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Reuse of Old Industrial Building As a Sustainable Practice


One of the great contemporary challenges is to lead China’s cities onto a more sustainable path. China’s cities are unsustainable in their current condition, which is to say that they won’t endure in the form they exist today. Being unsustainable the current status of cities in China is a threat to the progress of society. This is not surprising, considering the circumstances: China is a quickly developing country and has to deal with the biggest urban migration in the history of mankind. The cities of China are in transition and there is no easy solution for making them more sustainable. Instead, a whole bundle of strategies has to be applied in the future, some of which are already in use. In this article we will argue that adaptive reuse of old industrial buildings is such a sustainable strategy. The conversion of old factories and warehouses into office space for creative and cultural industries has already proven to be successful in cities like Shanghai and Beijing. In this article we will explore the potential of adaptive reuse in terms of sustainability and advocate that adaptive reuse becomes a common practice in China’s urban development. Adaptive reuse is the process of reutilizing old buildings for a new usage.

Adaptive reuse is a mode of renovation, but has to be distinguished from other modes of renovation, like building modernization and historic preservation. Hitoric preservation means to restore a heritage site in order to maintain the historic and cultural value of the site. The Forbidden City in Beijing, the Bund in Shanghai and the Great Wall of China are such monuments with historic value. They are of importance to the cultural identity of a country and give people orientation and perspective. Adaptive reuse also sustains old structures but the preservation of the past is a secondary – yet sometimes very important – objective. Modernization on the other hand has the purpose of maintaining an existing building in order to bring it up to date, for example by installing modern heating systems, replacing old windows or by improving the building envelope. Building modernization is essential when it comes to increasing the life span of a building. Adaptive reuse means the modernization of an existing building plus the adaption of the buildings to a completely new usage.

Today adaptive reuse is a worldwide practiced mode of architecture. Any building can be reutilized and adaptive reuse takes many forms: Churches are turned into restaurants, old train wagons and disused silos are reused as homes, factories are converted into concert halls, and former hospitals are turned into hotels or office buildings. In this article we will discuss some outstanding international examples of adaptive reuse, and we will discuss the conversion of old factories and warehouses in Shanghai.

In Europe old industrial spaces have been reused and adapted for cultural purposes since many years. Old warehouses have been reutilized as theaters, art galleries, museums, concert halls, libraries, etc. In many European cities a close connection between reutilized industrial buildings and culture exists, manifest in culture clusters, located in former industrial buildings. We will explore this remarkable connection by investigating two of the most popular adaptive projects: Tate Modern Art Gallery in London and Zeche Zollverein Culture Park in the Ruhr area of Germany.


Tate Modern Art Gallery on the south bank of the Thames in London, just across St Paul’s Cathedral, might be the most famous adaptive reuse project in the world. Tate Modern is located in the building of the former Bankside Power Station, which was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and generated electricity from 1952 to 1981. The building is 200 meters long, has a steel frame structure and is cladded with brick. A 99 meters high chimney in the centre of the building is the characteristic element. The power plant was closed in 1981 and was threatened to be demolished, until it was decided in 1994 that Tate Modern would move here. The reutilization concept was developed by Herzog & de Meuron, the architecture firm that also designed the Bird’s Nest in Beijing. With 4.7 million visitors a year, Tate Modern is the most popular modern art gallery in the world.

The most impressive space of the Tate Modern Art Gallery is certainly the former Turbine Hall, which once housed the electricity generators of the power plant. The hall is five stories tall and has an open floor area of 3400 square meters, probably the most spacious exhibition room in the world. The hall has set the scene to some of the most impressive modern art installations in the past years. From October 2002 to April 2003 Anish Kapoor displayed his monumental Marsyas project in the hall. One year later Ólafur Elíassonn installed his famed Weather Project, an artificial sun that submerged the hall in a warm and sublime light. These highly popular installations were tailor made for the dimensions of the hall and they wouldn’t have existed were it not for the spacial lavishness of the former turbine hall. It is very unlikely that any architect would propose such a space in any newly built art gallery today, which pinpoints a quality of adaptive reuse projects. Adaptive reuse leads often to interesting and rather surprising results, as the example of Tate Modern shows.

