PLAN 69:
Reusing Traditional Architecture

Alumnus Ben Wood is Changing the Face of China

Ben Wood (MArch'85) came to MIT after a stint in the US Air Force, and opening a mountaineering school and a French restaurant in Colorado. 'I was accepted at the [Harvard] GSD, but I chose MIT because I only needed to take one studio a semester and I could take anything I wanted to - art history, life drawing, you name it.'

Wood's approach to learning - follow curiosity, season with applied skill and knowledge, add a steady stream of life experience, enjoy, and repeat -- has defined his approach to changing the urban landscape of China. 'A public place is a place where everything is for sale. There is always a transaction, falling in love, public encounters. I want to engender places where people will come out, be seen, and show off the popular culture of China.'

This philosophy is in full swing daily in the neighborhoods of Xiantiandi, in downtown Shanghai, Hangzhou, and the Cambridge Watertown project in Zhujiajiao, all projects of Wood's. Whether a 'festival marketplace' such as Xiantiandi and Hangzhou, or a large residential community like Cambridge Watertown, each makes a destination out of an urban landscape by reusing traditional architecture in thoroughly modern ways.

Not quite a preservationist, Wood sees himself as more of a recycler, 'I just like to reuse things. If I see an old building and see a new use for it, I do it. If it's old and useful, so be it. I always believe that time has helped a building evolve, and if you can contribute to that building, it's wonderful. Besides, it's easier to endear people to a piece of architecture if it's something old.'

Wood's work on restoring Qianmen Avenue and converting it to a pedestrian mall in Beijing illustrates this point. 'The government documented the buildings in this area in 1937 with large format cameras. Someone later found the archive and said, 'Mr. Wood, please copy.' I said, 'No.' It's the most complete documentation I will ever have, but the buildings were ugly and awful.'

According to Wood, after students were hired to create drawings for the buildings, government officials realized that Wood had a point, and returned to him with the commission. 'Qianmen Avenue is almost two square kilometers of re-use with 4-5 million in square footage in new buildings.' It opened to the public at the end of 2007.

Mentored by architect Benjamin Thompson, best known for destination neighborhoods like Boston's 150-year old Faneuil Hall Market Place and Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Wood brought this sensibility to China full-time in 2003. 'Ben Thompson changed urban America; I learned a lot from him. I am interested in changing China. I am interested in seeing that China doesn't make the same mistakes that the US did.'

In collaboration with developer Vincent Lo, head of Shui On Group, Wood has changed China with Xintiandi, creating the gold standard of urban revitalization referred to by developers and architects as the verb 'to Xiantiandi' a project.

Wood acknowledges that the scale of building and urbanization in China is so huge, that not every project can be 'xiantiandeed'. 'There are 1.3 billion people and 25% will be moving into a new house, that is over 300 million houses. The numbers are hard to comprehend because the scale is staggering.'

In his studio alone, Wood has five major projects underway that he describes as collectively equal in size to the city of Miami. Of these, he finds two resort communities in Lijiang and Shangri-La in the Yunnan Province the most interesting. 'In ten years these will be the first real alpine resorts in Asia. Think Aspen, Colorado with 12 million square feet, 2000 houses, 10 major hotels, all with sustainable technologies.'

By sustainable, he means using the resources at hand in a responsible way, including local technologies, customs and resources. 'Take something new and big and have it live off the land. Adapt menus to the local produce. We need to change expectations - no air conditioners are necessary if we build with cross-ventilation.'

Wood sees no end to opportunity in China in the near term. 'If you have ideas, and there is no shortage of ideas, investors get off the plane in China every day!' He offers this piece of advice to MIT's young architects. 'Drive an old truck across the country and drive it 'til it drops. Get on an airplane and come to China. Get on a motorbike and ride it 'til it drops. Then get on a horse and go as far as you can. Go to remote areas where they don't have plumbing. Come to a big city like Shanghai and be an apprentice for a long time. See as much of the world as you can.'

Article by Athelia Tilson

Posted February 2008