Shanghai surprise ... a new town in ye olde English style
Jonathan Watts in Songjiang
Wednesday June 2, 2004
In a small corner of the giant construction site that is China, something rather quaint is happening: modern skyscrapers are giving way to Georgian terraces, concrete squares are being discarded in favour of English village greens, and instead of the usual eight-lane superhighways there are winding cobbled lanes.
That, at least, is the ambitiously low-rise plan for a giant new satellite-city near Shanghai that aims to recreate the most picturesque elements of a British town to lure homebuyers from China's newly affluent middle class.
Squeezing 500 years of British architectural development into a five-year construction project, Thames Town will have half-timbered Tudor-style buildings at its centre, a waterfront of Victorian red-brick warehouses, and an outlying area of gabled 20th century buildings bordered by hedges, verdant lawns and leafy roads.
With a fake turreted castle and at least one windmill, there is a danger that the site in Songjiang could turn into a British Disneyland that might serve as a monument to the excesses of Shanghai's overheated property market. But the architects say they are designing a working community.
When it is completed next year, residents will be able to have a fashionable white wedding under the spire of a new Catholic church modelled on one in Clifton, Bristol.
Drinkers will be able to drop into pubs inspired by Birmingham, and shoppers will be able to browse in a covered market with distinct echoes of Covent Garden. As well as football pitches and at least one garden maze, the project aims to create one of the greenest residential areas in the country, with streets lined by London plane trees and yew and hawthorn hedges.
It is part of a scheme by the Shanghai municipal government to rehouse 500,000 people in nine new satellite towns, each with a separate theme.
At Anting, for instance, seven German architectural firms are creating an "auto-town" complete with an Formula 1 track and a BMW plant. Pujiang will have an Italian flavour; Fencheng will duplicate the Ramblas shopping arcade in Barcelona.
None, however, is on as grand a scale as Songjiang. In the coming two years, nine universities, encompassing 100,000 students and staff, are to be relocated to this site, about 20 miles outside China's commercial capital. Construction has begun on a train link that will cut the journey into town to 15 minutes. Work is also under way on a giant terminal building that will house what is claimed to be the biggest shopping mall in China, with a floor space of 280,000 square metres.
Hi-tech firms, including Hitachi and the Taiwanese computer-chip maker Taijidian, are investing in new factories. Most will be in the modern Chinese style.
But Thames Town will offer a different home to its 8,000 residents, most of whom are expected to be university professors and factory managers.
The 3bn yuan (£200m) project centres on a medieval town square and radiates out through Tudor, Victorian and Georgian styles of architecture. Bringing it up to date is a multi-storey car park.
Paul Rice, principal architect of the Atkins consultancy, said: "We are aware of the Disneyland implications. This could become a joke if built in the wrong way. But this is a working community. Compared with other Chinese towns, it will be a pleasant place to live."
The need to compromise between British designs and Chinese living styles is already apparent at the site, which is laid out in a grid pattern. The few completed villas feature large windows on a decidedly Chinese scale.
"People in Shanghai are looking for something different," said Liu Wei, of the municipal management company. "Our target is young, wealthy consumers who can adapt easily to a new lifestyle."
Whether they can adapt to the 6m yuan (£400,000) price tag for a large three-bedroom villa is another question. With property prices in Shanghai having doubled in the past two years, the market is widely seen as a bubble set to burst.
Pubs, privet and parody as China builds little Britain by the Yangtse
UK developers are helping house Shanghai elite in a pastiche of olde England
Wednesday August 16, 2006
Look at those white stucco Regency terraces. This must be Pimlico. Look again. Well, perhaps we are in Bristol; that's the spire of St Mary Redcliffe over there, isn't it? On the other hand, all those black-and-white Tudor shops seem to spell Chester. Right?
Wrong. This is not England, nor even a chim-chiminee Hollywood film set. Welcome to Thames Town, a grotesque, and extremely funny parody of an olde English town seen through Chinese eyes, and built by canny British developers.