Architects follow – if they know it or not – the rationale of their time. Design proposals must be feasible and compelling. This limits the design of buildings significantly and ties them to the economical conditions of their time. Yet a different rationale is entering the design process when old structures are reutilized. The architecture of adaptive reuse is the art of connecting the old and the new, the past and the present. The worst examples of adaptive reuse are those where this dialog fails and the old and the new don’t connect; the best examples are those where it leads to new and unexpected results. In this respect, adaptive reuse can be looked at as the entry point of a unique form of architecture into the urban sphere.


Adaptive reuse projects can be of social and cultural significance, as the following example, the revitalization of the former coal mine industrial complex Zeche Zollverein in Germany, will demonstrate. Zeche Zollverein is located within the Ruhr area, Germany’s traditional industrial belt; the site began operation in 1847. Zeche Zollverein is comprised of many buildings, widespread over an extensive area of 100 hectares. Some buildings feature outstanding architecture, shaft 12 for example is an early masterpiece of the Bauhaus style, and the 55 meter high winding tower is an icon for the whole region. But in the 1970s the decline of the region began as coal and steel production became uneconomic. When Zeche Zollverein shut down in 1986, many thought of it as the end of an era. Unemployment was high as the region struggled to find a new direction and a new identity.

Zeche Zollverein became a national heritage site immediately after it was closed in 1986, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. Today Zeche Zollverein is a multifunctional culture park with museums, event halls, restaurants, schools, offices, open air fairs, sport facilities, galleries, exhibition areas, and so on. Famous architecture studios, like Foster & Partners and Sanaa contributed to the adaptive reuse design of the site. The design has been done with much respect for the industrial heritage, but also features a strong contrast of old and new, the typical element of adaptive reuse. The school of management for example, designed by Sanaa, is a postmodern white concrete cube with an irregular window pattern, a stark contrast to the dark brick walls of the industrial buildings. The site of Zeche Zollverein is today among the most popular places in the Ruhr area and attracts millions of visitors every year.

Zeche Zollverein was not just an isolated reutilization project, but had significance for the whole region. Here was a monument of the past, a reminder and icon of the industrial culture of the whole region, which was reutilized to become a symbol of the post-industrial era. The diverse mix of functions is not only a feasible solution for this site, but shows the new economic direction for the whole region. The Ruhr area is now developing in the direction of innovation, education and culture. It is noteworthy, that such integration of the past into the present with a signal effect for a whole region can only be achieved by revitalizing old buildings.


Creative people were drawn to old factories and warehouses also in Shanghai. The first adaptive reuse project in Shanghai was the conversion of an old warehouse at 1305 South Suzhou Creek Road. The Taiwanese architect Deng Kunyan discovered the warehouse in 1997. The art deco style building was built in 1933 and Deng Kunyan used it as his architecture studio after renovation. The renovation was unusual and remarkable, because Deng Kunyan focused on conserving the aged building. Old materials from demolition sites were used and the walls were painted with lime water to emphasize the age of the building instead of rejuvenating it. The result was a building with a remarkable atmosphere, past and present converged in this place, time itself paused, an almost melancholic comment on the quickly changing urban landscape outside. The renovation received an honorable mention for cultural heritage conservation by the UNESCO in 2004. Today the building is used as a youth hostel and was renovated some years ago; unfortunately the warehouse lost all of his qualities in the process.

The project was the first of what turned out to become the first phase of reutilized industrial buildings in Shanghai. By 2002, 30 old warehouses at the banks of Suzhou Creek were reused by over 100 art studios, galleries, design offices and workshops. This first phase could have become an early cluster for the creative industry in Shanghai, but the development was not supported by the municipality yet, and for the urban planning bureaus old buildings had no value back then. They were looked at as a burden, hence many of the industrial buildings that gave space to the early creative industries were demolished in order to make place for modern residential compounds.

