Canton Eyes Guangzhou China – Culture Musings, Architecture Oddities, Urban Design


Putting on a Jacket, Donning a Hat

In preparation for hosting the Asian Games this November, Guangzhou is frantic with activity.  Part of this is what the creative Guangzhou people are calling "putting on a jacket and donning a hat", the project to remodel the exterior of many buildings. It's happening in quite a few older areas of the city commonly visited by tourists, including Shamian Island, Yide Street near Haizhu Square, and much of Zhongshan 1-8 Avenue.  First, bamboo scaffolding goes up over the facades.  Underneath, migrant workers from the countryside are doing re-plastering and repainting, some long-deferred maintenance, and in the case of Shamian Island stripping many layers of paint from the beautiful old stone facades.  After a month, the buildings emerge, looking like somebody with a very recent haircut.

A newer neighborhood, my neighborhood, Tiyuxi, is getting deeper surgery.  The neighborhood is known as a place to find independent fashion boutiques, coffee shops, and small western style pubs and restaurants.  There is a busy subway transfer station at the NE corner, and the neighborhood is wedged between the current CBD, Tiyuzhongxin, and the future CBD under construction, ZhuJiang New Town.  The area is pretty successful, most businesses seem to thrive.  Unlike in America, in China pedestrian only shopping streets seem to do pretty well.  Maybe it's because of the high urban density and people are accustomed to getting around on foot.  Of course, this may change if the China auto boom continues and the masses here develop a taste for the suburbs.

The buildings are mostly 8 stories tall, with one room shops in the ground floor and a network of paths between.  The whole area is about 8 square blocks, but there is only one public street.  A few of the paths are only open to resident cars, the rest are for foot and bicycle traffic only.   Most of the shops have unique storefronts, which seem to wrap the interior out over the exterior of the building.  Many shop owners have claimed the space between their building and the sidewalk, making stepping stone paths or decks. The shops seem to continue out into the public space.  The trees between the buildings create a nice scale.  Above the ground floor is all 1980s China apartment bloc monotony, drab mosaic tiles on concrete, stainless steel window bars and plastic awnings haphazardly added over time.  The area has a nice unpolished, urban feel.  There are high fashion young people parading around and grandmas walking babies.  It's usually a quiet place compared to the city outside, with little traffic noise.  But the sound of construction has come, and it seems all this is changing.

Workers are chipping off the tile and stripping the exterior to bare concrete, replacing windows, and gluing on new brick-colored tiles.  Some buildings are even getting mansard roofs and dormers.  The presentation boards brag the neighborhood will be European style.  Now, the scaffolding from the first building has been removed and the results are visible.  Other than the condensate and coolant lines  for AC which are now visible in high contrast with dark brick tile, the view from afar is not unpleasant.

From up close the work is incomplete, but already quite disappointing.  The exterior accoutrement of each shop has been removed.  Presumably, its now up to each shop owner to replace their storefront.  But its unclear how much freedom each store owner will have to design their storefront.  From the look of the rendering, the exteriors will be uniformed and sanitized into something resembling an American exterior "lifestyle center", a euphemism for a strip mall.

This is the contradiction.  The atmosphere of the place is what draws people here, and the businesses follow.  It is not regularity and conformance aesthetic standards that makes the place attractive, but individuality and uniqueness.  I don't know enough about the history of the neighborhood to know for sure, but I would guess it wasn't planned as an area for stylish shops.  Probably it just happened that way because of the ideas and motivation of individual of shop owners.  In Asia, uniformity is famously a virtue, and modernization is often seen as instituting uniformity.  Even the innately creative people who had a hand in forming this neighborhood may not see the contradiction in taking this functionally beautiful place and and "putting on a hat".