Re­claim­ing a piece of his­tory

The beau­ti­ful an­cient city of Yangzhou has a glo­ri­ous and glam­orous past, but the sto­ried heart of it has fallen to ne­glect. The mayor asked a team from Texas to help to turn it around, CHRIS DAVIS re­ports from New York.

China Daily (Canada) - - IN DEPTH -

rchi­tec­ture projects in China that tend to steal the spot­light are usu­ally big and flashy, like the Guang­dong Mu­seum in Guangzhou or the Bird’s Nest

The mayor ar­rived the next day with his heads of plan­ning, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and cul­tural af­fairs. They talked about river walks, not just in China, but across the globe — Venice, Chicago, Am­s­ter­dam — all of which Over­land had stud­ied ex­ten­sively.

Zhu in­vited Over­land to Yangzhou the fol­low­ing week to take a look at the water­way, now called the Mi­nor Qin­huai River, which, with its 58-acre neigh­bor­hood along both banks, was almost iden­ti­cal in scale to San An­to­nio’s river walk. The ques­tion was, could it be made as charm­ing the Texas tourist mag­net?

A del­e­ga­tion from Over­land went to Yangzhou.

“When we walked it, we could un­der­stand the mayor’s con­cern,” said Jim An­drews, a prin­ci­pal at Over­land. The so-called river “had re­ally just be­come an in­fras­truc­tural ease­ment for storm wa­ter and sewage. The build­ings were di­lap­i­dated, with a pre­dom­i­nant pop­u­la­tion of ag­ing peo­ple in very rudi­men­tary ac­com­mo­da­tions. It was the poor­est dis­trict of the city, and yet it was a stone’s throw away from Slen­der West Lake, the city’s jewel, the “equiv­a­lent of New York City’s Cen­tral Park”, which had just been de­clared a World Her­itage Site.

“This was per­haps the most com­plex chal­lenge we’d faced in China,” he said. The site had be­come dis­con­nected from the city. The river walk it­self was in dis­re­pair and didn’t re­ally con­nect to any­thing. There was no rea­son to be on the river at all. It was for­got­ten.

Over­land’s first step was to “lis­ten to the land­scape”, dig deep into re­search about the city. Over­land’s re­search was also aided by maps of the city, some dat­ing back 500 years. Key ar­eas

The team sorted out key ar­eas where the river’s “space” in­ter­sected with the city’s “space”, where each road per­pen­dic­u­lar to the river in­ter­sected and crossed it. They called them nodes and iden­ti­fied eight.

Node 1 had the crit­i­cally im­por­tant docks where pas­sen­gers boarded boats for rides to the Slen­der West Lake.

Node 3 had some late 1950s early 1960s fac­tory build­ings for lac­quer ware that sug­gested an area for artists. There was an ex­ist­ing mar­ket­place be­tween Nodes 4 and 5.

They found an in­trigu­ing com­plex of Bud­dhist tem­ples on the east bank of Node 6, as well as pa­per and scis­sor shops and book dis­trib­u­tors. Node 7 was an ag­glom­er­a­tion of spe­cial lo­cal eater­ies and restau­rants. There were also ex­ist­ing mar­ket dis­tricts be­tween Nodes 4 and 5 as well as be­tween Nodes 6 and 7. Node 4, which will have a fu­ture sub­way stop, and Node 8, which is ideal for a tourist bus drop off, are the busiest in­ter­sec­tions.

The plan­ners used the “theme” of each node to cre­ate a sense of the dis­trict’s iden­tity. Where there used to be a con­cen­tra­tion of schol­ars in the past, the plan­ners con­sid­ered putting schools, draw­ing teenagers and young adults to the site, learn­ing there and then want­ing to live nearby. Re­tail and other Chal­leng­ing stage

An­drews said that stage has been a bit more chal­leng­ing in China. “It can of­ten take time to con­vince peo­ple that it is a safe en­vi­ron­ment where they can ex­press their opin­ions,” he said.

The key piece of the project, of course, was the water­way it­self, which was more than just a moat filled with wa­ter. It was a liv­ing body of wa­ter that came off the Grand Canal, snaked its way into town, made its loop and then con­tin­ued on to the Yangtze River. But it was a mess.

Mayor Zhu and ev­ery­one knew that if the wa­ter qual­ity of the Mi­nor Qin­huai River was not sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved, the project would never suc­ceed.

Over­land turned to world renowned en­gi­neer­ing company Arup, which al­ready had sev­eral of­fices in China. Their land­scape and wa­ter con­sul­tants who spe­cial­ize in rivers and canals came up with three strate­gies.

They could iso­late the water­way, ba­si­cally turn it into a large re-cir­cu­lat­ing swimming pool, which had the ad­van­tage of to­tal con­trol (as long as storm wa­ter and foul in­lets could be man­aged). Or, they could con­struct in­flat­able dams, so that at cer­tain times — if there was a flood up­stream, for in­stance — they could iso­late the wa­ter. The third so­lu­tion was a hy­brid of the first two: a self-con­tained lock sys­tem with re-cir­cu­lat­ing wa­ter.

This so­lu­tion also meant that they could pro­vide green spa­ces along the river that were truly sys­temic sys­tems, places that would not only func­tion as pleas­ant parks, but also where wa­ter could be treated.

