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POSTED ON 10/01/07

China saps Maple Town of Canadian style

A new suburb's look was meant to evoke Canada's spirit, but the grind of local politics crushed most concepts away

FENGJING, CHINA -- It was touted as the first Canadian town to be built in China. There were breathless reports that "Canadian Maple Town" would feature a slice of the Rocky Mountains, a replica of the Northern Lights, eco-friendly Canadian technology and even a depiction of the RCMP Musical Ride.

Today the dream has crashed into the reality of Chinese capitalism. A handful of shrunken maples are about all that survives of the much-vaunted scheme to build a Canadian suburb in the heartland of China.

Almost every trace of Canada has been wiped out of the blueprint. Instead the developers are talking vaguely about a "North American flavour" for the planned suburb of 25,000 residents. Their models show palm trees where the maples were once envisioned.

"We've had to make some changes," acknowledges Zhang Fushun, chairman of the development company at Fengjing, about 60 kilometres southwest of Shanghai. "The overall concept is for a North American flavour, but people understand that this includes the United States too."

The sad fate of Maple Town is a cautionary tale for Canadian architects who venture into Chinese territory. Early enthusiasm for Canadian designs can be quickly sabotaged by profit-hungry Chinese developers, who prefer the familiar habits of cheap construction and faux-foreign design.

Three years after winning a competition to design the project, Toronto architect Lisa Bate puzzles over photos of the site.

She scarcely recognizes a massive neo-classical bridge at the suburb's centre. Her team had planned an eco-friendly bridge of light materials, with room for trees, bicycle lanes and pedestrian paths. Now it is dominated by heavy Roman columns and ornaments, all built from concrete, and the developers have decided to call it the Alexander Bridge, though nobody seems to know why.

"It was supposed to be a suspension bridge, very elegant, with minimal use of materials," Ms. Bate said. "But they said it was too expensive. So, once again, they used massive amounts of concrete. They reinterpreted it into their own vision."

The developer, Mr. Zhang, is unperturbed when a visitor tells him that the bridge is not very Canadian in appearance. "That's because Canada doesn't have its own culture -- it's just a mixture of French and British," he explains airily.

Maple Town was born at the turn of the millennium when Shanghai decided to build nine satellite towns on its outskirts. Each would take its theme from a foreign country: Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Nordic countries -- and Canada.

Six years later, some of the projects are progressing rapidly. Thames Town is quaint, with cobbled streets, a fish-and-chips shop, a pub, a church, a village green, a market square surrounded by Georgian townhouses and even a statue of Winston Churchill.

New German Town is situated near a Volkswagen plant and a Formula One track, with homes modelled on the German city of Weimar. Italian Town has canals inspired by Venice.

But little has happened at Maple Town, except a gradual drift away from the original ideas. Only a few Canadian maple trees have been planted, because they grow too slowly. Instead the developers are growing hundreds of maples from Japan and the United States, which grow much taller in the Chinese climate. Palm trees have been added to the display models.

As for the replicas of the Rocky Mountains and the RCMP Musical Ride, the developers are baffled by the question. Those ideas were dropped so long ago that they cannot even recall them.

"We will use a Chinese approach to interpret the Canadian style," explains Wang Hui, planning director at the Fengjing development company.

An early intention to put Canadian cedar and other materials into the suburb has also been largely abandoned. A sales brochure talked of including "Inuit paintings and Indian wood sculptures" along with statues of Emily Carr and the Group of Seven, but the developers were unable to explain what had become of those ideas. In fact, the entire Canadian theme has become so murky that it is almost impossible to pin down.

"We might not be importing Canadian building materials or architectural styles, but we hope it will embody the spirit of Canada," Mr. Zhang says vaguely.

To make matters worse, Maple Town has fallen far behind the pace of the others. Its developers have spent $100-million (U.S.) on roads and infrastructure, but that represents only one-fifth of the planned budget. None of the housing has been built, except for apartments for the 3,000 residents who will be relocated to make room for the suburb.

"Things have gone sideways," said Ms. Bate, president of Six Degrees Architecture and Design Inc., based in Toronto. "We wanted to promote a Canadian sensibility: clean air, clean water, nature, sustainability. You work your butt off, you work around the clock and then the vision is not carried out."

Her original plan for Maple Town included a Canadian state-of-the-art system of catch basins to remove sediments and oil from the canals. But she soon discovered that her plan had been ignored. "They'd already put in the same old crappy catch basins that they always use," she said.

"As an international firm, we can do the master plan and the design development, but the working drawings have to be done by design institutes, which are owned by governments. They go back to construction practices that they know."

In an earlier China project, Ms. Bate designed a sustainable building, including wind turbines and recycled water, as an eco-friendly gateway to a resort area in Jiangxi province. That design, too, was dumped. "Now it looks like the Palace in Monaco on steroids," she said.

Her firm has scrapped a plan to open a branch office in China. "It's been very frustrating. . . . The central government wants international competitions, sustainable design and energy efficiency. But after you win a competition, you get dumped by the local governments. They hire the same old guys and it ends up with no relation to the original plan."

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