Architect John Portman revives a historic piece of Shanghai. Wu Chong reports from Atlanta
US architect John Portman, 86, has committed 40 years to reviving large downtown areas with luxury hotels and commercial towers, including New York's Times Square and Atlanta's Peachtree Center, but his most recent project is much more intimate and small scale.
It is to restore a historic residential area of 51 houses in Shanghai.
The real estate project, called Jianyeli, is located in the former French Concession in downtown Shanghai's Xuhui district.
The houses in the area are unique for their Shikumen style architecture.
Shikumen, which literally means "stone door frame" was developed in the early 1900s to meet the housing demands of booming old Shanghai. The houses are urban Western adaptations of traditional Chinese courtyard houses and were once described as "Chinese houses with a Parisian sensibility".
Begun in 2008, the Jianyeli project is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.
"We will make it a residential community, not a tourist attraction," Portman says. "We want to be as true to the existing architecture as possible."
"But only inside, we have to recognize that this is the 21st century, and we're doing the inside in such a way that anybody living there will have everything they need," he adds.
Jianyeli's east side, which was in worse condition than the west side, is being dismantled brick by brick.
The area will be built into a luxury residential community with 51 Shikumen-style villas, 62 apartments and more than 4,000 square meters of retail space.
A seven-story-high tower designed by Portman will be erected at the center of the area, replacing a water tower. This will be a landmark and "reflect the new beginning of Jianyeli," according to Richard Jones, executive vice-president of Portman Holdings.
People will be able to climb up a stairway inside the tower and see the entire neighborhood.
"It's been a very challenging project. It's very difficult to rehabilitate something than to build something new," Portman says, "but we're very excited about it. It brings us back from these huge projects to the human level again."
A successful architect and developer, Portman started his own business in 1953 after serving in the Navy during World War II. In 1960, while his company was working on the Atlanta Merchandise Mart, Portman had a chance to visit Brasilia. He had hoped to learn from its much-acclaimed urban planning, but was disappointed by the city's lack of attention to human needs.
He then went to Scandinavia and other places to learn "how things were put together."
"We spend a lot of time on structure and latest material and latest technology. But we don't spend enough time on the impact of the environmental circumstances we create on people," Portman says. "I also became interested in a bigger context - not just a single isolated building, but the impact that building can have as a catalytic element to provide other things that will grow from it," he adds.
The mart in Atlanta, which was later named AmericasMart, became the start of the Peachtree Center, the downtown area of Atlanta. Peachtree continues to evolve according to Portman's design into a place with interconnected office towers, restaurants, hotels and retail shops. It set the example for many of the mixed-use projects inside and outside the United States.
The Peachtree Center was so successful that when former Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping visited Atlanta in 1979, he invited Portman to visit China later that year with Atlanta's official delegation. That eventually led to Portman's first project in China, the Shanghai Center.
"When I first visited China, there was no color. The national flag was the only color," Portman recalls. "And Shanghai was not cheerful about people coming from the outside."
However, Portman says, China was opening its doors and the Western world was coming in.
"How can we accelerate that and create a situation that is a great benefit to both China and the West?" Portman recalls, thinking.
The architect came up with a concept of a major hotel with apartment towers, some office space and retail stores. "If a man from Germany, the US or Canada came in and set up an office there, we wanted to provide everything he needed. We wanted to create a home away from home," Portman says.
Thus Portman created the Shanghai Center, the first mixed-use project in China, which is now "a model of how you put things together instead of building an isolated tower, " he says.
Since then, Portman Holdings and John Portman & Associates (JPA) have taken over many "high-rise" projects in Beijing and Shanghai, including Beijing Yintai Center and Shanghai Tomorrow Square. In 1993, they set up an office in Shanghai to further tap the Chinese market.
Grace Tan, president of JPA, says that half of the company's projects are in China these days.
"Most of our projects focus on Shanghai and Beijing, but we are also excited to see that in recent years, we've begun to be approached by clients from Wenzhou, Qingdao, Xi'an and Changsha. We can see that we're going away from main cities," Tan says.
Not only that, Portman's business is gaining more penetration into other Asian countries. In Seoul, South Korea, a gigantic real estate project that covers 1,500 acres is now under construction. The main building, the 2,000-foot Incheon Tower, is designed by Portman and functions as a landmark at the entrance to the city proper of Seoul from the airport.
Again, Jianyeli provides a big contrast to all these projects.
"The significance (of the Jianyeli project) is for us to be part of something that's very significant for Shanghai, to be part of preserving this cornerstone of Shanghai's heritage," Jones of Portman Holdings says.
"It also gives us the ability to show our clients that we can not only build high buildings." In Portman's own words, Jianyeli is a "reminder, a wonderful opportunity to bring back the essence of that time and era."