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The 3 R’s

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The Three R’s used to without irony refer to Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic but, more recently, we know them as the sustainability performance mantras Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. There are as many R’s as you want. Re-use works for buildings but Repair works better for washing machines and Replace better for old refrigerators. It’s not that difficult to find a word beginning with an R to add a sense of logical inevitability to whatever list you have. Here’s some more.


Shanghai’s Columbia Circle was developed in the 1930s as an upmarket residential area with some very large villas. It’s currently being reconfigured as an urban pedestrian thoroughfare with retail and various amenities. The feel is of an open-air mall with an urban/architectural/spatial/historic attractor.

The language on these posters made me sense the presence of architects’ promises so it was no surprise to learn Columbia Circle was masterplanned by OMA 2015-2017.

I recalled the marketing promises for the ground level of Foster+Partners’ Albion Riveside development in London’s Battersea. It would become some new and vibrant place of restaurants and bars and such but, as it turned out, this was the last thing the only people who could afford the apartments looking over this potentially vibrant ‘new town square’ wanted it to be. The last time I saw it was 2008 when there was one upmarket Italian kitchen store (beneath the “affordable” housing component in the dark at the top right of the photo below) while the spaces under the building were vacant. The idea of creating a convenient thoroughfare is a good one but, while I passed through this development twice a day for two years, I never once spent any money there and, even if there had been the opportunities to in 2008, I doubt I would have.

Some vibrant neighbourhood hub may have flourished and died in the meantime but this current listing makes me doubt it.

Columbus Circle is done well and without recourse to pastiche or historicism, or at least no more than was already there. It’s definitely a special place and a pleasant and traffic-free route for pedestrians. Its upmarket restaurants and outlets however contradict the claims of vibrancy and interaction. Entry to the Japanese art bookstore is by appointment only. The people who use these aren’t going to be the people who walk by them to “populate” and “animate” the development on their way to somewhere else, in the architectural spin on the truism that if something is free then you are the product. This is the way with shopping malls whether they look like shopping malls or not. At Columbus Circle, history and ‘a different architecture’ function much like Dubai Mall’s aquarium and fountains do to attract people with no desire to spend money there. Even so, their passing through can be monetized by making the place seem more lively to those who will. OMA’s brief was to do this in a unique, upmarket and apparently genuine manner. Their dark genius is to encourage this non-spending footfall to pass through and not linger for any length of time.

Retain (Reprieve, Respite)

Residential buildings such as these next immediately behind the historic buildings of The Bund are sealed with concrete blocks not so much to prevent squatters occupying them but to prevent them becoming derelict while the property value appreciates and/or a new use is found. Or so I’m guessing. Such reprieves buy time to observe and make judgements better suited to how the city is to develop. In times of downturn it’s best to do nothing and in boom times it’s best not to do anything hasty.

Shanghai has many old buildings in this state of limbo. Some are on the edge. Some we can imagine in some happier future we hope they have. Squid Game. Not all will survive.

In other countries the norm is to demolish immediately because that’s supposed to add value to the land. A scheme would be duly (and possibly genuinely) produced by some architect for some readable, walkable, vibrant, mixed use community with interactions between new and old and the property will invariably be promptly sold on once its value has inflated by planning permission being granted. I’m sorry. This is my experience and how how I once saw my place and, by extension, that of the architectural designer in the property development food chain. For designer me, success counted as proposing something municipalities (and thus clients) wanted to see exist, even if their reasons for wanting it to exist did not align with each others’, let alone naïve me and mine.

Reduce to Rubble. Redevelop.

I’m curious why these next buildings have a two-story arcade overlooked by residential spaces, of which there are more above. Other than wanting a double-height arcade, I can’t think what would generate such a typology. Luckily for these buildings, they’re very close to the river and still being used for their original purpose.

Identical buildings further up the street don’t look like being so lucky. Openings have been blocked up but, this time, the decision to demolish has been made. It was the fate of these buildings to have been built on land more valuable for some future use the buildings couldn’t accommodate.

