the (once vibrant) jing’an villa

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Jing’an Villa is a historic lilong (or nongtang) neighborhood in Shanghai, accessed from West Nanjing Road and Weihai Road. And apparently I am truly a horrible, horrible architect because I had no idea this place existed, let alone off a street I walk down frequently. I mean seriously, I’ve passed the entry gate a zillion times and was never even curious as to what was behind it.  Apparently this place used to be a pretty bustling little artsy place, sort of what Xintiandi and Tianzifang started as, that ideal mixture of historic charm, hip shops, and cafés. And all that is no more. Apparently a lot of the shops were illegally constructed or being run illegally so the local government had everything torn down last year. And I never got to see it! Sad.

It’s still interesting as an example of historic architecture, but it’s sad that kind of ‘young’ life is no longer there. Yes, architecture is part of one’s cultural heritage and it should be protected and laws should be followed. But to what degree? Is keeping it pristine and off-limits the best way? Putting something in a museum is great to make sure it’s protected, but it also removes it from the present, from the people, from the living culture. It sticks it behind a pane of glass and says: Don’t touch. This belongs to the past, not to you. I think there are too many HPers (historic preservationists) who treat architecture like some fragile artifact. In general, architecture is part of a community. It’s not an art object, it’s a functional habitat/shelter/home and should be allowed to adapt and evolve with society (within reason of course). The best way to encourage appreciation for heritage is to integrate it into your life, not segregate it out of fear. The question is where to strike that balance … because as we all know from Xintiandi and Tianzifang, too much money and hype easily squeeze out all the culture.

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