Global Times: Art, tech inject new vitality into China’s urban landscape as creative design extends life of old industrial parks

HANGZHOU, China, Sept. 25, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — In many cities across China, cultural zones of various sizes and styles that have been transformed from factories or warehouses are becoming the perfect vacation spots for many young people. As cities undergo renewal and transformation, more buildings are silently transitioning. Thus, how their historical charm can be preserved while infusing them with new vitality has become a big challenge for architects, artists and designers. Experts told the Global Times that the collaboration between humans, art and technology holds the key to shaping the future of urban landscapes and creating spaces that reflect the unique identity of a city while fostering sustainable development.

It is believed that industrial heritage is a focal point in urban renewal today. Its revitalization not only bears witness to history but also foreshadows a vibrant and greener tomorrow. Achieving this vision requires the participation of architects and touches upon all aspects of society. It involves continuous exploration, experimentation, discussion and adjustment.

Xu Bing, a vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, told the Global Times that with the development of technology, using technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) in artistic creation and architectural design is an inevitable trend. “They should complement each other because what AI creates can inspire new perspectives for humans, and art can add more aesthetics to technology.”

Green building trend

With the opening of the architecture exhibition themed with “Green Factory” at the O2 Museum in Hangzhou, East China’s Zhejiang Province, a batch of old factories are being transformed into various cultural zones to welcome the upcoming Hangzhou Asian Games.

The museum, in conjunction with the exhibition, organized forums inviting renowned global experts from various disciplines such as design, education, art and science to explore ways to help create a model for a sustainable city in the host city of the Asian Games.

This exhibition is being held at the first batch of large-scale industrial relics in Hangzhou – the Hangzhou Oxygen Factory. Built in the 1950s, the factory gradually became the largest oxygen manufacturing plant in Asia over several decades of industrial use. It evolved into a small city that integrated production, living and entertainment for more than 1,000 employees and their families. As a result, the Hangzhou Oxygen Factory carries rich memories of the city’s development. 

Renovation and preservation work on the Hangzhou Oxygen Factory, a witness to China’s industrialization and urbanization leap, were undertaken by Herzog & de Meuron, which also participated in the design of the National Stadium (Bird’s Nest) in Beijing. The transformation employed various new materials and technology, aimed to minimize demolition, reduce industrial waste, enhance ecological environment construction, preserve the historical and cultural character, and incorporate future prospects for architecture within the new environment.

Relevant personnel expressed that further transformations are ongoing for these factory buildings, injecting new vitality into them with a focus on “green and environmental protection.” 

Aldo Cibic, a world-famous Italian designer and member of the Memphis Design Movement, attended the forum, where he told the Global Times that architecture is not about a pure building but creating a structure that has a life that connects with nature and improves people’s lives.

“In building the future and facing various crises related to population and the environment, culture serves as a primary tool. We need to consider creating sustainable lifestyles in both cities and rural areas, as well as how to make these solutions replicable while increasing our awareness to protect traditional culture and history,” he said.

Xu Shiwen, a deputy director of the Zhejiang Province Institute of Architectural Design and Research, stated the importance of sustainable construction at the forum. He mentioned that each major sporting event requires the construction of numerous venues. These sports arenas are characterized by their large quantity, scale, high standards and substantial funding needs. Generally, the cost invested does not directly correspond to the returns when hosting a major competition. However, for the ideal and dreams of a city, significant funds are often required. As such, it is worth questioning whether every venue needs to be newly constructed.

He took the Hangzhou Asian Games as an example. There are a total of 56 venues, but only 12 of them are newly built. The other 44 are renovated, temporary, or expanded structures, which is “an excellent way to extend the lifespan of architecture.”

“Green” is one of the main themes of the Hangzhou Asian Games, encompassing green venue construction, environmental improvement, green energy supply, carbon neutrality and 10 other green actions. It has created a series of iconic green achievements, showcasing the organizing philosophy of the Hangzhou Asian Games. Under its “dual-carbon” goals, the Hangzhou Asian Games goes further than any previous event in achieving “carbon neutrality.”

“In our 30 years as a practice we have persistently sought to add more greenery to cityscapes to enhance our well-being through nature, to increase biodiversity, and to mitigate climate impacts. The time has come to scale up. With this exhibition, we hope to inspire others to join this movement,” Winy Maas, a well-known Dutch architect, said at the forum.

