BEN Wood is a renowned architect behind city landmark Xintiandi. He heads Studio Shanghai, one of the leading architecture firms in the city. It offers master planning, architecture design as well as interior design services. Wood has been dedicated to creating human scale projects with commercial success and cultural significance.
I am proud of all of our studio’s projects. Some are more famous than others. But I think every one of them has contributed to making better cities for better lives. I would like to be remembered for helping transform China’s historic neighborhoods into places where people can live better lives.
In designing Shanghai’s Xintiandi we chose adaptive re-use over strict historic preservation. Creating a future for the past meant adapting the historic lanes and townhouses to meet the psychological and practical demands of a contemporary Chinese society. We were ruthless in this pursuit and gave the promise of a new and better life to those destined to re-inhabit these artifacts of a bygone era. If the windows of an exterior facade were not large enough to provide the level of transparency necessary to “invite” people inside, we made them into doors and dropped the sills to the floor. If a courtyard needed some additional protection from the elements we added a glass roof. When we wanted more space between buildings for a wider promenade or outdoor dining we exercised selective demolition.
We have many projects all over China. They are almost always in the heart of the city, whether it be Dali, Wuhan, Hubei, Tianjin, Nanjing, Shanghai, Harbin, or Shenyang. Some, not all, involve historic buildings. The one thing they have in common is the need for each to have their own distinct character. Character has intrinsic cultural meaning.
Too many of today’s designers and architects struggle to be different, to stand out in the crowd, to be noticed, and to be famous for their very own signature style.
This is especially true in China where the greatest urbanization in the history of the world has given unprecedented opportunities to members of my profession.
When beginning a new project I seek inspiration by visiting the villages of the local countryside. The archetypal language of the non-pedigreed and non-formal is always in response to local climate and geography. These vernacular houses built by the people who live in them never disappoint my mind’s eye. Compared to the utilitarian “fifty shades of grey” concrete and steel framed multi-story apartments spread over almost endless super-blocks of China’s great urbanization they are simple and elegant.
Like a rose, nothing in architecture is ever ugly in itself; it is merely in the wrong place or of the wrong size, while beauty is the child of the coherent relationship between the parts. A building that ignores this principle has the troubling quality of one whose windows fail to open in the tropics or to close in the mountains. It does not matter how different a building looks if the roof leaks.
I am most creative when I have a client that understands the importance of good design.
Where I live is very important. My home is part of who I am. The interiors of my home are very personal. They were designed by an interior designer, me. I can not fathom having someone else involved, other a life partner, in the design of the place where I spend more than a third of my life. The most important room in my house is the kitchen. Where else would someone who likes to cook entertain guests?
Art, music, books, motorcycles, classic cars, and, most recently, light-weight, single engine, experimental aircraft. I have two planes in the USA and now in the middle of building my first one here in China with the help of a local aviation company.
While I was preparing for this interview I picked up a copy of the “Sights and Sounds of China” published by the China Travel and Tourism Press. On the first page that I turned to there was this quote: “Only things that are national in style will be accepted internationally.”
I hope the next trend in contemporary architecture in China will be that it will be more Chinese. And I do not mean faux Chinese derived from traditional Chinese architectural styles. I mean an architecture of substance based on modern “patterns” of cultural behavior.
The Shikumen were modern when they were built-in the early 20th century and were unique among all other urban dwelling typologies of their day. They did not try to be different; rather they addressed the needs of everyday life. To repeat, every generation needs to express itself by making changes to their environment. When you copy the past or try to hard be different you are, in a sense, anonymous. You are consuming, not creating culture.