China these days is prouder of its accomplishments – such as this year’s Mars landing and new space station — than at any time in recent history. Yet the country remains open to tapping foreign expertise when it helps. It has helped in a big way with the redesign and renovation of the surroundings of key spot in Communist Party history that is set to be in the national limelight on July 1 as part of the party’s centennial celebration.
Speculation is rife that President Xi Jinping will in the coming days visit a newly finished memorial in bustling Shanghai to commemorate the first National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Revolutionary leaders including Mao Zedong gathered at an adjacent site in what was then known as the city’s French Concession on July 23, 1921. The party went on to form the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and has led the government since.
After stagnating for decades, the area around the site of the first congress has somewhat incongruously become a trendy nightlife and high-end retail and residential district known as Xintiandi. Hong Kong billionaire Vincent Lo’s Shui On Land began developing the 22-block area in the late 1990s; its architectural design has been feted with awards and inspired cultural rejuvenation projects throughout the country. Though Shanghai tourism has been hurt by continuing Covid-19 visa restrictions, tens of thousands of visitors pass daily through Xintiandi area retail
shops that include Burberry, Sephora, Tom Ford, Swatch, Lululemon, Tesla and Bose.
Finished in 2001, a park across from the party congress site known as Taipingqiao Park, has taken on new importance as home to the new memorial. Taipingqiao Park and the accompanying Taipingqiao Lake with have received a big facelift in the past year led by Dwight Law, an American landscape architect and principal of Design Land Collaborative in Shanghai.
Law, the son of the dean of the College of Architecture Planning and Design at Kansas State University, didn’t plan early in his career to follow in his father’s footsteps or work in Asia. He graduated from California Polytechnic State University in Luis Obispo; that eventually landed him a degree and his own business in Singapore. He later moved to Shanghai, where he has built up a business with a studio staff of 50 and thrived from China’s building boom. A frequent collaborator of Shui On Land and Xintiandi’s design architect Ben Wood, Law has done projects for city governments and companies controlled by Asian billionaires such as Robert Kuok’s Kerry Properties, as well as Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi’s Soho China and Peter Woo’s Marco Polo Hotel chain. Law this month is finishing the redesign of the plaza and gardens at the historical St. Ignatius (Xujiahui) Cathedral located in Shanghai, a popular tourist site that’s one of China’s largest cathedrals.
The park’s centerpiece, Taipingqiao Lake, was added back in 2001 intended to remind visitors that the party leaders during their historic July-August 1921 meeting had at one point needed to move from the French Concession to a boat on a Shanghai-area lake to keep the gathering secret. By 2019, when the decision to put the museum into the park was made, “the lake there was old and tired,” Law
said. “It’s vastly urban, and it was falling apart.” Creating a new party history museum within the park “was an opportunity to redo the lake and soften it up” with a more environmentally friendly approach that fits into city priorities today.
Law’s revisions to the park are already helping to bring in more visitors closer to the lake’s edges. The presence of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party memorial is attracting more people along the western side, and they are enjoying new timber benches, easier waterfront access and low sitting brick walls that encourage social interaction. Fewer trees and more paths are encouraging social activities, recreation and entertainment, said 53-year-old Law. “We relocated about 120 trees from the park. The trees were overplanted 20 years ago to give the
park a more ‘instant’ look when construction was finished. Now after maturity they’ve become overcrowded, it was time to thin them out, let in some sun and give the undergrowth a chance to thrive,” he said.
The park also boasts a new computerized music and light fountain in the middle of the lake that can accommodate both commercial and cultural needs, Law said. To bring in even more visitors, the local government plans to create an outdoor market nearby.
Will all of those new visitors fit it with Xintiandi’s upscale crowd? Investors seem to say yes. Shui On Land’s Hong Kong-traded shares have gained a fifth so far this year.
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