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Mina Choi Tenison

The Architect Behind Xintiandi

Ben Wood, the founder of Studio Shanghai

Benjamin Wood does not look like a typical architect: “I’m not in black, nor do I have a rarefied aesthetic vision,” he readily admits. In fact, if anything, Ben Wood looks more like a jet fighter pilot, which he was for six years in the 1970s, or even a farmer from rural Georgia, where he grew up as a child.

Wood’s path to becoming an architect came in a round-about way. After receiving his degree in civil engineering from North Carolina State University, Wood decided to avoid the Vietnam War infantry draft by enlisting in the US Air Force. He stayed for six years, flying the most sophisticated fighter machines in the world and, when his term was up, started looking for something equally as challenging. “I didn’t want to be a bus driver,” he explains. “Most of the other jet fighter pilots went into flying commercial flights, but as a pilot, you’re nothing more than a driver of aerial buses.” The answer came to him a few years later, and he was soon back to school, on the way to getting a Masters in Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Despite his unlikely background, Wood turned out to be a strong student. Not prone to false modesty, Wood states: “I was seriously talented. I always felt that I could do anything.” After graduation he was recruited by one of the top American architecture firms, Benjamin Thompson in Massachusetts. This turned out to be a life-changing experience. As Wood tells it, “Benjamin Thompson was the most influential lifestyle man in America. He was on the cover of Life magazine. He was going everywhere in private helicopters. He had a rich lifestyle—and by rich, I don’t mean wealth, I mean full.”

Wood also got a ride in the helicopter when he was dropped off at Martha’s Vineyard to design then the Time Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Henry Grunwalds’s summer home. He also received a crash course in Benjamin Thompson’s philosophy—that design and architecture should be a tool to enjoy life.

“I’ve learnt everything I know from Benjamin Thompson. It was Ben who showed Americans how to live. He was the one who understood that lifestyle, cultural, entertainment districts. Before 1971, when the first outdoor café opened, no one in America sat outside to dine.” With Benjamin Thompson, Wood learnt how to do urban revivals that mixed pedestrian usage with commercial shops, such Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston and South Street Seaport in New York City.

This education was precisely what helped Wood clinch the Xintiandi project in Shanghai a decade later-- in 1998. At the time, Wood was working on his biggest commission to date--the 64,0000 seat new Chicago Bears Stadium with a budget of $640 million dollars. With his entire 45-person staff mobilized on it, he was fully occupied. But the Shui On Group came calling and gave him 48 hours to decide. Wood shrugged his shoulders and took his first-ever visit to mainland China.

The 24-hour stay in Shanghai proved to be decisive. Upon arrival, Wood discovered that he was one of the four architects invited to Shanghai to look at the 129-acre site in Luwan district that Vincent Lo of Shui On Land had just won the right to develop. During the three-hour tour of the area, Wood was immediately taken in by the run-down two-story brick Shikumen houses that were developed at the turn of the 20th century. “It was my first trip to mainland China, and I was blown away. I walked through the buildings and I was fascinated by the spatial structure of these Shikumen houses, how the level of privacy changed from the north/side axis and east/west axis. The architecture was a vernacular style that I had never seen before with some French motifs and organic elements.”

Wood stayed up most of that night and wrote out a 7-page letter to Vincent Lo explaining how this vernacular urban architecture of Shanghai needed to be kept intact, and how similar it was to the medieval fortified towns in Tuscany. As it happened, Vincent Lo had just returned from a holiday in Tuscany himself and saw eye-to-eye with Wood’s vision. “I was the only one who made this European medieval town comparison. All the others said, the buildings are far too ordinary, tear them all down.” Wood was hired immediately thereafter and construction started on the 30,000 square meter site.

Xintiandi, once it opened in 2001, became an instant success, and became the single-most influential example of commercially successful urban redevelopment in China. Busloads of provincial cadres were ushered through the pedestrian streets bursting with customers to see how historic preservation can make financial sense.

