After living for decades in various parts of Asia, Canadian photographer Greg Girard moved to Shanghai, China, at the turn of the 21st century. It was a fortuitous time to move to the city. Shangahi had just begun to change rapidly, as a bustling economy, directive from the central government, and economic reforms spurred major development for the first time in 40 years.
The city’s ornate and seedy buildings began giving way to skyscrapers, residential towers, and squeaky clean development, as residents were forced out of dilapidated homes. Determined to capture the city before it disappeared, Girard began photographing the city’s old neighborhoods.
Over the course of eight years, Girard captured the ghosts of Shanghai — the century-old buildings that were demolished and those that remain. In recent years, more of an effort has been made to preserve Shanghai’s architectural heritage, though the damage has already been done.
Shanghai has a blend of architectural styles, due to parts of the city being occupied by the French, British, and Americans during the 19th and early 20th century.
Buildings blending Western and Eastern design styles, from French Renaissance to Art Deco, make Shanghai one of the most unique-looking cities in the world.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, Shanghai exploded into a frenzy of development. The pace accelerated after Shanghai was announced as the site for the 2010 World Expo in 2002. More money was spent on renovating Shanghai ahead of the Expo than was spent on the 2008 Beijing Olympics ($48 billion vs $US44 billion).
The development has resulted in entire neighborhoods being destroyed to make way for new roads, skyscrapers, and shopping malls. Asia-based columnist Adam Minter described the demolition as being like 'a giant eraser ...rubbed across whole city blocks.'
The development has triggered a huge backlash among many who feel that the construction is killing Shanghai's unique and varied architectural heritage.
Shanghai has made some efforts to preserve the more iconic buildings in the city. In 2004, the government created 12 preservation zones. According to The New York Times, the government's motives are profit-based: the city's iconic architecture is a huge tourist draw.
For the government, the buildings that matter the most are the ones that are most directly connected to Communist Party history. Second most important are buildings built by Chinese architects and third are buildings built by foreign architects, says Girard.
Despite the official efforts, many historic buildings and neighborhoods escaped protection. Many of the buildings built by European architects are seen as a reminder of the city's subjugation to the West.
When the development began, Girard felt it was necessary to not just photograph the old buildings themselves, but also to photograph inside the buildings. Conditions in many of the old buildings are deplorable by modern standards.
Many of the historic buildings were built as grand mansions for single families. At the time of their demolition, they were often occupied by 20-40 families or hundreds of people in worker units.
Many of the old buildings were repurposed to serve other needs. Manors become restaurants or shared living complexes.
Many of the most vocal preservationists were Westerners, who Girard says were unaware of the conditions that exist inside the old buildings.
When real estate development deals were struck, the government or the property developers offered compensation and a new apartment to those living inside the building. Not everyone took the offer. Many families had established businesses in the properties or had lived there for generations.
In buildings where families refused to leave, demolition and construction often continued around the property, leaving behind a 'nail house,' a Chinese term referring to a lone house amidst a construction zone.
In some cases, 'nail houses' exist because the demolition crew will live and work out of one building in the neighbourhood while demolishing the others. When all else is destroyed, the team moves out of the house and takes down the 'nail house.'
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