Thames Town is one of seven satellite towns nearing completion on the fringe of Shanghai built by the municipal government to re-house 500,000 people. Its six siblings have been designed in equally potty national dresses. Take your pick from architectural styles adopted from Italy, Spain, Canada, Sweden, Holland and Germany.
The German new town, by the way, is the work of Albert Speer. But, no, not that one - his son. Instead of mighty domes and stadiums, Speer junior offers the Chinese volk Hansel and Gretel-style gingerbread homes.
But only Thames Town boasts a chippy, a gothic church, village green and mock-Tudor pub selling real ale. Built from scratch in little over three years, the £200m project encompasses five centuries of British architecture. At its centre are half-timbered Tudor-style buildings. By the waterfront, Victorian redbrick warehouses have been pre-emptively "converted" into shops. The residential area includes gabled Edwardian houses bordered by privet hedges, manicured lawns and leafy roads.
Aimed at China's increasingly wealthy and cosmopolitan middle class, the town - once the community is in full swing - will allow drinkers to quench their thirst in bars inspired by Birmingham's pubs, and parents will be able to send their children to an international school. Shoppers can browse in a covered market that has distinct echoes of Covent Garden.
Foreign visitors, Shanghai planning officials have said, will soon be unable to tell where Europe ends and China begins. Maybe. A while ago when driving through the madcap new towns embanking the Pearl River Delta all the way from Hong Kong to Macau, I thought I saw the Palace of Westminster looming from a drained paddy field. It proved to be a block of flats, complete with a crude miniature of St Stephen's tower. Did a little Big Ben chime the hours? I didn't stop to find out.
Shanghai officials might, of course, have asked WS Atkins, the builders and developers of Thames Town, to choose any number of other famous British buildings other than the ones they did for their latest residential wheeze. They might well have been impressed, for example, by a copy of Westminster Abbey, for western-style weddings, complete with Cardrew Robinson-style vicar (which are much in vogue in Shanghai). They might have liked a copy of Bath's Royal Crescent to house the branches of McDonald's, Sainsbury and Tesco they plan here. And, for those in need of a secure gated estate, what about a Downing Street? Or a replica of the Chinese embassy in Portland Place?
Shanghai, is no stranger to foreign, theme-park architecture. A home to European and American adventurers from the late 19th century, it was potted about with neo-classical civic and commercial monuments, art deco hotels and houses in any number of out-of-place styles. Here, still standing today close to the heart of the city, is Cavendish Court, a mock Tudor mansion block. Not so far away is Holly Heath, an endangered joke oak suburb that might as well be in Surrey. In the nearby Grenada estate there is a large house designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, architect of Portmeirion, Wales' eclectic holiday village.
Nutty as Thames Town seems, it is just as odd to learn that at least one visiting English mayor (no names) has been so impressed by the "special Chinese condition" US-style skyscrapers in Pu Dong, Shanghai's new Bladerunner-style central business district, that diminished copies are planned for London town.
Of course, it will take a little while to catch up with Shanghai; the city already boasts more than 2,000 skyscrapers, many built, excitingly, on sinking land. Doubtless, those desperate to build tens of thousands of new homes in new towns along Britain's sodden Thames Gateway have much to learn from Shanghai, too.
Expect soon a Thames Town complete with a copy of the Great Wall to hold back floods, and a miniature Forbidden City to keep the yobs at bay.
• Additional reporting by Jonathan Watts in Beijing
Thames Town is in Songjiang, 20 miles outside China's commercial capital. Built as a British-style centre of education, technology and consumption, it will house nine universities, 100,000 students and staff, several hi-tech plants, and one of the world's biggest shopping malls. A railway will take commuters into the centre of Shanghai in less than 20 minutes. Thames Town offers homes to 8,000 people with prices from £330,000 to £410,000 for a three bedroom villa - well above the average even in wealthy Shanghai. According to the Henghe real estate company, more than 95% have been sold.