Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Chinese Bohemia

Source: Business Standard
Rebecca Catching & Anurag Viswanath / New Delhi March 29, 2008

Away from the protests in Tibet, in Shanghai's former factory precincts, Chinese entrepreneurship is betting on creativity to resurrect derelict buildings.
Shanghai’s red capitalists are making money off its red relics. As the city gradually sweeps heavy industry to its periphery, it is leaving behind huge swathes of abandoned warehouses and derelict factories.
But unlike the mill lands in Mumbai which lay abandoned for decades, China’s capitalist roaders are ensuring that these crumbling spaces make a comeback.
Formerly used to punch out identical products, they are now being re-branded as “creativity clusters” — design communities that house art galleries, shops, restaurants, bars and office spaces for start-up creative companies. With smart makeovers, they have managed to create what seems a “Bohemian” ambience — plain, cement floors, exposed pipes and high ceilings.
Hard-selling these “old-made-new” antiquated relics to attract a growing class of creative studios is, however, raising questions about whether this is a clever marketing ploy, yet another Disneyland phenomenon in the Chinese dream.
Spaces such as Hi Shanghai, Bridge 8, Shanghai Sculpture Space, In Factory, The New Factories and more recently, the converted abattoir 1933 have set up shop here.
To date, 75-odd clusters supported by real-estate developers such as Enclave Design and Axons Concepts have sprung up, and still others are jumping on to the bandwagon to provide office space for architecture and design firms, art galleries, fashion and post-production houses — all in the lure of attracting the creative set.
This seems to be a smart move considering that these run-down spaces entail low renovation costs and the low rents allow young entrepreneurs to give it a go without investing huge amounts of capital. We visited one such cluster, the Anken Warehouse, and found the brightly coloured, open-plan warehouse humming with activity.
According to Giel Groothuis, director of FAR, an architectural information hub and Anken tenant, “There is not much by way of the decorative element and the quality can sometimes be relatively low. I think from a real-estate point of view, it is a bestseller concept.”
Companies here can rent a desk for under $300 (Rs 12,000) a month and share resources including everything from photocopiers to personnel with others. Local film producer Maria Barbieri shares her sunlit office with a whole band of independent film professionals at In Factory. It’s an arrangement that suits her well. In their small space, she has access to producers, editors and even accountants.
While In Factory attracts more of a professional crowd, spaces such as the recently opened 1933 abattoir-turned-lifestyle space use sophisticated architecture to attract the sophisticated consumer. Despite its somewhat gruesome previous incarnation, the new 32,000 sq m space was known at the time for its outstanding architecture, says Axons Concepts chairman Paul Liu.
“The fa├žade is Art-deco and geometric,” he points out, “yet in the centre there is a Moorish Middle-Eastern look. Across the street there is a power plant done in clean industrial style.” He insists that the development will have a very different demographic.
“We’re not trying to turn it into a luxury zone. We want it to appeal to a broad section of people who come here to expand their innovations in terms of beauty, design and the things that fill out a person’s existence.”
“Creative workers need affluent, sophisticated buyers (I call this smart demand),” says John Howkins, chairman of John Howkins & Co, creative consultant and author of The Creative Economy.
“Shanghai needs lots of marketplaces where creative people can show and sell their work and locals can buy it. It needs both government-supported places, big development-supported places and artist-invented places. Some will succeed,” he points out somewhat logically, “and some will fail.”
True enough, with the cluster boom, when some fail, they do so spectacularly, as with the UDC Innovative Plaza, a creative cluster on Jiangsu Road which, failing to attract much in the way of creativity, has resorted to life as a market for light fixtures, faucets and sinks.
The New Factories (originally named Tong Le Fang, or “Total Rich Fun” in English) opened with fanfare in 2005 and still feels like a ghost town though it’s been open for over two years.
Areas such as Red Town (of Shanghai Sculpture Space) have tried to keep things pumping 24 hours a day with upscale restaurants and raucous bars, but this mixed-use planning has not been wholly successful — somewhat disastrously, though many clubs have opened with a bang, they have equally spectacularly faded away into the dark of the night.
Bestseller concept though it might be, clearly, even though you might build a creative cluster, it isn’t a given that they in turn will feed creatively-driven companies. The most successful arts communities and organisations are those where the invisible hand of the Big Brother — what we in India call the sarkari hand — is missing.
Organically grown communities such as M50, Taikang Road and 696 Weihai Road, which have sprung up of their own accord, have a more natural feel and generally more charm. Both M50 and 696 Weihai Road feature artists studios, galleries and design firms, but have largely been left to their own devices.
The companies in charge of their management have done little in terms of renovations and as a result rents have stayed relatively low. This attracts a truly interesting crowd — perhaps the real Bohemians.
Taikang Road is the best example of this hands-off approach. Without the strict regimentation of an urban planner, it has none of the stark geometry of the other spaces, and its small human proportions make for a kind of
intimacy. Founded by the late Chen Yifei, this unplanned, thriving artists’ community is a series of winding lanes dotted with boutiques from local designers Shirtflag, La Vie and Jooi Design to cafes and bars. Its nooks and crannies make it a place where you can happily get lost as you potter around looking at handmade ceramics, or buy grain-fed imported Japanese fish.
Deke Erh, photographer and founder of the Deke Erh Art Center, is one of its earliest tenants. He made his creative home in an old chocolate factory after being chased out of several other spaces slated for demolition in the city.
And though Taikang lives constantly in the shadow of the wrecking ball, the Luwan district government has forestalled Taikang’s demolition, allowing it to grow through the process of gentrification.
The sub-letting of the state-subsidised homes in the neighbourhood is not exactly legal, but the government has chosen to keep one eye closed. “Residents sublet their flats for Rmb 5,000-6,000 ($700-800, Rs 28,000-32,000) a month, then go rent another residential place for Rmb 2,500 ($350, Rs 14,000) nearby and pocket the difference,” says Erh.
“There was this man who used to hang out in the lane without a shirt, now he comes by wearing a shirt and walking his dog.” For the residents living in cramped quarters, sub-letting these government-subsidised houses is a boon, particularly since the government prefers to look away rather than take a legal view of the operation.
Organic growth, it seems, is the way to go. “I think the government needs to think more about attracting artists and people associated with culture rather than just building structures,” says Erh.
“People criticise the government for not doing enough for culture, but I think it’s a good thing if they don’t manage culture. Culture and art should be managed and developed by artists.”
There’s no doubt, besides some notable exceptions, the top-down government- or developer-led clusters have proven to be financially successful (minimal investment with decent returns), and provided vital office spaces to these growing “creative” industries — though they’ve failed to create much pedestrian traffic.
Meanwhile, non-planned areas such as Taikang and M50 have become destinations in their own right. They have an aura of artistic authenticity — one which, try as they might, the red capitalists have failed to recreate.

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