It’s late afternoon on Orange Island, and high school student Zhang Meixi is photographing the 32-metre-high granite statue of a rather bouffant Mao Zedong that gazes south down the Xiang River, which bisects Changsha, capital of Hunan province. Seated a few metres away, oblivious to the scenery and the proximity of the late Great Helmsman’s effigy, her grandfather taps a fusillade on his iPad, occasionally addressing it in a gruff monotone.
‘I wanted to ask him something about the old days, when he was growing up here in the 1960s, but once he starts playing with his tablet,’ shrugs Meixi, who likes to go by the name of Qitty.
Zhang Senior may be silent on the subject of Changsha’s most-voted-most-likely-to-succeed school teacher, but it’s one of the tenets of the city’s folklore: that roughly a century ago Mao used to swim here and chew the political fat with his coevals while he was working at the Fourth Normal School. However Changsha, which traces its history back 3,000 years to the Qin dynasty, is currently looking to the future, revving up for its own cultural revolution that’s taking shape all around the city.
The preening Poster Boy for the new Changsha is the US$275 million, russet-coloured Lucky Knot bridge, which opened last September. Rather than a straightforward 185-metre span, it twists and turns its way across the Dragon King Harbour River in Meixi district, granting pedestrians the choice of three different routes and a generous dollop of entertainment en route.
‘Changsha is growing and changing rapidly, and when we embarked on the initial design we wanted a unique gesture to inspire passersby,’ says Michel Schreinemachers, partner at Amsterdam-based Next Architects.
His colleague, Jiang Xiaofei, adds: ‘The Lucky Knot bridge is more than a connection between two river banks – it brings cultures together, it’s a fusion of history, technology, art, innovation, architecture and spectacle.’
Quite what Zhang Yue, one of Changsha’s most prominent and prosperous tycoons, makes of the Lucky Knot bridge is open to conjecture. The 56-year-old self-made billionaire and chairman of eco-friendly manufacturer Broad Group is best known for his so far unsuccessful attempts to pierce Changsha’s skyline with the world’s tallest building. Plans for the 838-metre, 202-storey, US$1.5 billion Sky City were met with pursed lips, furrowed brows and no little disgruntlement on the part of officialdom, who raised environmental, engineering and numerous other objections. While Zhang is said to be persevering, at the last report villagers had cunningly repurposed Sky City’s yawning foundations as fishponds. Zhang can at least take some comfort from the completion of his other major Changsha construction project, the 208-metre, 57-storey Mini Sky City, whose final 37 storeys were snapped together like so much Brobdingnagian Lego in a record 19 days in 2015.
‘Sky City was a wild, eccentric quirk, so fantastic you couldn’t really believe it was happening,’ muses Emile Chan, a Chinese-Canadian IT expert who commutes between Changsha and Quebec two or three times a year. ‘But it showed one thing – Changsha is going places. There’s a real sense of electricity here, of progress, of forging ahead. People have gotten tired of “Shanghai this” and “Beijing that” and “Guangzhou the other”. Changsha’s not putting up with that “secondary city” crap anymore, that’s for sure.’
Adding specific grist to Chan’s pronouncements, a new cultural centre – arrestingly designed by Zaha Hadid Architects – is fast taking shape in the west of Changsha, its shimmering, swooping roofs rising like waves from nearby Meixi Lake. Rather than yet another office block, shopping mall, deluxe apartment complex or extension to the city’s swish bilingual metro line, this is a cerebral development as well as being a mini architectural masterpiece.
Properly called the Changsha Meixihu International Culture & Arts Centre, it’s the firm’s second trophy project in China, following on from the innovative ‘double pebble’ design for the Guangzhou Opera House, which opened in 2010 with a performance of Puccini’s Turandot directed by the American filmmaker Shahar Stroh. The complex – whose initial concept was sketched out by Anglo-Iraqi Dame Zaha prior to her untimely death last March – is centred around an 1,800-seat grand theatre, which will play counterpoint to a contemporary art museum. A multi-purpose hall with a capacity of 500 and attendant restaurants and shops complete the RMB 2.4 billion package – a structure unequalled in Changsha in all the millennia of its existence.
‘This is a fabulous endeavour, an amazing technical achievement and a real milestone for Changsha,’ says Simon Yu Kam-man, Zaha Hadid’s project director. ‘We broke ground in 2012, and the centre is due to open in June, but it’s been really incredible to see the area around the site grow as we’ve been building. There are new offices and houses, where people are going to live and work, and come to the cultural centre, too. It’s like watching a whole new metropolis grow up, a sort of Atlantis in reverse.’
The cultural centre is bracketed by a new five-star hotel, part of Sheraton’s Luxury Collection, and a shopping complex heroically named Mall of Splendors, whose anchor tenant may be Walmart but whose supporting boutiques, both international and Chinese, brandish rather more in the way of upmarket clout.
While the rest of Changsha might resound to the tumult of recent development – the Maglev Express hurtles between the airport and South Railway Station, while the European-styled Fisherman’s Wharf draws as many rubber-neckers as shoppers – Orange Island, which is dotted with parks, sculpture gardens and the occasional architectural oddity from days gone-by, remains a haven of tranquillity.
‘By the time I bring my grandchildren here, I guess Changsha will have changed a lot more,’ Qitty Zhang concludes. ‘But I’m not married yet.’ And she laughs at her own joke, with just a smidgen of apprehension.