In the city’s latest effort to preserve the historic structures, engineers have attached nearly 200 movable racks under the five-story building, according to Lan Wuji, the project’s chief technical director.
The supports act like robotic legs. They are divided into two groups that alternately rise and fall, imitating the human step. The attached sensors help monitor the building’s progress, said Lan, whose new technology company Shanghai Evolution Shift developed in 2018.
“It’s like giving the building crutches so it can get up and walk,” he says.
A timelapse filmed by the company shows the school moving forward, one small step at a time.
According to a statement by the Huangpu District Government, Lagena Primary School was built in 1935 by the municipal council of the former French concession of Shanghai. It has been moved to make room for a new commercial and office complex, which will be completed by 2023.
Workers first had to dig around the building to install the 198 movable brackets in the spaces below, Lan said. After the pillars of the building were cut off, the robot’s “legs” were then extended upwards, lifting the building up before moving forward.
In 18 days, the building rotated 21 degrees and was moved 62 meters (203 feet) to its new location. The move was completed on October 15, with the old school building to become a center for heritage protection and cultural education.
The project marks the first time this “walking machine” method has been used in Shanghai to move a historic building, according to the government statement.
Decades of destruction
Over the past decades, China’s rapid modernization has seen many historic buildings razed to the ground to clear land for glittering skyscrapers and office buildings. But there are growing concerns about the architectural heritage lost as a result of demolition across the country.
Some cities have embarked on new preservation and conservation campaigns, including, on occasion, the use of advanced technologies that move old buildings rather than demolish them.
Official indifference to historic architecture dates back to the reign of Communist Party leader Mao Zedong. during the disastrous Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, countless historic buildings and monuments were destroyed as part of its war against the “Four Elders” (old customs, culture, habits and ideas).
Mao’s death in 1976 saw calls for architectural conservation emerge, with the Chinese government granting protective status to a number of structures before passing a heritage preservation law in the 1980s. Following, buildings, neighborhoods and even entire cities have received state support to maintain their historic appearance.
Nonetheless, relentless urbanization continued to pose a significant threat to the architectural heritage. The sale of land is also a key source of income for local governments, which means buildings of architectural value are often sold to real estate developers for whom conservation is not a priority.
In the capital Beijing, for example, more than 1,000 acres of its historic alleys and traditional courtyard houses were destroyed between 1990 and 2010, according to the state newspaper China Daily.
In the early 2000s, cities like Nanjing and Beijing – prompted by critics protesting the loss of old neighborhoods – drew up long-term plans to preserve what remained of their historic sites, with protections introduced to protect buildings. and restrict promoters.
These conservation efforts have taken different forms. In Beijing, an almost ruined temple has been transformed into a restaurant and gallery, while in Nanjing, a 1930s cinema has been restored to resemble its original form, with some additions for modern use. In 2019, Shanghai hosted Tank Shanghai, an arts center built in refurbished oil tanks.
“Moving is not the first choice, but better than demolition,” said Lan, the Shanghai Primary School project supervisor. “I prefer not to touch historic buildings at all. ”
He added that in order to move a monument, companies and developers must submit to strict regulations, such as obtaining government approval at different levels.
Relocations of buildings, he said, however, are “a viable option”. “The central government is putting more emphasis on the protection of historic buildings. I am happy to see this progress in recent years. “
Monuments in motion
Shanghai has arguably been China’s most progressive city in heritage preservation. The survival of a number of 1930s buildings in the famous Bund district and 19th century ‘shikumen’ (or ‘stone gate’) houses in the renovated Xintiandi district provided examples of how to give back life to old buildings, despite some criticism of the way the redevelopments were carried out.
The city also has a history of moving old buildings. In 2003, the Shanghai Concert Hall, built in 1930, was moved 66 meters (217 feet) to make way for an elevated highway. The Zhengguanghe Building – a six-story warehouse, also from the 1930s – was then moved 125 feet (38 meters) as part of a local redevelopment in 2013.
Most recently, in 2018, the city moved a 90-year-old building to Hongkou District, in what was then considered to be Shanghai’s most complex relocation project to date, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. .
There are several ways to move a building: it can slide along a set of rails or be pulled by vehicles, for example.
But the Lagena Primary School, which weighs 7,600 tons, posed a new challenge: it’s T-shaped, while the previously moved structures were square or rectangular, according to Xinhua. The irregular shape meant that traditional methods of pulling or sliding may not have worked because they may not have withstood the lateral forces placed in them, Lan said.
Aerial view of the Shanghai Lagena Primary School building. Credit: Shanghai Evolution Shift Project
The building also had to be rotated and followed a curved route until it moved instead of just moving in a straight line – another challenge that required a new method.
“In my 23 years of working in this field, I haven’t seen any other company capable of moving structures in a curve,” he added.
Experts and technicians gathered to discuss the possibilities and test a number of different technologies before deciding on the “walking machine,” Xinhua said.
Lan told CNN that he cannot share the exact cost of the project and that relocation costs will vary on a case-by-case basis.
“It cannot be used as a benchmark because we have to preserve the historic building no matter what,” he said. “But in general, it’s cheaper than demolishing and then rebuilding something in a new location. “