Shanghai Powerbroker

American architect, Benjamin Wood, breathes new life into old spaces

Issue: Sep 2010

Ben Wood
Founder and Chief Designer at Ben Wood Studio Shanghai, Benjamin Wood, is a maverick at heart

He has been a fighter pilot, a restaurateur, a ski bum and a contractor. But above all things, Benjamin Wood has made a name for himself as a “Shanghai powerbroker”.

Wood’s designs have not only made headlines, they have also rung in billions of dollars in development.

Originally from Boston, Wood has indeed carved out a niche in China and transformed the way people there view preservation.

His first and most notable project in China was Xintiandi. Xintiandi is a popular car-free shopping, cultural and entertainment district in Shanghai. The entire block is a clever weave of the old and the new; modern restaurants, clubs, cafes and boutiques, adorned with old bricks, stone gates and carved wooden balconies from the old courtyard houses that previously filled those blocks. The project received an Award of Excellence from the Urban Land Institute in 2003.

But preservation is not his main aim in his designs. For him, it's "the new life a place attracts" that is important. And that philosophy is not confined to Wood's preservation projects alone. Creating places that are alluring for people to come together is evident in his other projects as well.

His design of CapitaLand China's residential development, Westwood Green Shanghai, is one good example. Westwood Green's enclave of townhouses and apartments has attracted a vibrant multinational community who has found this unique development a place they can truly feel at home in a foreign land.

64,000-seat stadium
The 64,000-seat New Soldier Field stadium was built in a record 19 months

Outside of China, he is well known as the Chief Architect of New Soldier Field in Chicago, home of the Chicago Bears. Co-designed with his former partner Carlos Zapata, New Soldier Field was named by the New York Times as one of the ten best buildings of 2003.

Although Wood only earned his architecture degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 37, his journey from a pilot, Boston architect to Shanghai Powerbroker has been, according to him, one great adventure.

INSIDE: You have had quite an interesting and varied career. How did you end up being an architect and an internationally acclaimed one?

WOOD: For five years, I flew a Mach II Phantom RF-4 jet aircraft for the US Air Force. My assignment was to fly at an extremely low level but extremely high speed on photographic reconnaissance missions along the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. It was a great adventure, as were my subsequent years as a Colorado based ski and mountaineering guide, builder, and owner of a small hotel and restaurant.

After building a mountain home from a “stock” plan, I decided I could design something a bit more exciting. The first house I designed was built into the crest of the terminal moraine of a glacier.

The house looked out from this strategic promontory over one of the greatest river valleys of the North American Rocky Mountains. Except for a 200-foot long window facing the view, much of the house was underground. A large slit and operable panel system in the roof let the sun shine on a giant “radiator” made from suspended oil well pipes. The “radiator” heated the water in a very large hot tub that also served as the thermal storage for a radiant heating system. After building this house I was hooked on architecture and decided to go back to college and learn a new trade. This was in 1980 and I was 33 years old.

Great adventure is great adventure whether it is flying at over twice the speed of sound, ice-climbing on the North Face of the Eiger, designing your first house, or living and working in Shanghai China.

INSIDE: In China, you are best known for introducing to the country this whole idea that it is better to restore historical buildings than to tear them down. With that, you have successfully brought the Xintiandi district to life. Could you bring us through how do you take on history and strike a balance between the old and the new?

A contemporary look in Xintiandi
Giving old streets and alley ways a contemporary look in Xintiandi

WOOD: I do not think all old buildings are historical. Some buildings simply exist. Here today, gone tomorrow, and so be it. To be historical, a building must have at least some intrinsic characteristics, however minimal. It is a great deal easier to breathe new life into a place that has been loved by many than one that has gone unnoticed only to survive by virtue of anonymity. I place the shikumen of Xintiandi in the first category. In the second category is the ubiquitous glass box that litters China’s new urban skyline.

The first is the product of a cross-cultural exchange of socially and environmentally responsible urban typologies: the multi-family urban townhouse of late 19th Century Europe and the extended family traditional Chinese courtyard house. The second is a box-on-life-support afforded by the miracle of modern technology. Which one would you want to see survive beyond a couple of generations?

Balance should not be between old and new, but between the freedom of expression given to each successive generation of responsible architects and urban form givers.

I have a small bar in Xintiandi. Except for some wine and spirits, everything else in it comes from China: the used bricks and roof tiles to make walls come from the debris of demolition sites around Shanghai; grey granite and jet-black ink stones for the floor and back bar were from local quarries; a bar top made of Tibetan silver were done by two local villagers in Yunnan; and from Guangdong came shoe leather for the ceiling.

Although he was warned that there is no Chinese tradition for alfresco dining, Wood designed the neighbourhood to be chockablock with outdoor cafes, which became popular with the locals and tourists alike
Wood’s martini bar in Xintiandi, DRBar, which has become a pit stop for architects and developers

My philosophy is to create if you can and find inspiration in what you choose to preserve.

INSIDE: Your design of Xintiandi is so successful that Shanghai had begun to preserve much more architecture than it ever did before. In fact, Xintiandi, as a model for urban redevelopment, has spawned at least dozens of duplicates across the country. You have also applied your formula to projects all over China, from Chongqing to Wuhan to Hangzhou. How do you make each “tiandi” different?

WOOD: A very good question and the answer can be found in the creative struggle behind every project our studio undertakes. We begin each project with experiencing the nature of the place. In each new place we spend days that turn into months walking the streets, eating the food, exploring the back alleys and talking to taxi cab drivers. We collect old photographs and make new ones. We look for colour and we look for the sounds of a place. We visit the surrounding villages. We explore. We embark on another adventure.

