2012-11-19 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
WHAT could be a better destination for an American student of architecture than China with its new and exciting design? It's the testing ground for visionary architectural propositions, as the Pudong skyline shows. Therefore, what better place than Shanghai?
I worked for two months at the internationally respected firm Aedas, where I was involved in a mixed-use development in Chongqing. Quite simply, I was part of a project that was meaningful and daring, living the dream of any architecture student.
My long-standing question about Chinese architecture is: what makes it Chinese? Many examples of architecture (Wang Shu's aside) seem like insincere attempts at addressing greater cultural or social issues of a time and place.
My questions were further driven by my first impressions. Maybe I was a victim of expectations, but Shanghai felt incredibly underwhelming. I had expected it to be marked by traditionally or culturally driven construction, yet it was not. Certainly it has preserved some historic and culturally significant gems such as Jing'an Temple, but aside from that, Shanghai often felt it could have been any city anywhere, reaching for modernity and at times unaware of the cost culturally and environmentally.
I wondered which buildings were razed to make way for a modern image and valuable real estate. The air was polluted and I couldn't help but feel uneasy about the future of such rapidly developing cities.
But I judged too quickly and Shanghai has many nuances, I found that beyond the gleaming glass facades and dramatic skyline, Shanghai finds ways to embrace its past.
I anticipated more traditional-style buildings, but to my surprise, a tour took me to historic buildings unmistakably Western in style and construction, relics of colonization. But it concluded with an authentic, architectural gem, shikumen (stone-gated) houses under renovation. Of brick construction with terra-cotta roof tiles, shikumen were a hybrid of Eastern and Western-style dwellings and represented lifestyle during the 1920s and 30s. From the floor plan that speaks of tradition and custom to the narrow lanes (longtang) that separate rows of homes, I felt I was at last in Shanghai. It wasn't difficult to imagine the laughter and activity of young and old that would again fill the area.
It is not always buildings, new or old, that make a place. It is the people who define it, shape it, build it - give it life.
I was blessed by staying with a hospitable host family. As my circle grew, from coworkers to friends and store owners to taxi drivers, I realized hospitality was not a courtesy but a characteristic of Shanghai people. Never before had I felt at home while being away from home.
My host family exposed me to myriad experiences, from lively Tian Zi Fang and the soulful Shanghainese Women's Choir to sophisticated jazz clubs, from invigorating massages to local artists' inspiring masterpieces. I knew the city's sights, sounds, smells and feel. At the end, Shanghai was very near to my heart.
There was the occasional "hiccup" in cultural immersion - the first being food. The most challenging part was organ meat, which is taboo in some places. At first, the flavors were foreign indeed - in America it's simpler, with focus on enhancing single flavors. Yet Shanghai was overflowing with flavors, sometimes masking the original. But by the end, I found myself craving certain delicacies, eager to try new things.
Another hiccup was working from 50 to 70 hours a week, and I was not alone. It was a competitive corporate environment but mostly my coworkers were passionate about their work. They were young, talented and ambitious. I embraced it and was mentored by a coworker I greatly respect.