Authentic Anren: How China’s largest museum split a city in two

When culture-led regeneration commercialises heritage at the expense of authenticity, a city suffers. Barclay Bram Shoemaker reports on how tourism has transformed, and divided, the Chinese town of Anren

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Part of the large-scale regeneration of Anren, tramway tracks have become a physical marker of a divided city. All photographs: Barclay Bram Shoemaker

Anren, in China’s south west, is a small town with a big museum. An hour’s drive from Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, Anren is the site of the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, China’s largest private museum set across a sprawling complex of 35 museum buildings housing over 8 million items, including a 28m-tall decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile.

Before the arrival of the museum in 2005, Anren was an unremarkable Chinese town; a few dilapidated, early 20th century, republican-era manors in various states of disrepair and an old street — 树人街 (Shuren Street) — with a series of shops, restaurants and tea houses, largely unaltered from their original state By the time I first visited in 2015, it had already been completely transformed.

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Shuren Street mid-transformation

When Fan Jianchuan, a multi-millionaire entrepreneur, arrived in the early 2000s to build his eponymous museum, he quickly purchased many of the republican-era manors and a number of the more impressive storefronts on Shuren Street. In 2008, he sold up to the Chengdu Culture and Tourism Company (Wen Lu, as per its Chinese name) making a tidy return on his investment after the tourist potential of the town started to become clear as curious visitors started to visit the new museum. Wen Lu quickly set about renovating the old town.

One of the company’s first schemes was to build an Art Deco-style cinema at the top of Shuren Street, and a tramway that ran close to the museum and a recently completed Sheraton hotel. In laying the tracks, however, the company inadvertently cut Anren in two. On one side is the old town, where many of the inhabitants still live. On the other side is the museum, Shuren Street and the increasingly commercialised tourist hub of the city — in other words, the new-old town.

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Anren’s tourist-oriented neighbourhood

Small towns all over China are latching on to obscure pieces of local history — or inventing them entirely — to try and lure domestic tourists with “heritage” sites. (Chinese tourists embarked on five billion domestic trips in 2017, generating over 4.5 trillion Yuan (nearly £500bn) in 2017.)

The city of Lijiang in Yunnan is emblematic of this trend. The ancient city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997 and subsequently over-restored for the tourist gaze, at the expense of the diverse local population. Despite this, “lijiangification” 丽江化 is a term often trotted out enthusiastically by local officials.

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The ‘Art Deco’ tramway

In Anren, this trend has manifested itself most clearly in the tramway in the centre of town — boxy and sleek with vague allusions to Art Deco chic. The only problem is that Sichuan never had trams, and it is Shanghai — a city over 2000km away — which is the home of Chinese Art Deco. What’s more, the design of the tram was based on a model that ran in Harbin, a city so far to China’s North East that it’s technically in Siberia and was once part of Russia. It didn’t come cheap either; Anren’s tram is reported to have cost roughly 27,000,000rmb (£3,000,000).

Philosophically, China’s new-old towns represent an interesting problematic to our concept of authenticity. Much of the historic fabric of these towns was destroyed during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) when the policy of “smash the Four Olds” (old customs, habits, culture and thinking) saw the wholesale destruction of much of China’s millennia-spanning material culture. What was left has often been swept away in the madcap pursuit of growth and development.

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Mass-produced ‘authentic’ sculptures

As such, 古城 (new-old towns) are sometimes constructed directly on top of the scant remains of genuinely old areas of town — as in the case of Anren’s Shuren street which directly incorporates original architecture — and in others, like Shanghai’s Xintiandi shopping district, they are built entirely from scratch; Potemkin antiquity.

When I asked Wei Jianmin, the head of publicity at the Jianchuan Museum who had formerly worked on the development of Anren as part of the Jianchuan company, about whether the lack of authenticity in some of the developments bothered him, he shrugged. “People like to have a good time,” he said, “and now there’s lots of ways for people to enjoy themselves here.”

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Urban development in progress

One day in Anren I was curious about where the tramway led; I realised that despite weeks in the town I’d never seen it run. I followed it from its start outside of the Sheraton, through the new-old town, passing over into the actual old town. There was a tea-house full of elderly men playing majiang and smoking. Across the street a shop selling elaborate funeral wreaths sombrely kept watch. I continued, walking through a construction site until I finally got to the end of the line. I could see the gleaming trams in their depot. Nearby, a security guard watched me intently. I asked him when they were next scheduled to run. He looked at me quizzically. “I have no idea,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time we actually used them.”

From Athens to Anfield: the successes of community-led regeneration

In extracts from a new book, Fiona Shipwright looks at two inspiring projects where people power has positively transformed city neighbourhoods

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NAVARINOU PARK, ATHENS, GREECE

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, as Joni Mitchell once sang. Located in the somewhat typecast “anarchist” Athens neighbourhood of Exarcheia, Navarinou Park exemplifies something of a reverse scenario. The initiators and users of Navarinou are not working with something so static or “complete” a state as paradise though; rather, they are attempting to sustain this rare patch of open space amidst the density of the Greek capital via an ongoing process of autonomy and self-management that is not without its challenges.