Inevitable iteration 

Besides the Hangzhou Oxygen Factory, there are also examples of promoting urban iteration with the help of international events. Beijing Shougang is another excellent example of using international competitions to promote the iteration of old factories. 

Since Beijing’s successful bid for the Olympic Games in 2001, Beijing Shougang, an industrial giant that contributed 23 percent of GDP to the Chinese capital city at its peak, began to face pressure due to the public’s increasing environmental awareness.

The polluted air that shadowed over Beijing forced Shougang and its staff make a hard choice. 

In June 2005, a blast furnace that had been in service for 47 years was shut down, kicking off Shougang’s relocation. After that, more blast furnaces, desulfurization workshops and coking plants ceased operation. 

As of 2008, the industrial park’s production stoppage ratio was cut by half. By the end of 2010, its iron and steel operation was completely shut down. 

The preservation of the old industrial park as a memorial injected with green ecological nourishment design was praised during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. 

Industrial heritage tourism has also become a new way for people today to understand industrial culture and civilization. 

“Purely old things will lose the attention of young people. These renovated industrial parks are the most in-depth means to understand the past and present life of this city,” said Liu Sensen, a Heilongjiang-based design student. 

“Although it has changed its appearance somewhat, everyone can still see what it used to look like.”

Chic warehouses

For a long time, the ancient buildings of super-first-tier cities such as Beijing have been devoured by the country’s rapid modernization development. Fortunately, zones such as 798, an old electronic factory that has been transformed into a comprehensive art zone, and many old factory parks from the last century have been preserved and handed over to the hands of young people in the capital. 

For veteran British designer Simon Collins, the 798 Art District is a very successful cultural park that has been transformed from old factories. 

“We are now living in the post industrial era and it is a trend that more old factories need to be reconstructed. Good architecture brings something else to the space, and it should respond to human need. It should be a perfect combination between tradition and modernization,” he told the Global Times.

In the northeastern corner of Beijing, about 10 kilometers away from the city center, 30 former red brick warehouses of a textile factory hidden among dense trees and rivers have been transformed into spaces where young designers can give free rein to their imagination. 

“Buildings in a bustling city center carry historical memories. You will feel that its existence can trigger something deeper in your heart than the skyscrapers built now. This may be the power of historical buildings,” Zhao Chunyan, one of the project leaders for the Langyuan project, once said.

The Langyuan Station in Beijing is one of the large-scale cultural and creative industrial parks built during the capital’s recent decision to promote the participation of social capital in the renovation of old factories. 

A new round of old factory renovation started in recent years. In April 2018, Beijing officially issued an opinion to encourage social capital to participate in the upgrading of old factories and expand cultural spaces. 

Across a bumpy gravel road, one can see a bookstore transformed from an old building gate greet visitors with the revitalized factory’s concepts of diversity, cross-border design and integration. 

The factory retains its original appearance, while the artistic design of the red brick pits reminds locals of its original purpose as a warehouse. 

The huge windows of the buildings provide natural conditions for the lighting design of the store. 

Behind the development of Langyuan is the domestic context of urban renewal.

From home furnishings to jewelry and trendy toys, there are currently around 20 studios of designers and artists working on architecture design, handicrafts, intangible cultural heritage inheritance and sculpture art. 

At an old-fashioned pastry shop named Lao Dingfeng, the inner wall of the shop is all made of cement, and a few gray spotlights simply hang from the ceiling. In the middle of the empty space is a row of wooden tables with baked pastries. Against the background of the cement wall, the baked pastries in the glass cover are particularly well-lit. 

“When niche and indie brands gather here, they can better demonstrate the uniqueness of the designers’ creative environment away from the hustle and bustle of the city,” Xin Tong, a brand design operator based here, told the Global Times. 

“This is a place with a strong historical atmosphere, which can inspire designers’ imagination and draw creativity and thinking from history,” Xin said. 

At the entrance of the factory, a huge Beijing Textile Factory signboard reminds people of its important position as a place that once stored textile products and other materials in the 1960s. 

In addition, there are two well-preserved railways that pass through the factory. 

“I enjoy every day here. Walking along the small road behind the train relaxes my mind and allows me to devote myself to creation again,” a jewelry store owner told the Global Times.

As the urban landscape evolves, it is essential to strike a balance between preserving history and embracing progress. Architectural preservation, combined with artistic intervention and technological integration, allows old buildings to transcend their original functions and become spaces of cultural significance. This approach not only revitalizes physical structures, but also enriches the social fabric of the city.

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SOURCE Global Times



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