“One of them is a won­der­ful gold­fish wet­land ar­eas with a se­ries of ter­raced gold­fish ponds and grass sys­tems that ac­tu­ally help clean and aer­ate the wa­ter on the main canal it­self,” said An­drews, a place where peo­ple can “cel­e­brate the wa­ter”.

When it comes time to pitch their con­cept, one thing Over­land does is work up a de­scrip­tion of what the dis­trict would be like from op­por­tu­ni­ties would follow.

They wanted to at­tract peo­ple with money in their pock­ets and not be just another iso­lated tourist at­trac­tion that so many restora­tions of old streets in China had be­come. They wanted it to be au­then­tic, filled with real peo­ple, where shop­keep­ers and innkeep­ers aren’t sim­ply wait­ing for tour buses to un­load. They wanted it full of the peo­ple of Yangzhou.

“It’s a mat­ter of mar­ry­ing th­ese prac­ti­cal, func­tional needs the 21st cen­tury has and try to fit that inside — in some cases — forms that come from 1,000-year-old foot­prints or struc­tures,” Blonkvist said.

Over­land then sat down with all the in­ter­ested par­ties to hear what they had to say.

“We learn about their as­pi­ra­tions and dreams for the site and what their con­cerns are,” An­drews said. “The beauty of that is you con­nect with peo­ple. They’re able to share their fears with you : Are you go­ing to de­mol­ish it all? How big is it go­ing to be? Will it over­whelm the river and sur­round­ing area?” dif­fer­ent peo­ple’s per­spec­tives — for a tourist, some­one who works on the river, some­one who lives on the out­skirts of Yangzhou.

“If you were in a boat and went through the project, what would you see, where would you stop and get off the boat?” An­drews said.

Over­land’s Blonkvist got his firm in­volved in China five years ago, but it’s a con­nec­tion that had re­ally been 30 years in the mak­ing. It started back in 1982 when he worked for I.M. Pei at his of­fice in New York. Dur­ing the five years he spent there, he did a lot of work in Asia teamed up with a young man named Qin “QC” Chin.

One of their projects was the Sin­ga­pore River master plan and ma­rina, a con­tract Pei had won through an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion. Work­ing on that got Blonkvist in­ter­ested in river walks. From there, work­ing fur­ther with QC on the Bank of China in Hong Kong — the tallest build­ing in Asia at the time it was built — and the US Ex­po­si­tion Pav­il­lion in Beijing (which was or­ga­nized by John Glenn), Blonkvist said he got to learn a lot about China.

But his — and his part­ners’ — dream was to open a prac­tice in San An­to­nio, which they did in 1987. Then five years ago in the mid­dle of the night the phone rang. It was QC. He had moved back to China and was act­ing as a con­sul­tant for Chi­nese de­vel­op­ers build­ing new towns in China. He had been asked to rec­om­mend a Western ar­chi­tect with a prov­able back­ground in sus­tain­able de­sign who would be will­ing to come to China, work on large-scale master plans and per­haps some of the ar­chi­tec­ture as well.

Since that call, Blonkvist has been to China 35 times spend­ing more than 400 days there. One re­fer­ral led to another and even­tu­ally they struck up a strong re­la­tion­ship with Arup, one of the largest en­gi­neer­ing firms in the world, which was in­volved in the Olympics Wa­ter Tube and Bird’s Nest and even­tu­ally had seven of­fices in China.

Blonkvist said when he first went to China he was shocked to see an at­ti­tude where peo­ple were not so much in­ter­ested in their own his­tory and cul­ture as they were in the new, the in­no­va­tive, bold, flashy and glitzy. “They were more about try­ing to show the world that they were up to speed with the 21st cen­tury,” he said.

Re­cently he has seen a tran­si­tion. “Most of the peo­ple we work with re­ally love and ap­pre­ci­ate their his­tory and their cul­ture and they’re afraid of the new young peo­ple try­ing to de­stroy it. They want to hold on to it. They want to build on it. They want to try and find a way to graft the old and the new in to­gether with­out los­ing their his­tory and cul­ture,” he said.

Over­land now has more than a dozen projects un­der­way in China rep­re­sent­ing about 20 per­cent of their work­load.

After a year’s work fol­low­ing Mayor Zhu’s visit to San An­to­nio, Over­land Part­ners pre­sented a two-inch-thick, 11-by-17 book to Zhu de­tail­ing a master plan and guide­lines for the Mi­nor Qin­huai river walk over next 10 to 15 years. In the early fall, it was adopted by Yangzhou’s plan­ning depart­ment, city fa­thers and the mayor.

“One of the things we have done is tried to en­cour­age them to re­spect and honor their his­tory and tra­di­tion and to bring it back where ap­pro­pri­ate, fix it up where ap­pro­pri­ate and then where it’s not ap­pro­pri­ate build new fa­cil­i­ties where new larger groups of peo­ple from around the world — as this is be­com­ing a ma­jor tourist des­ti­na­tion — will ex­pect to have a cer­tain level of qual­ity Western com­forts,” Blonkvist said.

“So it’s an op­por­tu­nity for us in the West to come back, do the re­search and give them back their story, give them back the his­tory that they had for­got­ten,” he said. Con­tact the writer at chris­davis@chi­nadai­


The San An­to­nio River Walk im­pressed the mayor of Yangzhou so much that he wanted a ne­glected water­way and neigh­bor­hood in his city to un­dergo a sim­i­lar trans­for­ma­tion.

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