we decided to start the office here and see how it will work. 3 years ago we were 3 and now we are 30 here.

    — Do you thing that Shanghai as a concept of super fast growing city will reach some limits of grow and expansion. Do you thing it reaches a kind of a ceiling of what is the city or what we can call the city? How does that relate to your design? Do you think that China will soon change the strategy and create a new Shanghai on north instead?

    — I do not think that will happen. Predictions here is very big topic. City will invent itself and rebuild itself but of course it will also grow. It is growing very fast and it will continue growing and also improving the infrastructure inside the city. City is smart in reinventing itself. Building tunnels, elevated highways, etc. It can grow but it will probably change the direction and the type of growth. Partly, a lot of buildings will be torn down and build again in order to accommodate new needs. En example are perhaps the elevated highways in Shanghai that were build recently and that helped so much the traffic in the city.

    — How locals are reacting on all the radical changes in the city that are happening in such a sort time?

    — Look outside of a window and what you see is new. This city is very rural, in a way, because there are so many people from outside. And at 10pm the city dies and becomes completely quite. It looks like the city but it is not a city. It makes it very fascinating in a way. It is like a Blade Runner movie. It has all the fancy things in the sky and down on the ground it rains and people sell food on the street and life in medieval conditions. But all this is very new and it is changing like from the train. So all this is really like a snapshot. It is a 20 millions city snapshot. And that it is why you cannot really say where it will go.

    The city does not grow naturally. It is being planned centrally in a very large way that is very inaccessible for somebody walking around the street. So maybe it just need some time for people to live here. But also in that time the city itself will again change a lot.

    — Do you think there is already time for Shanghai to think about projects that are reactivating non-functioning areas in the city? Can we see such a young city development from enough distance to judge what should be preserved and reactivated?

    — I think it happens already, perhaps in harbor areas. So it happens in a large scale. But there is also another aspect of it. To see what is old and original quality in the city from European point of view is not in the mindset of local people. It is not in the mindset to keep something old when they can redo it in a better way. And that is an interesting thought because it is completely true. To redo something in order to keep the same quality is quite difficult. So a lot of these project when redone remains dead.

    — Maybe it is not even in nature of local culture to impose these kind of reactivation projects on the older city fabric.

    — This city has a tradition in being completely international from the ground and there is nothing original and local left in it. For instance in Amsterdam we still have a lot of old stuff we appreciate and we keep and reuse forever. But that is bot the situation of Shanghai.

    — Do you adapt your design to the local culture?

    — No. We react to the situation but we do not change our design approach. Obviously, the client wants us because we are different so we have never had a problem with our design. There is of course the question how to relate to the local culture. We incorporate specific and local behavior but never in a literal transcription into the design. We cannot say that we do something Chinese as we would never do something Dutch in our office.