On the human scale, all the cities we work in are almost the same. Yet they are all very different when we begin to look closer. So goes our design.

INSIDE: You said in an interview on Martha’s Vineyard in 2006, “I’m trying to change China, and China has definitely changed me.” How has China changed you personally and your design philosophy?

WOOD: I have been both humbled and emblazoned by the meaning of ordinary life translated 1.3 billion times. When you are outnumbered, everything suddenly seems possible. 85,000 people visited Xintiandi in just one day last month.

INSIDE: You also once said that, “Good urban design is knowing what people want. People ask me what I knew about China (to do a job there). I didn’t need to understand China; I need to understand people.” How well do you think you have understood the people in China and how have your designs and town planning reflected that understanding?

traditional Chinese town
Wood's successful integration of traditional Chinese town planning with modern life-style accommodations in Xintiandi have been replicated in other tiandi in China cities like Chongqing, Guangzhou and Wuhan (above)

Westwood Green Shanghai
Located within the Jin Feng International Community in Huacao Town, Minhang District, Westwood Green Shanghai is a pioneer in properties of its kind as this development also includes terrace houses

WOOD: I still have a long way to go. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in an afternoon after practicing for almost 40 years.

INSIDE: How has your understanding of people helped you to design the successful and popular CapitaLand China residential project Westwood Green Shanghai? What was your design inspiration?

WOOD: Westwood Green Shanghai was inspired by the small New England town that our family lived in when my children were growing up. Of course, it’s not in terms of the style of the buildings. It would be silly to see a white clapboard house in China.

In the middle of our small town there was a large lawn surrounded by big oak trees. This was the place where we held all our local community events. It was the heart of the town. In New England, this place in the middle of a town is called the “commons”. I would have suggested to CapitaLand China the name Westwood Commons but realized that no one would know what I meant. We designed Westwood Green like a small community; a village with a middle, a green, a common, a heart.

INSIDE: Building sustainable buildings is a buzzword these days. What’s your idea of a sustainable building? How would you go about designing a sustainable community or neighbourhood?

WOOD: Whenever someone asks me what sustainable means I wonder why. Is it so difficult to understand? Simply leave behind more than you take. I have never forgotten the words of my Boy Scout Leader: “Leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.”

In the book, The Architecture of Beauty, author Alain de Botton writes: “We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings that cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent forms of happiness.

INSIDE: You have successfully designed towns, schools and luxurious housing in China as well as stadiums in the US. You are now onto designing eco-resorts in Yunnan Province. Could you please tell us about the project? How is your philosophy of a sustainable community reflected in this project?

woodsy retreat
Wood’s woodsy retreat in the Tibetan county of northwestern Yunnan Province
Large parties in front of his tent
Wood enjoys having large parties in front of his tent where fresh lobsters are served for dinner

WOOD: A few years ago I leased a house in the old town of Zhongdian (now called Shangrila). Together with some friends we renovated the house and now go there whenever we can. This love affair with Shangrila eventually led to a collaboration with a friend from Beijing to create a new village a few miles away at the base of the foothills of the great Southern Himalayas. We managed to buy some land from a local Tibetan village and some nearby abandoned farmhouses. We then put most of the villagers to work to rebuild the houses at our new site. The five houses are almost complete. Except for the plumbing and wiring, all the other materials of the houses are from recycled materials. The walls are made of rammed earth taken from the site. Working on this project has been another of my life’s great adventures. By the end of the summer we should be able to offer travellers, wiling to endure the thin air at an altitude of 3300 metres, thousands of square kilometres of wilderness, wild rivers, wildflower meadows, and cups of Yak tea.

Red studio
The “red studio” or “space shot” stands out against the snowy landscape and is big on space for a “small building”

INSIDE: We are always curious what a renowned architect’s own house looks like. Could you describe it? Which is the favourite part of your home?

WOOD: Our family owns a large farm on Martha’s Vineyard. The Vineyard is an island just off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean between New York City and Boston. We have an old house there but I prefer to stay in a large canvas tent that we put up on a hill overlooking the ocean. The tent has indoor plumbing and electricity. There is also a kitchen with a roof but no walls next to the tent. All the equipment in the kitchen is stainless steel and was bought used from a large restaurant supply company.

The kitchen is my favorite place. Creating food is almost as much fun as creating architecture. My other favorite place is the table where the food we create is shared with family and friends.

Red studio
The hydraulic door-wall of Wood’s “red studio” opens up, filling the studio with lots of fresh air and island space when the weather is good

There is also a large deck made from the timbers I salvaged from an old pier. In the summer there is no place I would rather be than on this deck at sunset with a glass of whiskey and a good cigar.

Last year my son and I decided to build something a little more substantial than a tent. We are now near to completing what I call the “red studio” or the “space shot”. Among the more interesting features of the studio are a hybrid steel and wood frame, a large hydraulic door-wall that is 4 metres high and 9 metres long and opens like the hatch door at the back of a SUV.

A hydraulic lift goes from the ground floor kitchen to a roof top green house and deck. If you are in the kitchen and need fresh herbs they are not far away. Part of the north wall is “inflatable” and can be opened and closed with a small centrifugal fan. There are three wind turbines on the roof along with solar electric and hot water panels. All the lighting is low voltage LED that changes to a red color when the flames of the fire in the indoor stone pit begins to flicker. The back-up source for solar electrical power is the batteries of a golf cart used for transporting supplies from the main car barn near the local highway. A 20-metre long bridge connects the second floor of the studio to the tent and outdoor kitchen.

A few months ago we started a second building. This time it is a guesthouse built around a very large tree. My plan now is to build a small building every year until we have our own small village on the Vineyard. None of the buildings will be big or expensive and all will make our life better.

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