The site has had a variety of former lives since a clinic was built there in 1907; at one point intended to host a new public building, then a new city square, it instead became a car park in limbo. Its most recent metamorphosis as a piece of urban commons was set in motion following the riots of 2008 that took place in a number of Greek cities, which amplified the feelings of many regarding the country’s precarious economic situation and government corruption. As authorities attempted to curtail tensions, those seeking modes of resistance that didn’t entail rioting were compelled to consider what Italian anthropologist and activist Anna Giulia de la Puppa describes as “new ways of using public space, new experiments [regarding the] occupation of space.”

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On March 7, 2009, the Exarcheia Residents’ Initiative, who had been working on ideas for the site for 18 months, and the collective Us, Here and Now and for All of Us initiated this particular experiment. Alongside local residents and supporters, they arrived at the car park armed with tools and began breaking into the cement and planting. Maintaining this commons ever since has highlighted that despite external misperceptions about Exarcheia, the principle conflict associated with the park is not about street fights but the perception of city space.

Hosting urban gardening schemes, community events (both political and cultural), as well as sport and leisure activities, Navarinou’s status lies somewhere between park and occupation – meaning that the dynamics of the responsibility that apply are distinct. Open, collective meetings take place every Wednesday evening at 7pm, in which no expressed idea is declined without discussion but with consensual decisions binding for all. Autonomy remains a process, not an end result here; a continuing practice of urban communing that fosters connectedness, centred around a space produced by people and used according to their needs and preferred forms of control.

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HOMEBAKED, LIVERPOOL, UK

In recent years, the words “urban” and “intervention” have increasingly been coupled together alongside that most ubiquitous of phrases: “pop up”. Whilst short-term tactics can be effective in their own right, it is the employment of intervention as a long-term – and evolving – strategy that really results in the effective, sustained involvement of residents in city making. Homebaked, in the Anfield district of Liverpool in the UK, is one such example of intervention taking place at a large scale, in terms of both duration and vision.

When Mitchell’s Bakery opened on a residential street corner in the neighbourhood (home to Liverpool FC’s stadium) in 1901, it was at the centre of a vibrant community. By 2010, thanks to multiple failures associated with wider regeneration plans for the city, the family-owned business had sold up and the empty bakery found itself marooned within a landscape of boarded up houses in the cross hairs of demolition trucks. That same year, Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, working with Manchester-based architects URBED, initiated the 2Up2Down project as part of a Liverpool Biennial commission, putting the notion of community autonomy centre stage.

Whilst the Biennial itself ran between September to November 2010, the 2Up2Down project ran for two a half years, during which time around 60 young people worked with the artist and architects and made use of the empty bakery space to devise a scheme of re-use for the premises and two adjoining terraced houses. In contrast to the top-down, birds’ eye view of the city’s regeneration plan, this model allowed for the completion of manageable, tangible achievements, demonstrating to participants the power of their own instrumentality whilst lending a sense of momentum for scaling up such efforts.

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In 2012, the project found a new durational trajectory, when participants established the Homebaked Community Land Trust, a membership organisation that allows local people to collectively buy, develop and manage land and buildings (and which exists alongside the community-owned Homebaked Bakery Cooperative). The CLT then set its sights on extending the community-led intervention further into the wider cityscape.

In 2015, when the houses directly next door could not be saved, the group set in motion a project called “Build your own High Street”, underpinned by an extensive community-led design process. The community chose the architects, Architectural Emporium, and the resulting proposal is a scheme that includes 26 flats situated above shops on a community-led and owned high street development. The “brick by brick, loaf by loaf” approach will begin with the flat above the bakery. Once ready for occupancy in early 2018, this first step will allow the group to secure the council support and loans needed to build the scheme.

Homebaked is testament to the fact that whilst long-term interventions are undoubtedly complicated, it is precisely this quality that can bypass the reflex reactions of speculation-driven development, bestowing a value that goes beyond the purely financial.

These are excerpts from the book Explorations in Urban Practice – Urban School Ruhr Series, published by dpr-barcelona    

Urban School Ruhr is a learning platform and pedagogical experiment investigating participative and artistic practices in urban space. An initiative of Open Raumlabor University developed in cooperation with Urbane Künste Ruhr  – find out more here

How to regenerate inclusively

by Francesca Perry

Reading the spot-on article by Loretta Lees about the damaging effect of regeneration in London got me thinking. Regeneration has become a dirty word. But good regeneration is not about ‘bringing back to life’ – life is always there – it is about supporting and enabling, making positive change to benefit everyone.

Listen to the community

As a developer, this may not come naturally! Those practitioners involved in change should be aware of multiple narratives and needs and if necessary, bring someone on board who can responsively engage with the community, understanding how they feel and what they want. The local and existing community in a place should be involved at every step of a development or change to help shape it. Crowdsource ideas from the people that know and use the area – they are the experts!

