Art, lively displays add bounce to downtown environment

Urban renewal doesn't have to be boring. New concepts are adding vibrant touches that stoke the spirit of local residents. 
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A giant mural has been mounted in Fengshengli, a popular hangout area in Jing’an District. 

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A giant mural mounted on a historical building near bustling Nanjing Road W. is the most recent attempt to enliven the urban “concrete jungle” and give downtown Shanghai a more amiable environment.

The fifth Gucci Art Wall, put up by the Italian luxury brand, showcases a romantic picture of a mysterious Oriental world. The mural features the brand’s handbag in the shape of a Chinese dumpling, surrounded by colorful flowers.

Spanish designer Ignasi Monreal said the dumpling, or jiaozi, represents “purist China” and creates a secret Oriental garden in his imagination. 

“It’s so attractive,” said university student Cindy Chen, 20, who took a selfie in front of the mural with her friends. “It blends so well with the surrounding environment, and I really like the surreal touches.”

The mural was mounted in Fengshengli, a popular hangout area similar to Xintiandi. It sits next to the 86-year-old Jing’an Villa, a typical lane house neighborhood. The red brick walls there just seemed a bit boring, so Gucci suggested the mural to Fengshengli.

“I was so excited to hear of the project,” said Lin Xiaojue, director of the Jing’an District Commercial Commission.

“Foreigners love our historical buildings because they feature a unique Shanghai style,” she said. 

“They want to find cultural similarities with their own countries, and art can provide a link. I think big cities in China still lack color, which symbolizes an open and energetic city. We need to embrace more color in our public spaces.”

For the project, different government departments — from historical preservation to urban construction, among others — had to work together to simplify the bureaucratic process and approve it.

The Italian giant also benefited from favorable advertising charges. “But we were willing to make concessions. We welcome innovation and don’t want to do the same as others,” said Lin.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

New lease of life

Instead of directly painting on the wall of the historical building, artists erected a wall on the exterior of the structure to use as its “canvas.” 

“We wanted to avoid leaving any traces on the historical building,” said Lin Yikan, who was in charge of the project.

The mural will remain for one year, and patterns will be changed every season. 

It is one example of how global preservation aficionados with deep pockets and artistic tastes give historical buildings a new lease on life. 

The opening of the century-old Rong Villa last year has proved to be a similar success. Italian luxury brand Prada spent six years on renovation of the villa, with skilled craftsmen from Italy and China combining force to regenerate the former residence of Chinese industrial tycoon Rong Zongjing (1873-1938). The garden villa functions as a gallery and museum as well as offices for Prada.

The project not only demonstrated how the business sector can participate in the preservation of urban cultural history but also sought to explore how art can play a role in that process. 

Urban renewal is about creating public spaces that lift our spirits and reflect inner harmony, said Zheng Shiling, a professor of architecture at Tongji University. “What makes global cities like London and Paris stand out?” he said. “It’s not construction alone. It is unique cultural ambience and an environment where people want to linger.”

Roadside sculptures and flowerbeds are still part of urban beautification, but they have been joined by a trend of more dynamic displays.

Department store windows are contributing to the artistic look of downtown commercial areas. 

Last year, a 15-minute show entitled “Theatrical Window Display” featured artists moving in and out of a display window at an Isetan department store.

Last month, high-street brand Zara posted a QR code on the windows of five of its outlets in Shanghai. Passersby can scan the codes and augmented reality technology allows them to see models parading the latest fashions in the window display. 

“I used to just pass by without taking much notice, but then my friends suggested I scan the QR code,” said Elaine Zhang, a white-collar worker in Jing’an. “I was impressed! It’s new to me and feels so futuristic.”

The emerging trend of “pop-up stores,” which involve short-term sales spaces, not only promote brand names and merchandise, but also ornament the passing scene and give areas distinctive characters.

People need to feel the personality of changes in society during urban planning and design, said Kuang Xiaoming, editor of “Urban China” magazine. 

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