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Saving Tianjin's architectural past

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Paul Mason | 14:24 UK time, Sunday, 4 April 2010

One day in 2007 I was filming in Tianjin's old German concession area, in the middle of a street full of Alpine brick villas being systematically stripped and destroyed by leisurely demolition teams.

"What," said my guide, a local official, "do you think we should do to attract foreign businesspeople to come and settle here so that we can fulfil our ambition of becoming the next Shanghai?"

"Er, how about not destroying all these western mansions; because upmarket businesspeople might want to renovate and live in them."

He looked at me as if mad, of course. The whole historic centre was destined for destruction in favour of an overpass and some newbuild hi-rise.

To get a sense of what's been lost, and how attitudes are now changing, Tianjinophiles (I've reported from there umpteen times) should have a look at the latest issue of China Heritage Quarterly, form the Australian National University.

Most of my reports from this city have featured the changing landscape, the destruction, the wierdness of medieval hutongs side by side with skyscrapers, the luminous Jugendstil windows of a warlord's mansion. It seems they are finally getting it, but a lot's already been lost.


  • Comment number 1.

    There should always be a balance between embracing the new and preserving the old.

    Exceptional beautiful things tend to get preserved no matter what and we are probably better than most in this country is preserving what is good of our natural and cultural heritage even beyond the exceptions.

    One consequence of the 'money over value' distortion of the natural order of things is reflected in the poor quality of modern architecture and infrastructure and the poor quality ambience that creates.

    Modern architecture reflects modern life, it is only designed to provide a single 'hit' of satisfaction, compare the Gherkin to St Pauls Cathedral, compare Lady Gaga with Beethoven's 5th. Many poor quality experiences in our modern world flow from the money above value cultural reversal.

    We should be embracing the new, but we have to get our fundamental priorities right first or the new simply becomes a missed opportunity, and even worse than that, as your piece implies can actually destroy good things too.

    Quite an appropriate topic this Spring festival ...errrm sorry I mean Easter.

  • Comment number 2.

    Joni Mitchell's Big yellow taxi says it all!

  • Comment number 3.


    Not quite, 'paradise' does not seem so beautiful while bathed in your own sweat, covered in mosquito bites and with various creatures small and large delighted to make a meal of you either parasitically or all at once surronding you, with no prospect of clean cotton sheets, a cool room, insect repellent and clean water from a tap.

    People forget that turning the tap on and getting clean drinkable water out of it is also a beautiful thing but it requires a lot of what is now percieved as 'ugly' infrastructure to provide that (dams, pump houses needing electricity to run them and therefor power stations by extension, kilometers of buried pipes, a sewage system to take the dirty water away safely which means yet another smelly ugly bit of infrastructure somewhere also known as a sewage works).

    All of the above would involve 'paving over paradise and making a parking lot' to a certain extent to use joni mitchel's lyrics.

    Being a civil or mechanical or an electrical engineer is a thankless task it would appear but take away the clean water, sewage systems, electricity, and transport systems (among others) those disciplines provide and you would find that everything else that constitutes civilisation from hospitals to food distribution topples down on top of it in a horrendously rapid way.

    Creating and investing in a sustainable version of the infrastructure which allows us to appreciate 'paradise' should be a national priority but the truth is most projects have the life sucked out of them by needless beurocracy and take far longer than they need to.

    A good starting point for this country would be to re-discover its engineering prowess and direct it towards sustainable infrastructure with the same sense of purpose coupled with the political support I K Brunel had.

    Noboddy seems to complain about his work too much, in fact we spend small fortunes (quite rightly) trying to preserve it because it was created with 'value' as the driving process not money.

    There would be quite afew jobs created from such a national investment and it would leave a positive legacy for our children.

    But there is no money in that aparrently so nobody bothers with it....

    Are we dumb or what?

    How about a piece Paul on what could be done on the lines as above. No political party is proposing it so a journalist may as well have a go , cost it out roughly, have a guess at how many jobs it could create and ask political parties their opinion on it.

  • Comment number 4.

    nice the chinese have not been infected by the british building worship religion.

    however here are a few pictures of The last house of the last Emperor in Tianjin

    click next photo for more pics of the house.


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