M50, the now internationally know art district at Moganshan Road 50, was one of the early reused industrial parks. The project was as well for many years threatened by demolition. M50 is in many ways representative for the first phase of adaptive reuse in Shanghai. The reutilization happened step by step as more artists and gallery owners moved into the the former textile factory, situated at a peninsula of Suzhou Creek. The first tenant who moved here was the artist Xue Song in 1999, others followed soon. M50 was not developed by an investor and no architecture firm was commissioned with the reutilization concept, which is why the site has until today no unified design. The raw industrial feel of the art district is the result of this organic development. M50 is an outstanding example for adaptive reuse, a showcase for the power and the value of grassroots movements. Cities should foster such developments; they are rare phenomenons and can bring great fortune.


The one project that would change the public opinion about the value of old buildings in Shanghai and well beyond was Xintiandi. The lifestyle park with a functional mix of restaurants, bars, hotels, galleries and shops was developed in 2002 by Shui On Land and designed by Ben Wood and Nikken Sekkei International. Xintiandi refurbished an old Shikumen neighborhood and displays an architecture that is a romanticization of the past. Xintiandi proofed to be highly successful and became one of Shanghai’s top tourist destinations.

In 2003, Bridge 8 would set a new standard for the adaptive reuse of industrial buildings in Shanghai. The project is located in the downtown district of Luwan, on the site of a former brake factory. The reutilization design was done by HMA architects. Bridge 8 features the typical fusion of old industrial elements next to new elements, like glass curtain walls, wooden decks and modern facade materials. Walkways and bridges were added in order to connect the buildings. In 2003 the architecture of Bridge 8 was pioneering and still holds up after more than a decade of operation. But the truly pioneering achievement of Bridge 8 was the business model, which became a game changer for the real estate market in Shanghai. Bridge 8 was developed by an investor, the Lifestyle Centre, who leased the abandoned industrial buildings from the state owned enterprise who owns the site for 20 years. After this period the site will revert to the owner. While projects like M50 were renovated by individuals for their own usage, Bridge 8 was fully refurbished and modernized, the modernized office spaces were then rented to individual companies. The involvement of a developer who would finance the renovation of a site and manage the property after was a novelty. Bridge 8 obtains today the highest rental prices in the alternative office market. This business model proofed to be feasible and would be applied to countless abandoned industrial sites throughout the city. Bridge 8 is the first project of the second phase of adaptive reuse in Shanghai.

Between 2006 and 2010 creative parks mushroomed all over the city. This boom was caused by a convergence of several factors. A premise for the boom was the availability of vacant industrial buildings in the downtown area. Shanghai was an industrial city throughout the last century and transformed into a post-industrial city with global aspirations in the new century. Due to this transformation industrial production was forced out of the city and vacant industrial buildings remained. Many of them can be found until today in the middle of old neighborhoods. These factories are usually owned by state owned enterprises, who have to pay pensions. This is why they welcome the opportunity to lease these real estates. In some cases SOEs develop creative parks on their own. The supply of vacant factories was met by the need for office space. Shanghai has a high demand for interesting office spaces, the creative parks fill that need.

Eventually, the development of creative parks was supported by the municipal government. In May 2006, the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Economy released a paper, in which they presented a strategy for the development of the creative industry in Shanghai. The development of the creative industry was considered a milestone on the way to a more innovative economy, but China lacked innovative companies and creative talents. To overcome this shortage the paper suggested the development of creative parks, clusters where creative companies could find affordable space to open an office, and incubators, where creative talent could be bread. The paper also identified 36 creative parks that already existed in Shanghai, two thirds of which were adaptive reuse projects. M50, Deng Kunyan’s warehouse and Bridge 8 were on this list and became showcases for the development of creative offices. Government officials, developers and urban researchers visited these places to learn about this new urban typology. Adaptive reuse was good business and so new creative clusters sprouted everywhere in the city. Today there are hundreds of adaptive reuse projects in operation in Shanghai.

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