Firm:  SOM

Urban Design Award: Honor


This project aims to rejuvenate and preserve Shanghai’s historic Old Town. As the original walled city and home to the native population through the colonial period, Old Town is the City’s most historic and “Chinese” district. While it contains several historic sites of national significance such as Yu Garden, Old Town today sits distressed and largely forgotten. The deteriorated conditions of many of the old wooden buildings have created poor living conditions, and their proximity and lack of emergency access create a fire hazard. Where redevelopment has begun to encroach into Old Town, the historic fabric is being erased rather than rehabilitated, with only a few isolated buildings preserved.

The project area consists of Old Town’s northern half, defined as the area within the alignment of the former city wall and a few surrounding blocks, but with a holistic consideration of the entire historic city. The client’s vision was to rejuvenate the area, respecting its historic importance and utilizing existing buildings as the anchoring catalysts. The client’s intent is to find a development strategy acceptable to residents, the government, and the development community.

Many historic structures in China, including some within the site area, have been preserved but stripped of their surrounding urban fabric, leaving them as isolated monuments devoid of their historic meaning and context. While much of Old Town has a unique, human-scale texture, many of the existing buildings were built poorly or have not been well-maintained, meaning much redevelopment will need to occur. This plan utilizes three techniques of preservation, all of which seek to expand preservation beyond architecture into the realm of urbanism to retain essential elements of the historic urban context, focusing attention on the cityscape and urban fabric rather than only individual buildings:

Contextual Preservation for buildings of sufficient quality keeps and rehabilitates the highest proportion of buildings and urban fabric. New buildings infill within the existing fabric at the historic scale.

Selective Densification inserts blocks of new development in locations with poor quality buildings, utilizing sensitive development forms to avoid disrupting the urban pattern while replacing lower quality buildings with new development.

Contrasting Preservation maintains important urban public spaces including plazas, roads, and their surrounding buildings and uses, while adding dense contemporary development between them. It preserves the essential elements of historic urban space.

The project uses these multiple forms of preservation, sensitively-designed new development, targeted public investment like new linear open spaces on historic creek alignments, and new land uses to create a prosperous future for the Old Town. The plan preserves the unique low urban form within the area bounded by the former wall. By transferring development rights to dense transit-oriented development outside the wall, the plan retains the study area’s total development capacity (and thus, financial feasibility) and creates a scale contrast between Old Town and its surroundings. New high value-added uses and industries like jewelry and fashion will bring economic vitality, diversity and innovation, establishing key economic relationships between linked areas inside and outside the district.

AIA California
AIA California
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