In his two decades in China, architect Ben Wood has helped build over a dozen commercial projects that combine historic architectural styles with modern commerce—most famously in Shanghai’s buzzy Xintiandi area, where you can find a Shake Shack or a Tiffany’s housed in a 19th-century styled building.
Now Wood wants more of his fellow designers to ditch the glass and steel of modern buildings and embrace more traditional materials and designs. “Whether it’s natural stone, wood…what’s the most sustainable resource we have in this world right now?” Wood said last Thursday at Fortune China’s ESG Summit in Shanghai, China. These materials are “overlooked by the ‘50 Shades of Grey’ that high-rise architects are selling people in this room today.”
“Why buy ‘50 Shades of Grey’ when you can have color?” Wood said. “It’s not a stylistic issue, it’s a meaning issue, of what does that material mean?”
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Wood, who now runs Studio Shanghai, an architectural design firm based in the Chinese megacity, is famous for wanting to protect historic styles in his projects. The architect is perhaps best known for his work on Xintiandi, a high-rise shopping district near the city’s French Concession that opened in 2001, and the controversial 2003 redesign of Chicago’s Soldier Field, which preserved the external facade of the old stadium while renovating the interior.
Shanghai awarded the Xintiandi redevelopment contract to Hong Kong-based developer Shui On and its owner Vincent Lo on one condition: That the billionaire tycoon preserve some of the local architecture.
Wood remembers the need to preserve the area’s “shikumen” architecture, a unique blend of Chinese and Western styles from the mid-19th century. Upon visiting the French Concession for the first time, Wood says he remembered thinking, “All these buildings are going to be torn down.”
“My god, you can’t do that,” he said.
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When it came time to rebuild Xintiandi, builders carefully dismantled the old buildings, then used the same natural materials to rebuild them in the same architectural style, only with modern trappings like up-to-date wiring and plumbing.
Wood’s fellow architects have since credited him for showing the value in preserving old buildings. “China needed someone like Wood to show them you can make more money by saving rather than tearing down old buildings. No one had done that before because it was so much easier to work with a blank slate,” Cliff Pierson, an editor at Architectural Record magazine, told The New York Times in 2006.
Today, Xintiandi is mostly shopping malls and high-rises, surrounding a historic-styled, low-rise compound of high-end shops, popular eateries, and a museum honoring the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party.
Qilai Shen—Bloomberg via Getty Images
Ben Wood’s latest project—again developed with Vincent Lo and Shui On—is Panlong Tiandi, a commercial complex built from a renovated suburban village in southwestern Shanghai that opened in May. The developer says the shopping district attracted about 200,000 visitors a day after its launch, and has continued to attract similar numbers in the months since.
Panlong Tiandi’s popularity with Chinese shoppers is a bright spot amid a wider slowdown in China’s economy, particularly in its property sector, which Wood referred to last week.
“China is facing an economic crisis,” Wood said. “It won’t be solved by building more tall buildings.” Instead, it “will be solved by returning…to a more community-oriented life,” Wood suggests.
The country’s economic recovery has stumbled since the country lifted COVID restrictions almost a year ago. Consumption is not recovering as quickly as officials had hoped, putting pressure on local and foreign companies alike. A property bust—triggered by private developers who borrowed excessive sums of money to build more projects—is also dragging down a willingness to spend.
On Thursday, Wood called on conference attendees to push for better urban designs.
“You get the cities you deserve,” he said. “So if you don’t insist on a livable city? God help them.”
Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference is returning on Dec. 6 at the MGM Cotai in Macau, China. Panelists and attendees will debate and discuss “Empathy in the Age of AI” or how new technologies are revolutionizing the creative industry.
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