#TBT: Ben Wood, the Man Who Made Xintiandi

By Ned Kelly, July 28, 2016

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Throwback Thursday is when we trawl through the That's archives for a work of dazzling genius written at some point in our past. We then republish it. On a Thursday.

By Ned Kelly

Ben Wood had just finished the graduate architectural program at MIT and was packed and ready to move back to Colorado when destiny intervened with an unexpected phone call.

“It was a Boston-based architect. He said, ‘I met the dean of the school of architecture at MIT on an airplane last night and he told me you’re pretty good. Come down for an interview.’

"This was like nine o’clock in the morning, but I thought, ‘What the hell.’ I went to his office, he made me a Bloody Mary, and on our third drink he said, ‘A helicopter from Time is going to pick me up in about an hour and I want you to go to Martha’s Vineyard with me. We’re going to meet the editor. He’s asked me to design a house for him, and I want you to be the designer.’”

Wood was 33 at this point, and had not always known he wanted to be an architect.

Born in Roswell, a small town outside Atlanta, Georgia he was “Vietnam-era induced” into the US Air Force (“it was either fly a plane, carry a rifle or go to Canada”) where he learned to fly the Phantom, the fastest jet in the world at the time.

“But by the time I finished all my training, the war was over, so they sent me to Germany and I had a wonderful four years flying around Europe at the expense of the US government.”

While there he took to mountain climbing in the Alps and fell in love with the sport.

“I had this idea I’d go to Colorado and start this mountain climbing school. I learned very quickly you don’t make any money teaching mountain climbing, so I opened a restaurant and bar near a ski resort. Then after four years I woke up and thought, ‘I don’t want to grow old being a ski bum.’”

There was a local architect - a former Berkeley professor - who used to come into his restaurant, the interior of which Wood had designed himself.

“He said ‘You we’re pretty good at designing your restaurant, you might be pretty good at designing houses, you ought to give it a try.’ So I did - I designed a house for the guy supplying my wine, and the architect said, ‘Wow, you’re really good at this – you should go to school.’ I think he just wanted to get me out of town so I couldn’t compete with him...”

Wood took his advice though, and three-and-a-half years at MIT and that life-changing phone call later he was on his way. The man who had been on the other end of the line was Benjamin Thompson. An expert in old building renovation, Thompson would go on to win the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal for reviving American downtowns, including the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, South Street Seaport in Manhattan and Baltimore Harborplace, work that clearly influenced and inspired Wood later in his life.

“I learned from the master, and unfortunately he died before I finished Xintiandi, otherwise I think he would have been quite proud of me. I certainly owe a great debt of gratitude to the guy. He taught me that architecture can be a lot more than designing buildings, it can change the way people live.”

Wood worked for Thompson for 10 years, eventually running the firm, despite being the youngest of six partners. “I was able to make more rain than the other people.”

He struck out on his own in 1998, and within a month had landed two jobs which were to make his name, Xintiandi and the renovation of the Chicago Bears stadium Soldier Field, which all came about after a game of tennis against the owner of the Bears on Martha’s Vineyard. “Play tennis with a guy and the next thing you know you’re designing a stadium.”

Xintiandi was a different story, and just as with Wood’s first big break, it came completely out of the blue.

“One day I get a call from a guy from a Hong Kong developer office, ‘Mr. Lo wants you to come to China.’ I’d never been to China, I didn’t know who Vincent Lo was, and I was pretty busy with the Bears stadium. But the guy says, ‘We thought you might be reluctant to come to China, so we took the liberty of buying you a first class ticket.’ So I thought ‘What the hell.’”

It turns out Vincent Lo, chairman of Shui On Group, had had dinner on Lincoln Road, one of America’s first pedestrian malls originally created by modern architect Morris Lapidus, but redesigned by Wood while he was with Thompson. “He loved it, called the Mayor of Miami and asked, ‘Who did this?’”

Two days later he was in Shanghai looking over the sight with four rival architects.

“I found it fascinating, the neighborhood with the Shikumen, the three-stoned doors and the lilong, the alleyways. To have this urban town house that has been integrated into the fabric of the city, and it’s got privacy and big doors, and it’s obvious the French had done some of the decoration.

