Xiaolu Xu '10 Studied Architectural Preservation in Booming Shanghai as Levitt Project - Hamilton College
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Xiaolu Xu '10 Studied Architectural Preservation in Booming Shanghai as Levitt Project

By Laura Bramley
Posted August 26, 2008
A native of Shanghai, China, Xiaolu Xu '10 took the opportunity this summer to learn more about her hometown. Fu studied how architectural preservation has evolved in Shanghai, whose built heritage has been challenged by various developments in recent decades. Her research, a collaborative project with Assistant Professor of Government Peter Cannavo, is supported by a research fellowship from the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center. The Levitt Research Fellows Program is open to all students who wish to spend the summer working in collaboration with a faculty member on an issue related to public affairs. Students receive a summer stipend and spend 10 weeks in the summer working intensively with a faculty mentor.

The architectural heritage of Shanghai has always faced "tremendous preservation challenges," Xu says, especially the Western-influenced buildings of the city's colonial past, the Shikumen houses that reflect local community culture and traditional Chinese architecture from the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Cultural Revolution opposed Western influence and traditional heritage alike, and the huge construction boom of the past 20 years has caused continuing neglect of historic architecture. Even since the mid-90s, rapid real-estate development has torn down much of the community housing in the center of the city. "As the paragon of China's modernity, Shanghai's original built environment has suffered seriously from the momentous urban transformation," says Xu.

Xu explored how architectural preservation has developed since the city's transformation, as well as studying how current city planners, scholars and architects propose to move forward with the issue. She read literature on the subject, conducting interviews with Shanghai residents and visiting historic architectural spots through field trips and exhibitions. She also traveled to New York, which she explains has a lot in common with Shanghai as a cosmopolitan, commercial, historically important city. Xu says that New York has done a good job of protecting its architectural heritage while still maintaining an active place in the world.

In Shanghai, things are looking up for architectural preservation. Until the late 90s, the issue received little attention, but in the past few years government officials and city planners have begun to place more emphasis on the problem. Xu sees progress in legislation, city planning, and domestic awareness, and although Shanghai still has a long way to go, she says that in recent years the city has been making a genuine effort to learn from other examples worldwide and to find a solution.

As a native of Shanghai, Xu says she has a personal responsibility in the issues of her hometown. Combining the contacts and resources available to her in the city with the research skills she's learned at Hamilton, she hopes to make a useful contribution to the subject. "I am really happy that now I can use the things I have learned to do something connecting to Shanghai," she says. Her work could also be useful elsewhere, since many developing countries will face the same issues in the future, and may make similar mistakes. "The example of Shanghai shows that sooner or later people will realize a city's historic heritage is invaluable," explains Xu. "People will pay a lot for their myopia some day." She hopes that her project may have an effect in the future as countries negotiate the balance between development and preservation.

Personally, the project has taught her a lot about her own hometown. Studying buildings and communities she has known since she was young, Xu has discovered them in a new way. "I was not aware of their hidden stories until I did this research project," she says, and notes that her new knowledge has increased her pride in Shanghai. After she graduates, Xu is "very passionate" about pursuing cross-cultural work between China and the U.S. 

- by Laura Bramley