‘Art in capital’: Shaping distinctiveness in a culture-led urban regeneration project in Red Town, Shanghai

JunWang

Culture permeates even the most imposing industrial building. Driven by global city making, city leaders see culture as a key to bolstering a new economy and to dealing with decayed urban sites. However, regional practices of creating creative strategies differ, as actors are not “dancing puppets” but actively pursue their vested interests. The Red Town project in Shanghai is one example that represents the shift from sporadic artistic action to organized construction and management of spaces for the creative industry. This paper probes the development process of Red Town in order to uncover the power relationships of a variety of actors in the urban regime. The pursuit of distinctiveness through selectively authentic conservation and branding of artists’ offbeat taste, in return, offers benefits to several key players involved, such as developers and government agents. However, when the link between artists and archaic industrial buildings is legitimized, the resulting space becomes commercialized and, to an extent, discriminatory. In this case, the architectural edifice celebrates economic growth, while at the same time, it spurs the rise of unexpected social consequences.

 

Introduction

“Art in capital” is a small art gallery in Red Town,1 which is depicted as a creative community formed after the renovation of an abandoned steel factory. Old bricks and mortar are preserved, as well as all other marks of age like rusted nails and non-functional electric wires. The new environment, with its air-conditioning system made in Germany and its heating system made in France, now guarantee a 4A class interior space as evaluated in the office market. In this creative community, sculptures are displayed at communal areas, through which the so-called creative professionals rub elbows a stone’s throw away from their respective offices.

It did not take long for Shanghai, one of China’s economic powerhouses, to embrace cultural consumption. The city is filled with passion for art of all types and descriptions, evident in consumers undeterred by the rocketing prices of art works in recent auctions.2 Art consumption has undoubtedly become a trendy way for many Shanghaiese to assert their distinct taste and identity. However, many art critics worry that this craze for art has allowed consumerism to dominate market behavior and to further lure art supplies.3The same concern pervades the rehabilitation of archaic industrial buildings for the consumption of artistically produced space. The story starts when a cultural group (artists, architects, etc.) moves to usually abandoned and dilapidated industrial plants in the inner city, converting these into workshops and studios. After rehabilitation, these warehouses and production plants magically convert decayed urban area to magnets, which attract artists to move in, one after another, and they also became popular destinations for visitors, many of whom are young adults attracted by that kind of life ‘on the edge.’ The magic effect of the chemistry between artists and deteriorated industrial sites has triggered the interest of many others, including the Shanghai Municipal Government, which was searching for means to push forward economic restructuring under a condition of land shortage in the city. The combination of artists and non-functional industrial sites gave the government a lot of inspiration. At that time, creative industry—the new favorite of many entrepreneurial governments after Florida’s promotion (Florida, 2000)—caught the attention of Shanghai officials who immediately opened their aims to embrace the new economy. Conservationists endeavoring to conserve industrial heritage through rehabilitation gave the action of reuse another fancy cloth of heritage conservation. Packaged in one, the Creative Industrial Agglomeration Area was introduced to encourage the development of creative industrial zones based on recycling of decayed factories in the inner city (Li et al., 2001SHMG, 2001). This lucrative market attracts a different breed of actors, such as real estate developers, government agents, or a coalition of the two. Soon, the piecemeal action was pushed into a city-wide movement. At the end of 2008, 76 sites had been labeled as Creative Industrial Agglomeration Areas (SCIC, 2008). The development at a scale previously unseen caught the attention of the central government, which launched a publicity campaign stressing that urban development occurs “when the creative industry dances with industrial heritage,” and calls for “learning from Shanghai” through its core newspaper (Lou, 2006).

The project in Red Town is one typical case that represents the turning from the first stage to the second stage, namely, from artists’ sporadic activities to organized construction and management of office space for creative industry. The outputs reflect negotiations among different actors who actively participate in this process for invested interests. Since Red Town, other projects desperately resort to heritage conservation to promise a unique experience, through a conscious and deliberate manipulation of history. Priority was given to the cautious preservation of aged buildings’ fabrics, particularly their erosion and decay, often in the name of authentic conservation.

