How do we interpret the history, collective memories and uses of old buildings?

Andy Law
Urban-branding is everywhere across the globe... Lately, scholars have also started to pay attention to the role that history, nostalgia and heritage play in this urban branding.
Andy Law
Andy Law

The Tang Hua beer (and) barbecue stall on the grounds of the Xi’an Garden hotel is an example of tacky commercial branding (left), while billboard in Qujiang advertising the “Great Tang All Day Mall” (right) is evocative of traditional billboards found in the US near highways.

Since the late 1990s there has been an enormous amount of academic scholarship, both in the West and in China, on the role of urban branding or urban marketing in inter-city competition.

Urban-branding is everywhere across the globe, with local officials and developers reaching for urban labels such as “eco-cities,” “creative cities” and, more recently, “smart cities.” Lately, scholars have also started to pay attention to the role that history, nostalgia and heritage play in this urban branding.

In the UK, my own country, the works of Jane Austen are now connected to the branding of the city of Bath, the Vikings are connected to York (or Jorvic), and the Beatles are tied to the branding of Liverpool and its heritage.

Historic urban branding can influence which old buildings are saved, refurbished, retrofitted and/or demolished.

When we decide on which buildings we want to keep, we are also making financial decisions because many historic buildings can be difficult to maintain. Thus, in some cases, because of the costs involved, local planners and developers might prefer to demolish a building, as opposed to maintaining it.

Scholars have also noted that urban branding has a major role to play in the way individual buildings and their histories (and the collective memories associated with the building) are interpreted.

Given the power of urban brands, the proprietor of a public or private building, such as a shopping mall, restaurant, bar, public house or even a hotel, is often quite likely to buy into a local urban brand because of the economic dividends it will bring. Indeed, buying into the symbolic language of an urban brand means that businesses are acquiring a local economic and/or consumerist trend. It allows the proprietor to capture a local “spirit” or “feeling” which should attract customers and particularly tourists.

In an age when economic needs are always on people’s minds, you might be forgiven for asking: So what’s the problem?

Well, the difficulty with historic urban branding is that it has an effect on the way history is remembered, and which set of historical “narratives” becomes favoured over another.

In the process of accepting a branded definition of history, more interesting interpretations (or possibly even controversial histories) of places and buildings can be circumnavigated as economic motives take precedent.

In some cases, the problem of the historical interpretation of an urban landscape or building may also rest upon the fact that certain histories of architecture are forgotten altogether.

One very extreme version of this issue can be found with regard to the Island of Gulangyu, near Xiamen. Gulangyu is famous for its old buildings, which have become serious tourist attractions because of their perceived romantic and/or exotic occidental qualities.

Moreover, at a local level, businesses on Gulangyu have often sought to highlight some of the histories and heritage of the island as a form of tourist consumption, because this marketing might simply be “a bit of fun.”

Unpleasant associations

Across the island, a large number of the old buildings are stripped of their own unique architectural histories, with many of these structures now housing small businesses, café’s and/or hotels.

On visiting the island again in May, 2015, I came across a number of young Chinese couples who were having their wedding photos taken outside of an old building.

While I cannot be sure of the exact history of this building, there have been rumors that this building might well have had very unpleasant functions.

The idea of having your wedding photo taken outside of one of these buildings might surely seem in poor taste if you were to learn of the potential disagreeable histories, which have been rumored to hang over it.

There are also ethical issues here.

Do these wedding couples have a right to know the history of these spaces and the buildings within them? Whose responsibility is it to present these difficult histories to tourists or visitors of buildings, urban spaces and even cities? The lack of information surrounding a building might offend certain groups of people, especially those who actually intend to visit or use a building for a particular function. It stands to reason, that when we celebrate one history of a building, urban space or a city over another, we are making broader social, cultural, economic and political decisions.

Research into historic urban branding in China has also been fairly extensive, with scholars noting the role of Tang Dynasty (618-907) branding in Xi’an and Hankou merchant port branding in Wuhan.

Investigators such as Yujie Zhu have also contended that some historical cities in China have been “redesigned” in order to “promote their ancient historic credentials.”

Commentators have also noted that this branding and the favouring of one history over another has economic and other implications.

Therefore in places like Xi’an, researchers (including myself) have suggested that the branding of the city through Tang Dynasty themes serves an important role in marketing the city as having deep economic and cosmopolitan roots — a form of branding that helps the city’s economic and political image in the present.

In short, historical branding, nostalgia and urban heritage has allowed local officials, developers and commercialists to create an attractive historical narrative that can reassure potential investors that the city has “solid” historical, cosmopolitan and cultural foundations and a spirit of economic vitality and prosperity that has never really left.

In Shanghai, a similar process has taken place.

Specifically, heritage from the 1920s and 1930s has allowed city officials, developers and commercialists to construct an attractive historic urban brand.

This time period — while it has no association with the Tang period — is put to similar work. The period allows city officials to “sell” the city as a place steeped in a deep history of economic prosperity and cosmopolitan vitality.

The heritage also allows officials and growth coalitions to suggest that these histories are a reliable indicator of the city’s solid success and potential future economic reliability.

As critics have noted, the marketing of Xi’an through this Tang branding has had an impact on the built environment and has ultimately effected the way heritage spaces within the city are interpreted and understood.

Food for thought

While some people in the city are content with these developments, there is evidence to suggest that some residents in Xi’an have been less happy with the intense Tang branding. Some local people are critical of the way that renowned cultural and spiritual-architectural heritage is now situated within commercial, overly developed and sometimes “tacky” tourist landscapes.

Clearly, then, particular forms of historic urban branding in China have raised important issues and questions around the way history and heritage is remembered or conserved, with some interlocutors noting that urban branding has an impact on urban landscapes, including the conservation or demolition of buildings.

As a consequence, the branding of cities through historic motifs might also have many drawbacks, among them the circumnavigating or erasure of alternative and even difficult histories.

Indeed, this may happen as a result of certain historic buildings being conserved over others.

It might also happen as a consequence of certain buildings being “reinterpreted” by new owners.

Finally, urban branding seems to have also led to new forms of commercial development — particularly around heritage sites.

While such commercial manoeuvres will undoubtedly yield great financial dividends, they also raise questions about how city officials, conservationists, urban planners and developers understand the strength of feeling local people have about their historic buildings.

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