Though China is becoming well known as the home of startling, ambitious new architecture, the sweeping forms and epic scale of China’s new icons of modernity often appear only after extensive periods of relocation and demolition, and in many ways tastefully-preserved blocks are more impressive than new constructions, given the careful study and rehabilitation required to rejuvenate old buildings, as opposed to simply demolishing them and building anew.
Until recently, “preservation” was quite literally a foreign concept: in traditional Chinese architecture, building materials were short-lived: wooden temples would naturally decay in a shorter time than the stone monuments of European antiquity, and the philosophical underpinnings of classical society stressed repetition and renewal.
Shanghai today is not a particularly old city, but its rapid growth has produced an incredible amount of architectural diversity in a short time, many examples of which have been protected by the government, and a few of which can be examined to get a sense of the state of historical preservation in China today.
The museum itself is tastefully done – Chipperfield was basically content to leave the building as-is, cleaned thoroughly and repainted, but most of the brickwork, iron railings, tile, etc, seems original and intact. The new addition at the back end of the building is monumental in scale, but limited to a subdued palate of materials and formal moves. The simplicity of the addition is in contrast to the more ornate façade of the original building, with no attempt to recreate the art deco stylings of the original architects.
The surrounding masterplan is less successful. Aside from two buildings by famed 1930s architect Lazlo Hudec, the rest of the block seems to be undergoing demolition, and those buildings that have been reconstructed seem to be entirely new constructions, in an imitation of their original form. Work is ongoing, so it’s difficult to draw any conclusions, but it will be interesting to watch as construction of the block proceeds.
The RockBund museum is located at 20 Huqiu Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai, ten minutes walk from the East Nanjing Road metro station.