The RA's Kate Goodwin travelled to China recently on a design curators' study tour organised by the British Council. In part two of a series of photo-essays for this blog, she reports on Shanghai - a melting pot of architectural styles with thriving creative industries, and a domestic tourism powerhouse thanks to the city's recent World Expo
The energy of Shanghai was palpable and the group noticeably more enthused and engaged than in Beijing. I hadn't been to Shanghai before, and the things I had expected to find over the top and gaudy - buildings lit up, flashing lights, obtuse forms, tangles of highways, splashes of colour - oddly seemed to work. It did appear that experimenting and throwing everything into the pot resulted in ‘anything goes’.
When a model of the Shanghai World Financial Centre (designed by KPF) was shown at the Royal Academy for the Skyhigh exhibition in 2003, it struck me as an elegant and beautiful skyscraper.
In the flesh, or should I say steel, it was even more impressive (left). The world's second tallest building, it has a giddying height of 492m, and the world’s highest viewing platform.
It also has the highest hotel in the world, which provides views equal to those of the observation deck and cocktails too. Personally, I think it is one of the best skyscrapers ever built.
We saw numerous creative districts in Shanghai, which seemed symbolic of what is happening in all China's major cities. The government-owned 'Shanghai 1933' district had a growing cluster of spaces for the creative industries, which seemed largely commercially driven.
As a building, the main centre - which contains various commercial outlets such as restaurants and shops - was amazing. A converted abattoir, it channels visitors up through the building along the same slopes once trudged by cattle. However, the quality of design in the centre itself was disappointing, characterised by incongruous red baubles that hung throughout the dramatic concrete form.
More enjoyable was Red Town (above), a creative centre occupying the remains of the old Shanghai No. 10 Steel factory in Hongqiao which now houses the Shanghai Sculpture Museum and a collection of cafes, gift shops and offices. Architects Deshaus have their offices here.
Attracting 73 million visitors in its six-month run, the Shanghai World Expo (above) was a Mecca for Chinese tourists. Twice the size of Monaco, it featured more than 240 countries from around the world vying for the attention of the Chinese, to such an extent that the Danes shipped in their most treasured possession - the Little Mermaid. The visitor numbers to us here in London are unfathomable. On one Sunday alone they had over a million visitors.
Architecturally, there were a few stand-out pavilions. Above left is the Spanish Pavilion designed by EMBT, clad in 8524 wicker panels and which Benedetta Tagliabue spoke about at her Royal Academy lecture in March. Above right is the 'Kirnu' ("giant's kettle"), the Finnish pavilion designed by Helsinki-based JKMM.
It is not often that I feel inclined to deny my Australian blood, but my country's pavilion made me want to do just that. It underestimated the sophistication of the audience and was badly pitched, with weak displays and an even more disappointing building (too embarrassing to photograph). By contrast, Thomas Heatherwick's British pavilion (below) was heralded as one of the great successes of the expo and won many a heart with its ethereal form.
The interior was about experience rather than display. Each of the 60,000 Perspex rods pictured contains a seed from Kew Gardens' Millennium Seed Bank in Wakehurst, West Sussex (designed by Alan Stanton RA's practice Stanton Williams). They were visually intriguing individually and quite beautiful as a group. During the day, fine shafts of light enter the pavilion through each of the rods.
One question was constantly on my mind: what sort of museum or gallery experience did this new wave of cultural tourists want? A lesson can be learnt from the Germans, who presented a huge amount of intelligent material, communicated in inventive and engaging ways (below left and right) that seemed to enthral its primarily Chinese audience as the buzz inside and the long queues outside made clear.
The Bridge 8 exhibition 'The Hong Kong Creative Ecologies' completely stood out for the quality of the exhibition display and the design products which it was showing. One of the best was the Red White Blue project (below) by Stanley Wong, who we had the pleasure of meeting later in the trip at Shenzhen. An advertising guru turned designer and artist, he was full of energy, ideas and provocations, and definitely one to follow.