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Practicing the Past

Asia’s urban centers are global metropolises and construction continues full speed ahead. One need only look at two photos of Shanghai, one from the 1980s and one from now, to see how quickly Asia continues to grow and change, especially China. New neighborhoods replace old ones, seemingly overnight, and suburban cities blossom across countrysides. Korea is developing new hi-tech cities, and Tokyo, like a molting reptile, replaces its architectural skin every 30 years. While some development consumes suburban land or reclaimed territories, other rampant urbanization demands “old growth.” At the “Preservation in Asian Cities” program on 12.03.13, the question the panelists, who were equally divided between practicing architects and academics, addressed was: “What does growth mean for historical Asia and how can we preserve this heritage?”

Jordan Sand, an associate professor of Japanese history at Georgetown University’s Department of History (the lone non-Sino-focused panelist), showed an illustration by Yamaguchi Akira to highlight preservation’s layered interpretations: “Some people want to replace the contemporary concrete Nihonbashi (the bridge identifying the historical center of Tokyo and Japan) with a replica of the original wooden bridge. Some want tear down the 1960s highway that covers the bridge. But some people like the highway and say if we’re going to preserve history let’s do it in the spirit of the history and build a wooden bridge over the highway.” While humorous in its onion-like layers, this comment aptly reveals the concerns of preservation: history, social relevance, and economics.

Calvin Tsao, FAIA, principal at Tsao & McKown Architects, who has been working extensively in China, marveled at how quickly China “came up to speed…but they did throw some babies out with the water.” His dilemma is preserving something that continues to live in the present and future in the face of increased density and uncertain politics. One tactic he employs is an “urban acupuncture” that provides a higher density building that may be out of context with the fabric, but allows the surroundings to persevere. Sands raised the point that Tokyo, which has no government-protected historic zones, dispenses special easements for targeted sites to contain or direct growth, such as the Roppongi Hills development.

Qin Shao, professor of history at The College of New Jersey, posits that preservation, like environmentalism, results from the post-industrial era, which China managed to do in 30 years while striving to be seen as a modern country. Preservation must embody more than just the structure; it has to preserve ambiance and social aspects as well. Xin Tian Di, a popular Shanghai district, strikes a precarious balance. Once a housing district confiscated during the Cultural Revolution, the neighborhood was partially restored before evictions allowed it to be developed into a popular shopping and restaurant destination. Ben Wood, AIA, principal at Studio Shanghai, who designed the renovation, said, “Some call it a travesty, but it’s a very successful travesty” that receives more visitors than Hong Kong Disneyland each day. While Wood’s renovations maintain the ambiance and social character, Shao is afraid that people will come to see the contemporary facsimiles of row houses as the real thing. One audience member commented poignantly that it seems nobody is immune to gentrification, and that preservation and economics are forever locked in tension. The speakers’ differences were barely noticeable, united in their concern that these megalopolises maintain cultural history, relevance, and activity – only their approaches set them apart.

James Way, Assoc. AIA, Marketing Manager at Dattner Architects, has contributed to Tokyo Art Beat, The Architect’s Newspaper, and e-Oculus.

Event: Preservation in Asian Cities
Location: Center for Architecture, 12.03.13
Speakers: Calvin Tsao, FAIA, Principal, Tsao & McKown Architects; Jordan Sand, Associate Professor of Japanese History, Department of History, Georgetown University; Qin Shao, Professor of History, The College of New Jersey; Ben Wood, AIA, Principal, Studio Shanghai (via teleconference); John Arbuckle, Assoc. AIA, President, DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State, and Co-chair, AIANY Historic Buildings Committee (moderator)
Organized by: AIANY New Practices Committee