Awakening a Lifeline

Huangpu River stretches 113 kilometres across the urban realm of Shanghai and separates the city into two parts. Urban life is and has always been connected with the river and its banks. However, the riverfront has been generally used for trade, commerce and industry, and was thus inaccessible to many. So, what happened to the banks after the redevelopment of the historical promenade The Bund, and after the World Expo 2010 – two correlated projects that aimed at opening up Shanghai’s waterfront to the public? In one of the fastest-growing cities in the world the only answer is: a great deal.

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In 2016 Agence Ter won the master plan, which was based on binding basic principles to ensure the riverbank parks were designed in a uniform manner, yet allowed for each section to have its own character. (c) Illustration Concepto for Agence Ter

The Huangpu River has always been the lifeline of the Chinese metropolis Shanghai, with its almost 30 million inhabitants. The river is 113 kilometres long and grows to a width of almost 800 metres before it flows into the Yangtze. In the city, the river’s large loops separate the seven western inner-city districts (Puxi) from the Pudong District, which occupies the entire eastern bank of the river. The high bridges of the various motorway rings dominate the city and various road and metro tunnels connect both banks, while those on foot can use the more leisurely ferries. Since the foundation of the city, the banks of the river, as is often the case elsewhere, have been generally used for trade, commerce and industry, and were thus inaccessible to those who did not work there. The legendary Bund, i.e. the riverside promenade in front of the British colonial quarter’s representative buildings, was the only exception to this. After the establishment of the Pudong Special Economic Zone in 1990, the Central Business District (CBD) was created in the Lujiazui District on the opposite bank, with its illuminated night-time skyscrapers that characterise the iconic image of today’s Shanghai.

The river is 113 kilometres long and grows to a width of almost 800 metres before it flows into the Yangtze

The opening of China to the West was also associated with a radical change in the country’s own economy. China experienced a tertiarisation of its industry, and previous production plants quickly became wastelands. This post-industrial structural change has been particularly visible on the banks of the Huangpu River in Shanghai. Expo 2000, which took place across extensive areas on both sides of the river south of the city centre, was the clearest expression of the fact that redesigning the banks of the Huangpu was a new challenge. The question became all the more pressing as the World Expo closed its doors. What to do with the former Expo areas? And what to do with the areas along the riverbanks throughout the city that were previously used for industry? Thus, improved flood protection and the management of brownfield sites became current issues, and the objective was to ultimately redesign and reprogramme the zones adjacent to the river. An important figure in this context was Sun Jiwei, a politician who was trained as an architect at Tongji University, and who had previously promoted contemporary architecture in the satellite cities of Qingpu and Jiading. He promoted the idea of transforming the unused area around the first commercial airport south of the city centre (Longhua Airport, which opened in 1917) into an art district. This resulted in the West Bund Cultural Corridor, which consists of museums, galleries and exhibition halls. One of Sun’s coups was to persuade collectors from the Long Museum in Pudong to build a branch at the West Bund and to then put them in contact with Atelier Deshaus, which was founded in 2001 as one of the first private architectural firms in China. The architects used an existing underground car park that belonged to a failed construction project as a foundation, and built the museum building on top of it, integrating a number of historic coal bunkers in the process. In 2015, one year after the opening of the Long Museum, the Shanghai Urban Space Art Season (SUSAS) took place for the first time, and is now held every two years. This biennial for art and public space wanders through the city and consists of a main exhibition site, a reference area and various satellite exhibitions. The theme for 2015 was the management of old industrial sites, which is evidence of the interest in industrial heritage that is gradually emerging after an era of tabula rasa. Atelier Deshaus’ biggest contribution was a conversion of the threatened Laobaidu coal bunker on the eastern bank of the Huangpu into an exhibition space that has since been used by the newly founded Modern Art Museum Shanghai, and which was integrated into the new design of the river bank by YiYu Design in 2017. This was the same year Atelier Deshaus also devoted itself to the granaries of Minsheng Wharf a few kilometres downstream in Pudong, which had long dominated the riverbank. Through the use of a cascading glass staircase, the architects made the top floor accessible as an exhibition space for the SUSAS 2017 – although after the end of the event it was (and still is) unclear what will happen to the location. In the meanwhile, the Pudong District took the initiative of launching a competition for the redevelopment of the eastern banks of the Huangpu River – 22 kilometres, stretching from the inner ring’s Yang Pu Bridge in the north to the outer ring’s Xu Pu Bridge in the south. In 2016, Agence Ter won the master plan, which was based on binding basic principles to ensure the riverbank parks were designed in a uniform manner, yet allowed for each section to have its own character. A common element, not only on the so-called East Bund but also on the western side of the river, (a total of 45 kilometres of riverbank) is formed by a trio of footpaths, bicycle paths and jogging tracks. These sometimes run together, but split up when necessary according to the different speeds of movement – and have to cross the channels and tributaries flowing into the Huangpu again and again by means of bridges. Further aspects of Agence Ter’s master plan included the covering of the flood protection wall by a designed, partially terraced landscape, distinct vegetation zones – low towards the river to keep the view clear, higher towards the land on the other side – and finally the accentuation of the route by towers every kilometre that are illuminated at night. After winning the competition in 2016, the 22 kilometres were split up between a number of teams. Agence Ter’s projects included the Park of the Cement Factory in the far south, the waterfront in front of the former Expo site and the waterfront at the Lujiazui CBD. Further downstream, West 8 took over – with ornamental paving and large amoeba-like planting troughs lined with benches. At Minsheng Yard, in front of the silos converted by Atelier Deshaus, the baton was passed to Atelier Liu Yuyang Architects (ALYA). The paths here thread their way through the substructure of the loading bridges, and continue their way in the form of a circular crossing over a small side harbour. The redesign of the eastern riverbanks ends just beyond the bright red Yang Pu Bridge in a park created by the Design Land Cooperative (DLC). Walking along the riverside parks, pavilion-like buildings that have not yet found a use are a common sight. According to local regulations, five per cent of the riverbank may be built on, while another regulation prevents their being used commercially. So here, as elsewhere in Shanghai, you search in vain for riverside cafés; the only things available are from vending machines at the entrances of the parks or in some small buildings.