"So it’s kind of a fusion between a lot of influences from the West, but a social structure that originated in China, which is the courtyard home. I knew enough about architectural history to understand that it was probably quite unique. I asked a few questions and found out it was pretty much indigenous to Shanghai.”

He stayed up late that night writing Lo a letter telling him he should save the old buildings.

“I said ‘I know you’ve probably been told that these aren’t worth anything, but I think they’re fascinating. They remind me of an Italian hill town that’s been dropped into the middle of an urban environment; the richness of texture and human scale and small alleys.’ I was the only one of five architects who told him to save the buildings.”

Fortuitously for Wood, Lo had just returned from Tuscany with his family. But Wood still had to be interviewed by each of Lo’s board of directors.

“I don’t think they were impressed. I was the smallest of the firms, I was the youngest of the group and I had no experience in China. I think the Hong Kong board of directors wanted to see a Hong Kong architect get the job.”

When the time came to vote, Wood received just one: Lo’s. It was the only one that mattered.

“I’ll never forget it. He called me up to his penthouse office overlooking Hong Kong Harbor and said, ‘Ben, I’ve only known you for 48 hours, but I’m going to give you this job. You’re going to help me become famous for something besides being rich.’

"Then he paused for a minute and said, ‘The other thing you have to understand is that my company doesn’t really believe that the project will succeed, and neither do the banks, so for the first few months we’ll be using my personal funds to finance this project. I'm betting my money on this project.”

Wood says at that moment he vowed to give the project everything he had. But did he really expect Xintiandi to be as successful as it has become?

“Yes I did. Because of the opening up of China I could see there was huge demand from young people for a place where they could express themselves – the way they dressed, the people they chose to be with and the food they chose to eat.

"The Chinese government has this Cultural Bureau and they can control what museum goes where, but they can’t really control what young people think and do. That’s where culture starts. It starts in the minds of young people who see the world differently.

"Of course it’s now become so commercial and it’s not as aesthetically pure as I would have liked. But it has become more important – it is now less of an expat place and more of young Chinese upwardly mobile place.”

In the last two years Wood's Shanghai-based firm has gone on to open Chongqing Tiandi and Wuhan Tiandi, while Foshan Tiandi is near completion and - a little closer to home – plans for Hongqiao Tiandi are being finalized. But Wood rejects the idea that they go around imposing the Xintiandi formula on each city.

“You go to each place and you try and figure out what it is that distinguishes that culture over other cultures,” he says. “Chongqing Tiandi is totally different architecturally; it’s got an industrial aesthetic, seven levels on a hillside running down to the Yangtze River.”

Ben-wood-3-lunch.jpg

The projects have been labeled ‘commercial preservation,’ but the academic term, Wood explains, is ‘adaptive re-use.’

“Saving the special fabric of what was a residential neighborhood, so that even though the uses change and it becomes very commercial, there's still this sense that something that has developed in a social and economic way is still around.

"It’s hard to fall in love with grey and glass buildings. I fully appreciate how much effort it takes to design a tall building, but when I get close to them I don’t really appreciate why it has to be so dull and lifeless.”

So is he proud of what he has achieved?

“Oh yeah, absolutely!” Wood makes no attempt at false modesty. “It changed China. Not that something else wouldn’t have come along and changed it; we just happened to be the first.

"Part of Xintiandi’s success is because it was the first. And it was done without a lot of analytical heartburn. It was done instinctively. Fortunately there were no marketing experts. We didn’t do a marketing study because you would have found out there was no market. There is only a market for a market when a market already exists. You create something new, how are you going to study the market?”

Wood is not a fan of marketing experts. Or corporate consultants, as becomes apparent when the discussion turns to the projects that most inspire his enthusiasm.

“My latest mantra? About a year ago I went to a huge cotton factory in Xi’an where thousands of people were working at looms, and it was a fairly overcast day, and I looked around and I didn’t see a single light bulb.

"I looked up and there were all these skylights facing north in the roofs. I realized it wasn’t a hundred years ago that people went to work when then sun came up and went home when the sun went down.

