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Monday, August 11, 2008

Two Projects in China by TM Studio

During the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing this last weekend, much was made by the media of China balancing the traditional and the contemporary. Viewers observed 2008 "fou" drums lit up as they were thwacked, modern dancers creating a landscape painting in sand, and a giant scroll unfurling with the help of thousands of LED lights. It was a show that conveyed many things, among them the advances that China is making, and the ability to balance them with thousands of years of history.

When one sees the most notable projects swirling around Beijing's hosting of the Olympics, that balance of the old and new is not abundantly clear. Möbius-strip skyscrapers, a theater on a huge plot of land and surrounded by a large moat, an airport as wide as Manhattan, a bird's nest stadium; the fine-grained fabric of traditional life is being eschewed in favor of grand gestures with functions that abandon the agriculture base of the country. In the rest of the country urbanization is rampant as new towns pop up apparently overnight. Shanghai is rapidly being razed to make it the most densely populous place on Earth.

So where can one find this supposed balance of tradition and modernity? Two projects by Shanghai's TM Studio (Suquan Yuan redevelopment in Suzhou and Park Block renovation in Taizhou) are good examples of such a synthesis. As part of the Suquan Yuan redevelopment, the architect designed an entrance pavilion "as a dark-brick box inserted with a wooden box, whose long windows could be opened and closed according to the interior using conditions." The layered facade brings the sun in via latticework, casting patterned shadows on a rich palette of natural materials, alternately rough and smooth.

Park Block renovation takes five buildings adjacent to a park and a busy shopping street. The architect aimed to "make connections among different fabrics and scales of the surrounding environment... an evocation of the spatial atmosphere of a traditional townscape." This emphasis on the in-between means these shared spaces have a human quality that invites occupation and use. These are not the large, leftover spaces of modernity, but those generated by consciously designing to locale, both site and population.

As these two projects attest, a balance of old and new is not impossible, even as China rapidly modernizes, but it is an alternative that should be fostered as much, or more than the iconographic attempts at attention.

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