“I promised Vincent Lo that 50,000 people would be going through a day.” Wood estimates that on a good weekend, more than 100,000 people visit the Xintiandi area. “Many of the restaurants turn over their customers seven times—we’re talking more than a thousand people for a 175-seat restaurant.”

Xintiandi also turned Wood into one of the most famous architects in China. Other job offers poured in, and Wood decided to set up shop in Shanghai, initially as a branch of Wood & Zapata, then on his own, as Studio Shanghai. Once the Chicago Bears Stadium project was finished in 2003, Wood decided to permanently move to Shanghai.

When asked whether the move to China has been a financial success, Wood gives only one answer. “I get paid in RMB and many people consider me a Chinese architect.” He also admits that the scale of projects in China is on a different scale. “Let’s just say I’m not designing anyone’s houses.” A brief glimpse through Studio Shanghai’s project list shows how busy and in demand they are. There are almost 30 big-scale projects still in the works—such as the four new Tiandis being built in conjunction with Shui On Land in Hangzhou, Chongqing, Wuhan and Foshan. The Foshan project alone is to be on scale more than three times the size of Xintiandi with a total area of 55,000 square meters, built using similar ideas of preservation (in this case, traditional Lingan architecture of Guangzhou).

Yet, money is not the only driver for Wood and Studio Shanghai. Often, Wood will donate his time, meeting with representatives of second or third-tier city who want to replicate the success of Xintiandi. “They don’t have the structure, the personnel, and software to execute the project, but I will always sit down and talk to them.” Wood also never rejects any projects outright on fee issues. “In China, people are sensitive to fees. My fee is competitive. My line is: If you have a budget, I’ll meet it or I can tell you right up front that it’s not enough. I also have no problem saying no.”

Wood keeps the size of Studio Shanghai deliberately small-with a staff of 25 and just one other partner, Delphine Yip, so that he can control quality. “In architecture, there are two cultures. Design oriented projects don’t make a lot of money. The profit comes from mediocre projects. The challenge is to find clients willing to be innovative who are willing to set a standard.”

As to the accusation leveraged against Xintiandi that it is fake, Wood vehemently defends it: “None of the walls were moved one centimeter. I had to argue with everyone; they were against me. They said, it’s not wide enough, and I told them the alleys were wide enough. All the city government people said, ‘Why are you saving that building?’ They thought our project was going to fail. The only fake building is Starbucks because that building one night collapsed overnight and we had to put another one up.”

Wood, however, doesn’t see himself as a preservationist. “I am not a preservationist. I don’t believe in freezing a certain date on a building. I believe in evolution. These towns and squares were always places of business. We’re giving a new life to these places.”

One project that Wood is angry about it the Qianmen Emperor’s Avenue project in Beijing. “I walked away from the project, and so did Soho. Now they’ve put up fake buildings that didn’t exist there in the first place because some professor decided that it was historically accurate. How does he know? The whole thing is a fake-over. Conserving something is giving it a new life, and cultivating it for higher and better use. Fake-over’s will never make money.”

As for the future of architecture and what might happen in China, Wood has very strong ideas: “When affordable central air conditioning came in the 1970s, architects didn’t have to be responsible anymore. You could design anything and an engineer could make it possible.” Wood insists that he’ll never build a high-rise without operable windows in every room or glass atriums that waste energy. Wood also denies he is an environmentalist: “I’m not a green guy. Green is just an excuse for people to not think creatively and to be brain-dead.”

One thing Wood does consider himself to be is fortunate, at least in regards to his timing when entering China: “The days are numbered for architecture firms who [simply] put in branch offices in China. The days of importing architecture and exporting the fees are over. You have to be paid in RMB. You have to hire Chinese people and create it in China. That’s the way to make money in China.”

As for the kind of legacy he would like to leave behind, Wood is surprisingly modest: “I want to be remembered for leaving a place better than I found it.”

CHINA INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS (CIB) October 2009 Print & Web Edition

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