Redevelop is the final R – though there’s always the possibility it could be followed by Regret. Buildings such as the earlier two storey blocks and the single story residential further what would’ve been demolished to make way for Foster+Partners/Thomas Heatherwick’s mammoth The Bund Finance Centre development which, to use another extinct animal metaphor, seems a bit of a dinosaur. I’m reminded of F+P’s Central Market development in Abu Dhabi and its griddy bits.

This time, instead of Arabesque lattices recalling mashribaya, perception management is deemed satisfied by shovelfuls of Chinoiserie in the form of lattices alluding to Oriental screens combined with much use of a colour that’s not too bright to be mistaken for gold (by us) and not too dull to be mistaken for bronze (by Chinese). They know the ropes and the tropes these F+P people.

Summarizing the past sixty years of modern architectural history, we can say that The International Style never died but lives on as decorated mixed-use development gain. To satisfy some international expectation of technological prowess, the structure has been picked out in granite cladding with a pattern of CNC milled concavities (though the press release TWICE implies its hand carved.) These concavities straddle panels, pointlessly yet decadently indicating the entire facade has been designed and milled as a single pattern. The size of these panels is unimpressive and at first I mistook them for GRP. Having said that, they look very pretty when the sun catches them after it rains,

This apparent structure decreases in width as it rises. Whether this is some misguided attempt at a plant growth allusion or an attempt to “dematerialize” the building with increasing height I don’t know. It’s not an eyesore and, for what it is, it’s okay. Not that many people were caring as I passed by. The development was suffering from a lack of international tourists expected to patronize the ground level luxury retailers with their assorted fashion houses, jewelers, perfumeries and restaurants. Various attempts were being made to attract people to the spaces between the buildings, if not into the buildings themselves.

This next bit of text is the project description “From The Architects.” As is the way. I won’t bother quoting a source as the same text is everywhere. It confirms my dematerialization hypothesis but throws up questions regarding the efficacy of the massing strategy over which F+P’s Studio Head gushes. I say this because the development is a fair bit displaced from those famous historic buildings along The Bund. And, regarding the massing strategy, the development site is not a situation with only tall modern buildings at one end and low-rise historic buildings at the other. Using buildings of decreasing heights as a mediation strategy presupposes the conditions for it to work and that’s simply not the case here. The photograph below left looks north towards the low-rise and historic area, with an inconveniently tall white building inbetween. The one below right is looking south from the white building back towards Bund Financial Centre. I think the designers overated the relevance of their strategy. If they ever believed it to begin with, that is.

I’ve picked out in yellow the parts I think are meaningless, contentious, or total rubbish. There’s not much left. We’re told three times about the “420,000 square metres” of office space, once every 230 words on average.

It’s not exactly pre-2008 levels of hype, but it is an example of the kind of expectations inflation we tend to ignore until a global financial crisis or pandemic forces a reckoning. If ever you go to Shanghai and you can be bothered, please visit this place and judge whether it lives up to these claims. These next images are Heatherwick’s cultural centre that was mentioned in the last two paragraphs of the press release above. It’s horrid on many different levels. No-one I know has seen the “veils” move. An architect friend said he learned to hate this facade as queued for three hours beneath it on the last day of the Tadao Ando exhibition last December. Another architect friend told me Heatherwick was dating Foster’s daughter at the time.

There’s a whole universe of tabloid gossip to be mined here. Intrusive yes. But if protagonists choose to live by the media, then the tabloidifaction of architecture is long overdue. I don’t see why architecture with its cult of personalities, is any more special than musicians or reality tv stars. Kudos to ARK Architecture and their attempts to break this impasse. This was 2013 though.

I don’t know anything about traditional Chinese bridal head-dresses but, as far as bamboo-shaped things on the sides of buildings go, I much prefer this building anyone can see on the way from South Xizang Road metro station to Powerhouse of Art. It’s a single-layer of stationary bamboo and I like it for being what it is not what it is not..

A few blocks further north and immediately behind the historic centre is this development next to Yu Garden [which will feature in a future post]. Full of restaurants and shops selling foodstuffs and other things for people to take back home from the big city to give to family and friends, it’s Shanghai’s most popular destination for domestic tourists and always full of happy people.