The Huangpu River has always been the lifeline of the Chinese metropolis Shanghai, with its almost 30 million inhabitants

Kuo Yi-Fong, a partner at ALYA, is waiting for us at Minsheng Wharf. She talks about the difficulties in planning, i.e. parts of the land belong to the city, others to the district, and the area directly along the river is also under the jurisdiction of the state. And time pressure was enormous: A mere two years passed between the start of planning in 2016 and the completion of the East Bund’s 22-kilometre-long riverbank zone. But in China, says Kuo laconically, you always have just one opportunity. All in all, the situation for independent architecture firms in China is much more difficult at present than it was a few years ago, according to Atelier Deshaus, and they have therefore joined forces in a collaborative called AnAlliance with ALYA, Atelier Z+ and other planners in order to increase their clout. AnAlliance was then involved in the redevelopment of the opposing riverbank to the west in Yangpu County, the reference area for SUSAS 2019, where the industrialisation of the city began in the colonial era: Shipyards, factories and power plants once lined the riverbank. The main exhibition site in 2019 was an old warehouse in the middle of the area where Shanghai’s industrial development began. On the way downriver from the historic Bund via the Hongkou district, one passes the former dry docks of the Shanghai Shipyards and the Yangshupu Waterworks, a picturesque ensemble of buildings with towers, battlements and orientalised lancet windows built in 1883 by the British architect J. W. Hart. An additional 2.7 kilometres of riverfront east of the Yang Pu Bridge was opened together with SUSAS at the end of September 2019. New parks have been created here, and historic port facilities and factories embellished, sometimes with an excess of creative ambition. A certain degree of “over-design” is typical of Chinese landscape architecture, and while investing in landscape architecture here is certainly a good thing, as is concern for human and financial resources – this concern has a completely different status in Asia, and design sometimes appears to be overly orchestrated. Kuo Yi-Fong points to a park with simple grasses designed by ALYA – it took an enormous effort to implement this simple planting, because it is not generally perceived as being beautiful here. Under the leadership of Zhang Ming, the deputy head of the Department of Architecture at Tongji University, a number of landscape architects and architects were involved in the latest SUSAS projects. Although the hinterland remains tabula rasa, Shanghai is still reflecting on its industrial heritage. The Green Building, a stepped concrete structure that was part of a former tobacco warehouse, has been planted and was one of the attractions of SUSAS 2019, and port cranes, industrial halls, and the pipelines of a former soap factory now converted into a café are also passed on the way downstream. Not too far from here is the Riverside Passage, the ninth project of Atelier Deshaus on the banks of the Huangpu River. It is based on a long concrete wall, the relic of a former coal storage facility. The newly installed viewing gallery is covered by a steel mono-pitch roof that rests on the top of the wall by means of filigree supports, sloping down towards the back to provide protection for a second passage located directly on the platform at the rear. Two different spaces with two different views – one of the spontaneous vegetation in back of the wall and one of the river in front of it – have been created. The local authorities actually wanted to tear down this relic, but on the initiative of Atelier Deshaus it was preserved, and in the end it was unofficially included in SUSA’s programme. It is probably the most poetic, subtle and least intrusive project along this section of the riverbank.