Support services

A lot of the time, a place doesn’t need an injection of luxury landscaping to ‘improve’. Look closer and you’ll realise that vital community services – whether it’s running a family centre or maintaining a local park – may be in need of support, time and money. This sort of support is often the section 106 ‘afterthought’ of a pricey development – but developers tend to put money towards their own version of what’s beneficial, rather than the community’s.

Integrate housing

It sounds so obvious – but it rarely happens. There are so many excuses for separating social housing from private housing, but there is no excuse for creating a segregated city. Rent and sale prices in London are becoming increasingly exclusive – and ridiculous. We urgently need to decelerate something that is spiralling out of control – as Lees articulates, this property-led regeneration – leading to a city dominated by unaffordable luxury housing.

What’s appalling is that even if social housing is built in the same development as private, often the quality of the buildings is so markedly different as to be offensive. Additionally, developers and local authorities should ensure new housing is not only integrated within itself, but also with the surrounding existing communities and spaces. Create communal spaces for all to use, including community centres, family facilities and open green spaces where collaborative activities like sports and social groups can take place. Nurture place, don’t displace.

Help build pride and community

I’d like to think that community is not, contrary to popular belief, built through ‘place branding’ tactics! Real collaborative and productive local projects can achieve great connections and improvements. From communal gardening and urban agriculture to public art projects and youth initiatives, it is important to help enable people to both get involved and run activities themselves. Public space plays a crucial role in these processes, and really it is accessible public space that needs to be nurtured to achieve inclusive regeneration.

Target additions

Sometimes additions are needed. By this I don’t necessarily mean another Tesco Metro or a cafe that charges £4 for a coffee. Is it possible to contribute a community space, healthcare facility, or a skills training centre? Respond to existing and very real needs that, if catered for, will greatly improve the wellbeing of the people and their place.

Enhance training and employment opportunities

Ensure existing and any new businesses provide opportunities to local people for apprenticeships, training and employment, working with local schools and colleges to achieve this. Places like Free 2 Learn are crucial too. In London especially, when I talk to young people about what they want to see in their local area, I hear this again and again: more training, more work experience, more jobs.

I want more than anything to believe there is a better way; we can grow and support our city without being exclusionary and divisive. More holistic and sensitive regeneration is the bigger win in the long term. Listen to the multitude of diverse voices: this city belongs to all of us.

School’s out: from registration to regeneration

by Francesca Perry

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Adaptive reuse in cities is nothing new. ‘Saved’ historical buildings find new purposes all the time, often as long as there is commercial gain involved. Former school buildings tend to be converted into contemporary art galleries or luxury accommodation. But what about those newer sites? City schools that have had to shut down or move due to financial or practical pressures, leaving behind whole complexes at once poignant and unusable.

One place that sets an admirable standard is the former Lilian Baylis School in Lambeth, London. The school moved to a new site in 2005, deserting a complex of 1960s buildings. But instead of another case of luxury redevelopment, the local community ensured that it was transformed in to a sports hub, offering enhanced services to people living on the local estates and surrounding areas. Starting as a summer programme, four sports halls were opened and became a new centre for sports, health and community locally. The summer programme gained support and grew in to sustained activity run by Sport Action Zone, later renamed Community Action Zone.

Now re-launched as the Black Prince Community Hub with improved facilities and a neighbourhood cafe, the place is undeniably a crucial local asset for youth provision, health and community cohesion in the middle of London. The old classrooms have been opened up and host an array of social, educational and cultural activities. Classes are run by the local Albanian, Eritrean and Somalian communities. Organisations that use arts to encourage community cohesion and empowerment have made the hub their home, including Creative Sparkworks and Fotosynthesis. The true community value of what is offered here far, far outweighs the potential commerical value of the site (developers take note).

Elsewhere, it’s comforting to know former schools are being used as crucial community hubs. The One Love Community Centre in Newham, a converted school building, provides training, childcare, and seeks to enhance employment and education opportunities for ethnic minorities locally. The St Werburghs Community Centre in Bristol, another former school complex, provides spaces and facilities for community groups and organisations, building local partnerships through events and projects.

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A closed-down school in San Antonio, Texas, was recently ‘reborn’ as a Girl Scouts Leadership Center. Having been closed due to state funding cuts, the school is now a safe and vital hub for girls, Scout leaders and families. What’s also great is to see the process reversed: a disused community centre in Newport, Wales, could soon be converted to provide a nursery for an adjacent school.

While it’s great that in cities today, disused spaces become pop-up places in wait of development, and newly vacant properties can be part of residential guardianship schemes, it takes something else entirely to galvanise an unused and empty space into a real community hub – a real asset.

This is regeneration as it should be, without the increasing affiliation of gentrification: it is about supporting and providing for the existing urban community.