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The Life of Cities

Prof Dana Arnold

ROLE: Professor of Architectural History and Theory; Director, Centre for Ideas
SCHOOL & DEPARTMENT: School of Art and Design Department of Design

Helping Tianjin's 'mini-England' survive the 21st century

How did a few hundred acres of colonial-era British architecture survive China's Cultural Revolution intact? Largely on the whim of Mao Zedong, who declared Tianjin's s nine foreign concessions a "treasure". They have captivated Dana Arnold, Professor of Architectural History and Theory at Middlesex University. Working with Tianjin University - where she is a guest professor - Professor Arnold has championed the cause of the British concession, and has helped to ensure it survives China's extraordinary pace of urban growth.

Founded in 1860, the British concession was finally relinquished to China in 1943. Much of the street plan was laid out by General Charles Gordon. A "mini-England", it includes suburban villas, a grand main road and Victoria Park, which evokes a London garden square. Modern Tianjin is "really pushing to be one of the premier cities in China," says Professor Arnold. "Its historic past resonates with the new buildings that are coming up." Tucked among the skyscrapers, the concessions have become a tourist attraction: one of the most striking buildings, the Astor Hotel, has just been taken over by the luxury Starwood chain. Professor Arnold's work on Tianjin, which has appeared in both English and Chinese-language publications, has been noted by developers elsewhere in China. "In Shanghai, the historic centre has largely disappeared," she says. "But the local authorities in Tianjin are very interested in preserving it. The concessions are pretty much safe now."

Professor Arnold's interest in Tianjin grew out of her collaborative work on comparative studies of London and Paris with L'Institut National de l'Histoire de l'Art, in Paris, and on architecture and urbanism in the Middle East with the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, funded by the British Academy.  A recent fellowship at Cambridge University allowed her to explore what she calls "ambivalent geographies" - notions of East and West in architectural discourse. Professor Arnold now works closely with Université de Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne, which funded her initial research on Tianjin.

Professor Arnold is also an expert on urban spaces. She has a special interest in parks and how they are opened up - or not - to the general public, and has advised on planning applications by owners of the villas bordering Regent's Park. Most recently, she has published The Spaces of the Hospital: Spatiality and Urban Change in London 1680-1820 (Routledge 2013), her third major book on urbanism, which examines how the creation of military, royal and voluntary hospitals helped to transform the capital into a modern city: "Hospitals were, and remain, politically charged buildings," she says. The buildings, streets and parks laid out hundreds of years ago have a profound impact on modern urban life. 

Professor Arnold originally trained as an art historian and is the author of the bestselling Art History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2004). Her book Art; An Introduction will be published by TATE in 2014. Not surprisingly, Professor Arnold was the co-convenor of Middlesex's ground-breaking, cross-departmental 2013 conference on fairness in society.

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