New building developments divide opinions in historic Shanghai district

bund finance center new 2
Shanghai, China CNN  — 

In Shanghai’s historic Bund district, visitors circle a new theater with a brash – and slowly rotating – veneer of bronze-colored steel bamboo. Beside it, a pair of recently completed 590-foot-tall towers overlook the city’s colonial-era buildings and the financial district just beyond.

These new structures form part of the Bund Finance Centre, a 4.5-million-square-foot collaboration between British architectural giants Heatherwick Studio and Foster + Partners. The development is rapidly transforming an area that is also known for its staunchly unwelcoming office buildings.

For now, however, it’s the bronze-colored theater that is proving popular with riverside tourists.

Dividing opinions

Known as the Fosun Foundation, the squat, edgeless building is quirkily incongruous. Three layers of stainless steel piping slowly move on electric-motor tracks, readjusting over the course of a few minutes to reveal glimpses of glass windows and the second floor’s golden balcony.

Approaching the building’s ground floor, it is unclear where to enter the structure. The outside patio seems to merge seamlessly with the stone floor inside. But find your way in, and the space opens up to reveal a lobby, atrium and cafe, the upper floors paying homage to the open-air stages of traditional Chinese theaters.

The Fosun Foundation, by Foster + Partners and Heatherwick Studio, is inspired by the open stages of traditional Chinese theaters.

Although only four stories above ground, the Fosun Foundation reaches a further four floors beneath it. The basement levels host several echoing auditoriums and a series of white-walled hallways that will connect the building with the adjoining complex.

Heatherwick Studio founder, Thomas Heatherwick said his team was influenced by “the materiality and scale” of existing historic buildings along the city’s famous Bund.

“The opportunity to make something new in this prominent location that had formerly been the river gateway to Shanghai’s Old Town was extraordinary,” Heatherwick said in a press release.

“With a project that would create 420,000 square meters of space, we felt a great duty to look for fresh ways to connect with China’s amazing built heritage and make a meaningful public place for thousands of people to work and come together.”

Other architects offer differing views on the new theater and arts center.

“The market is saturated, so developers are reaching for more creative approaches that add extra value – value that isn’t necessarily economic,” said Miguel Bispo of David Chipperfield Architects, a firm that has also worked on developments in the Bund district.

“It is common to hire a specific architect because of their name. That’s one way to add value. But this [the Fosun Foundation] is an emotional value – something that stands out. That metallic facade will be photographed a million times.”

Two 180-meter tall towers (590 ft) sit south of the kinetic bronze arts and theater space.

Ben Wood, the American architect behind Shanghai’s famous Xintiandi district, is less complimentary.

“It doesn’t have anything in common with anything on the Bund,” he said. “The great thing about the Bund is that it’s majestic. They wanted a building that stands out and says that their company is progressive. But it’s not majestic. ‘Iconic’ is just a generic word for something that stands out.”

A growing arts district

The eight-building Bund Finance Centre is one of a number of new developments in the neighborhood. And with a state-sponsored art zone blossoming directly to its south, the Fosun Foundation may become the face of an increasingly dynamic district.

Beijing’s arts scene has traditionally dwarfed those found other Chinese cities, but Shanghai’s municipal government has long been cultivating the city’s image as a cultural hub. In their latest “Five-Year Plan,” Shanghai authorities established the West Bund Group, a state-owned enterprise with a 660-million-yuan (approximately $90 million) endowment to develop a new arts district.

The injection of government investment has spurred cultural initiatives like the West Bund Art and Design Fair, one China’s biggest art fairs, which opens for its fourth annual edition later this week.

“This year, Shanghai started a big effort to link up five districts along the Huangpu River into one waterfront area,” said West Bund Group’s director of industry development, Chen Anda. “As both an economic and cultural center, Shanghai will play an important role in the art trade and the exhibition of arts in the coming years.”

The Bund Finance Centre, a mixed-used development made of eight buildings, was built to help revitalize Shanghai's waterfront.

Long-term investment has already brought about change here, according to Swiss artist Lorenz Helbling, who founded the city’s first privately owned gallery, ShanghART, in 1996.

“The (new art districts) can all be seen as steps towards building a more creative, livable and enjoyable city,” he said. “Twenty years ago, we used fish wire to hang paintings and neon lights to illuminate them. But nowadays, the standards and expectations for exhibitions have been transformed.”

Bund Finance Centre’s co-designer Thomas Heatherwick has been a regular fixture in China since 2010, when his “Seed Cathedral” was named top pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo. Norman Foster’s firm Foster + Partners, also has a significant footprint in China’s cities. But this new Shanghai development marks the first major collaboration between two of the great forces of contemporary architecture.

“They have different profiles,” said Bispo. “Foster + Partners is a mega office with more than 1,000 people. It’s very corporate. Heatherwick is more of a boutique office with focus on tailored design.

“In a way, they complement each other. The Foster office is too big to give such a personalized design but technically they are very good. Heatherwick can give a special design and ‘face’ to a project.”

Quite what Shanghai makes of this new riverside face remains to be seen. But with the Fosun Foundation now open to the public, this development – and others in the district – are already igniting discussions in China’s arts scene and beyond.

Time-lapse of Fosun Foundation’s moving facade is courtesy of Proudfoot.