At its planning stage, Red Town was publicized as an attempt to encourage the development of art and culture, as well as to set up a model of rehabilitation of industrial heritage. As the project processed, however, pressure was exerted for economic benefit that is measured in revenues. This paper attempts to probe into the development process of Red Town and to uncover the links to power relationships of a variety of actors in the urban regimes. I argue that Red Town is a project that prioritized the authenticity of heritage conservation, a space made vibrant by culture, seemingly detached from mundane living, and tailored for artists’ use. In reality, however, authentic heritage conservation was applied only to a select portion, specifically the building’s fabric. Meanwhile, the spatial features of industrial legacies, which might best represent the ethos of muscular industrialization, were crudely altered to maximize up-market office stocks.

Data are obtained from interviews and site-visits within a span of 2 years, as well as government documents, magazines published by the Red Town Company, newspaper articles, and reports. During the past 2 years, we have interviewed 22 individuals, including officials from different departments, developers, conservationists, artists and tenants in Red Town. After a literature review, the spontaneous stage is described to introduce how the idea of combining industrial heritage and creative industry emerges, and then the following section focuses on the renovation and management of Red Town, while discursive remarks are made at the end.

Debates: creative class, social divide, and power relationship in the urban regime

The concept of “creative class” was introduced by Florida (2000), who specifies them to be imperative group for cities and regions that expect to succeed in this economy increasingly driven by creativity. In its core, Florida’s thesis is to establish an environment that is attractive to the new ‘creative class.’ The idea has gained prominence among many entrepreneurial mayors who attempt to accelerate economic growth and project their cities to a higher tier in the global city hierarchy.

Culture-led urban regeneration is one kind of means deployed by many locales in their practices to develop a new economy and also to deal with decayed urban areas (Evans, 2003Evans, 2005). One strand of studies promotes that establishment of unique hybrid identity through cultural and heritage boosts distinctiveness and then advancement along the ladder of economy and power. Recalling the word “to imagineer” coined by the Walt Disney Studio to describe its way of “combining imagination with engineering to create the reality of dreams,” the thesis of urban imagineering is introduced at its core as a political act turning to the question of what and how to build at the local level in a more strategic manner than does Disney (Paul, 2004Paul, 2005).

Others argue that the promotion of a particular set of values through themed built environment and spectacles reflects the social divide and unequal relationships (Atkinson and Easthope, 2009). The aestheticization of archaic buildings in the picturesque style of heritage conservation is often claimed to be a new type of space tailored for a cultural community. The conscious manipulation of image for a given place may respond to the large-scale social transformation from a Fordist to a Post-Fordist society, namely, the birth of the new middle class which seeks out the stylization and aestheticization of life (Paul, 2004). Meanwhile, neglecting the uncreative class is sanitized and social inequity is legitimized. As Bourdieu points out, “art and culture consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences” (Bourdieu and Johnson, 1993, p. 2).

Researchers in the conservation field are more concerned with the commodification and exploitation of culture and history, frequently conducted in a distorted manner for maximum economic benefits in name of authenticity. As a response to the resorting to heritage and tradition, Alsayyad (2001) approaches the problem from a perspective of a conscious and deliberate manipulation of culture, wherein the built environment is designed to promise a unique cultural experience. Many culture-led urban regeneration projects might merely “begin with poetry and end[s] with real estate” (Klunzman, 2004; cited by Evans, 2005, p. 959). Disney was not the “first to pioneer the idea of replicating places of the ‘other’ for people to experience.” However, it “was the first to recognize the permanent, continuing commercial potential of such installation” (Alsayyad, 2001, p. 9).

The “city of renewal” era reinforced the widespread use of cultural symbols in urban regeneration (Amin and Thrift, 2002Appadurai, 1990Beauregard, 1995Evans, 2003Hall and Robertson, 2001Zukin et al., 1998). However, regional practices of the creative strategy differ (Atkinson and Easthope, 2009Vanolo, 2008). This transformational movement has been the subject of various research works, more so in the aspect of the political-economic realm. Beauregard and Haila comment that, actors are not “simply puppets dancing to the tune of socioeconomic and political logics but rather relatively autonomous agents” (Beauregard and Haila, 1997, p. 328). Cities are governed by regimes, as put by Stone (1989). An internal coalition of socioeconomic forces pulls the strings in the urban regime. These influential actors with direct access to institutional resources hold a significant impact on urban policymaking and management, and this often results in the urban landscape’s contingent spatial transformation. The spatial outcomes of development and policy spawn continuing social and material consequences infused with the coalition’s vested interests. The powers among different agents within a governing regime vary. In this light, the transformation of urban landscapes needs to be explored from the internal structure of socioeconomic actors and their negotiations in the process.

Cont. Reading...