“Everybody’s talking about sustainability now and nobody knows what it bloody means. Ask them. The next time you hear somebody say, ‘This project’s sustainable,’ ask them what they mean by it. If it’s plugged into the electrical grid it’s not sustainable. And they’ll say, ‘Oh no, but it’s very efficient.’ I say bullshit, if you put yourself on life support - which is plugging in that electrical outlet - there’s nothing sustainable about it.

"We have all these alternative energy people working out how we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint. The answer is staring them in the face. Unplug yourself. Go back to the basics. You could probably save a third of the energy in the world if you had an office building that doesn’t need to have a light on in the day.

"So now every time I meet with a client the first thing I tell them is that we’re going to design buildings that don’t need to turn on the electricity in the daytime, because we’ve got ceiling fans that can run on low voltage, we can generate enough power with a few batteries and some solar collectors. I don’t want to see any big wires. And if they say they can’t do that I say, ‘Interview over. Get out of my office.’”

Wood laughs, but he isn’t joking. His slow southern drawl speeds up when he gets onto a subject that riles him/ His manner becomes insistent. He backs up his point with an anecdote about a client who had agreed they would get as close to carbon neutral as they could.

"We brought in some consultants, big companies who advise multinational companies on how to save energy. In one of the meetings I’m sitting there and I can tell they’re all Ivy League-trained MBAs, all pitching me with, ‘We can do this, we can do that, we can do a cost benefit analysis.’

"About 30 minutes into the meeting I said, ‘What we need here is a good engineer who knows how to put in a system that can save energy. If you’re an engineer raise your hand. If you have any training at all in the technical aspects of saving energy raise your hand. If not, leave my office.’ They all got up and left.

“They were all sales people who had gone to school to learn how to pitch to corporations. The corporate mentality is everywhere. The risk managers of the word and the cost benefit people of the world - they’re not trying to save anything. They’re trying to get you to buy into their proprietary corporate world, you know? I’m sort of on a one-man crusade to deny access - to my resources at least - to those people. And I’m quite good at it.”

Corporate-babble bullshit artists aren’t the only thing that gets Wood’s back up.

“The other thing I’m struggling with right now is how to funnel the extraordinary private wealth that is being generated in China into projects that aren’t just - you know - expensive villas. The people who have that kind of money have made it so fast that they haven’t had the chance to appreciate art, architecture, music. They just know where the Mercedes dealer is and how much money they made that day.

"Look at America, the days of the Rockefellers and those scions of industry, that’s when real culture was being created. Because it was serious private money, and private money is not subject to the same constraints as public money.

“For the first time in China - probably ever – private wealth can compete with the public sector for the creation of real culture. And if they learn to spend money on something other than expensive villas and mass-produced consumer-orientated German cars, they might be able to start foundations and fund private concert halls and endorse poets.

"Because of the Cultural Revolution there was a whole generation of architects and artists that were in arrested development. They just stopped. And you don’t easily recover from that. But now you see serious signs of a recovery. The Chinese art scene is a big as anywhere in the world, architecture is beginning to emerge.”

So how does he plan to do it?

“You find enlightened people who are in the process of amassing huge amounts of money. I’ll give you an example. I have a client who came to me a few years ago who had made his money in manufacturing, but who wanted to become a real estate developer. He looked around and all he saw were these big villas - so he wanted to do big villas.

"I said to him, ‘Let’s start by appreciating what money can buy apart from a big villa.’ So I took him to the States three or four times. One time we went to see sculpture gardens, one time we went to see Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.

"I said, ‘This is what you can have with money. You can have 700 acres and you can cross-pollinate plants, name new hybrid orchids after yourself. You don’t just have to consume, you can create beautiful things with your money, which is a huge shift - from consumption to creation. That takes a big leap for these people. It means they have to part with money without immediate gratification.

"A lifestyle can be characterized by culture and not by how much money you have. It’s hard even in the West for a lot of people to understand that. They think the sum of your value is your net worth, which is a pretty pathetic point of view. Instead of consuming culture, create culture.”

Photos by Nicky Almasy

This article first appeared in the June 2011 issue of That's Shanghai. To see more Throwback Thursday posts, click here.

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