Forevermore 2: “authenticity”

Xintiandi Originally uploaded by Payton Chung

Xintiandi is a fantastically successful upmarket shopping center in central Shanghai that combines restored lilong (townhouses along narrow interior lanes) with new construction buildings, squares, and passages. Large new buildings with a cinema, enclosed mall, high-rise hotels, and fantastically expensive apartments have been arranged around its edges.

Its popularity with foreigners (and subsequent priciness) proves a bit vexing. I’d love to think that it’s a model for adaptively reusing historic buildings elsewhere in Shanghai — they won’t know the value of what they’re destroying until it’s long gone — but its popularity with expats (and American architect, and American awards) might actually reinforce the local perception that urban placemaking is for other people to play in, not for something actually worth living in.

Not that I don’t run into similar feelings in the States — as when trying to sell the idea of walkable downtowns to suburbanites by showing examples from posh railroad suburbs, gentrified city neighborhoods, or plush suburban lifestyle centers. "Yes, well that works for those fancy people. We like our strip malls just fine." Yet in the States, at least you can blame that on cultural amnesia: people have plumb forgotten what city/town life means. In China, though, there’s no excuse other than their willful obsession with novelty (even when they’ve a ca. 1955 idea of tomorrow). It also takes a lot more skill and careful consideration to get a Xintiandi right than a Portman Ritz right — the rewards are richer and more durable, but the go-go attitude in China favors quick, shiny, and slapdash. I’m all for letting people learn from their own mistakes, but it’s still painful to watch.

The whole experience, and knowing that these buildings represent not "Chinese history" but "Western imperialist history" to the locals, really continues to confound my expectations about authenticity. It’s like space, place, and use have nothing to do with one another — and in someplace as crowded (and thus alive with market potential) as China, where use traditionally has never been regulated, maybe they don’t.

(I expect to write a bit more about authenticity in a little book review soon.)