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American architects find creative freedom in Shanghai

David Gura Feb 20, 2015
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American architects find creative freedom in Shanghai

David Gura Feb 20, 2015
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Shanghai, which is the financial heart of China, has been one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Its population is around 23 million, and over the last couple of decades, real estate developers have been going full bore, building skyscraper after skyscraper. That has been good for architects – including many American architects.

The Huangpu River curves through Shanghai on its way to the East China Sea, and architect William Paluch is sitting on its western bank, on what is called The Bund. There is a wide promenade and there is “a series of about 28 buildings from the early twentieth century – mostly constructed between 1910 and 1930,” he explains. 

The buildings that line The Bund, across the Huangpu River from Shanghai’s modern Pudong district, feature classical-looking columns and gray stone.

 

The buildings couldn’t look more different from what is across the river, in a part of Shanghai called Pudong. It is “the new city, the new district,” Paluch says. “It is where all the super high-rise buildings are, and where all the intense development has been focused over the last 20 years.”

Paluch left the United States four years ago, to head the architecture firm HOK’s China practice. He says in Shanghai, so much is new, and that appeals to many American architects.

“It is the greatest place to be on earth, I think,” says Dan Winey, regional managing principal for Gensler’s U.S. Northwest and Asia Pacific offices. He has lived in Shanghai for more than a decade.

At a time when critics lament the sameness of new architecture in the States, China offers opportunities to be bold, Winey says. He and his colleagues designed the Shanghai Tower, which is scheduled to open in a few months. It will be the second-tallest building in the world.

The head of the tower’s design team, Jun Xia, who is a regional design director at Gensler, is eager to point out how innovative the building is. For one, it has this standout curved shape. “Asymmetric,” he says. “That’s very important.” And Xia, who was born in Shanghai, but studied and practiced in the U.S. before he moved back home, says air is cleaned in a giant pocket between the building’s windows and another glass façade that hangs from cables and moves with the wind.

“The glass skin, it’s just like a silk dress,” Xia says. Winey jumps in to say, “It’s more like an Armani suit.”

China’s growth has been slowing recently, but that doesn’t seem to faze American architects, including William Paluch. “Seven percent growth is still a lot of growth,” he notes.

He sees the slowdown as an opportunity to re-focus on architecture that could tackle some of China’s biggest problems, including air pollution and population density. Architects could pioneer solutions in China that they could bring back to the U.S.

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