A renaissance for Hangzhou's Grand Canal
Hangzhou’s West Lake has long stolen thunder from the Grand Canal. To develop the river’s potential, Hangzhou government launched 16 projects last month, investing billions to develop cultural and leisure industries along the waterway.
The projects include a museum, parks, low-rent apartments, waterfront promenades and hotels in ancient Meicheng Town.
The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal was created between the 5th century BC and the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), the longest man-made waterway in the world. In 2014, the Grand Canal was listed as the World Heritage of UNESCO.
In ancient times, the river was a thriving belt of commerce and culture. By the 1990s, however, the centuries-old waterway had lost much of its charm, as cars and high-speed trains replaced travel on rivers.
Over the years, Hangzhou has attempted to revive the canal’s former splendor by restoring and reconstructing many of its old buildings. Qiaoxizhi Street and Xiaohezhi Street have become popular tourist attractions.
These latest projects are designed to provide a shot in the arm to the canal and its culture. One highlight will be the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal Museum designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, both Pritzker Architecture Prize winners in 2001. It’s scheduled to be completed by the end of 2023. Covering an area of 180,000 square meters, the museum is designed with glass walls that reflect canal ripples. The suspended building will feature a hanging garden and sunken square to provide public space for visitors.
According to the government’s plan, the museum will offer interactive experiences and engaging leisure activities and serve as a cultural landmark.
In the 20th century, many factories were built along the canal which were later shut down or relocated. Although production was moved to more remote locations, the mills have been retained along with much of their machinery. Designers and artists have taken advantage of the distinctive architecture and industrial equipment, turning these sites into temples of modern creativity.
Among them, the most famous one is Ideal Silian 166 Loft — the former site of the Hangzhou Silk Dyeing Factory — designed by architects from the former Soviet Union. The remaining factories have been transformed into modern complexes with creative studios, design businesses, photography workshops and cafes, sometimes being compared to 798 Art District in Beijing.
With a nod to the loft project, the local government plans to rejuvenate Hangzhou Steel Factory into a centerpiece of cultural exhibitions, public sports, gardens and entertainment. Machinery and industrial facilities will be juxtaposed with stylish décor and works of art, with an atmosphere that’s both historic and trendy. Designers will retain the original coarse brick walls to create a rugged feel.
Reviving ancient Meicheng Town is another major emphasis of these projects. Located 108 kilometers southwest of Hangzhou, the town is situated to the west of the Grand Canal’s drainage basin.
Meicheng dates back more than 1,800 years and still attracts flocks of tourists by virtue of its well-preserved ancient walls and architecture. To increase the flow of visitors, the Hangzhou Grand Canal Group is building two boutique hotels scheduled to open in October. Distinctive from other types of accommodations, the new hotels will embody the town’s design aesthetics and cultural environment.