Tianjin, like many Chinese cities, is in the middle of a massive urban renewal. Cranes in the skyline and construction sites on the streets are lifting up not only more office, retail and residential space, but new landmark buildings, right in the centre of the city.
There is a joke about Tianjin that goes like this. It’s the Second World War, and the Japanese want to bomb down a Chinese city. So they go out on a mission to find a target. First they go to Shanghai, but eventaully decide against bombing it – it’s too beautiful. Then they go to Beijing, but decide against bombing it again – it’s too beautiful. Finally, they go to Tianjin, but they also decide against bombing it – someone else has already bombed it.
Tianjiners like to play modest, and repeat the joke to visitors. But maybe not for long. The central government has announced that Tianjin would be ‘the new Shanghai’, imitating the success of the southern seaport. In line with that slogan, the city is reinventing itself through architecture, as the main metropolis on the Bohai rim, and a place of beauty, class and opulence.
Most of the development is happening in the harbour district of TangGu, but the historic centre is following pace. Riverfront, French concession, Museum district, Magnetic city: construction is happening all around central Tianjin.
I was actually proud to learn that many Melbourne architects are involved – urban planning is one of the biggest areas for cooperation between the two sister cities. While I was in Tianjin, my Melbourne friend Kenyen learnt he had won an international competition to landscape-design the entrance to the new Tianjin marina in Tanggu. Other Melburnians, I heard, were involved in the middle river-front development, which was inspired by South Bank – with its many bridges, and a contrast of neo-classic and modern architecture.
Interestingly, urban planners are putting up signs on the walls of the construction site, to reveal not only what a building under construction will look like, but show the new shape of a whole neighbourhood.
And – appropriately for such a theatrical city – the views also come in a night-time version, showing the new buildings lit up, and the pattern of light and shade on the streets.
So when you walk along the dirty footpath, amid the noises of construction machines, your imagination can wander into a brilliant future of neo-classical architecture and sparkling towers.
I can understand why architects – or the municipality – would want to display the shape of their future project – instruct, impress. But something, the pictures displayed have a less clear purpose, when they imitate what the place will be like, at street level.
This comes in a context where trompe l’oeil is very present. In the ‘Italian style street’, you can see photos of a Milan gallery, decorating the side wall of a little plaza. Are they plans for Tianjin’s future developments? Pure decoration? Or something in between, a vision of exoticism, somehow connected to the local – ‘Italian’ – architecture, conjuring up in the mind of the passer-by a future of quiet opulence, and immediate access, through the power imagination, to eurotic places of wealth and glamour?
Sometimes, the existential status of this trompe l’oeil is even more ambiguous, and you seriously wonder what these images are. Plans for future construction? Sheer decoration on a blank wall? Or a reassuring illusion that, indeed, that part of Tianjin is already part of Europe, sharing in its prosperity, peace, and international glamour.