Macau’s architectural legacy

A recent trip to Macau, the former Portuguese colony on the western edge of China’s Pearl River delta, led to a new gallery of photographs — they can be seen here — and a lot of thinking about one of the most beloved places in the world to me.  Macau was always the sleepier, pastel-buildinged cousin to the bustling former British colony of Hong Kong, an hour away on the eastern edge of the delta, but is now famous mainly for its casinos.  Among Chinese, gambling is the opium addiction of our era and a few years ago Macau surpassed Las Vegas to become the world’s biggest gambling destination by revenue.  This boom has produced a lot of monstrous, outsized development — most notably, the Venetian hotel, which has 3,000 suites and more than ten million square feet of space — and land reclamation from the sea that has fused the territory’s two outlying island, Coloane and Taipa, into a single, dreary land mass now rebranded the Cotai Strip.

The Macau that I fell in love with has little to do with that; indeed, as the book Macaensis Momentum documents, in urban planning terms the ugly land reclamation is a kind of sacrificial offering to the gods of development in order to preserve the beautiful, small-scale historical core of the city that the Portuguese built in their nearly 500-year dominion.  It is breathtaking to consider how early Portugal began to conquer the world — their first permanent settlement in Macau was established while Michelangelo was still alive — but of all the European colonial powers they were probably the most negligent and incompetent administrator, leaving behind a string of former colonies like Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, and East Timor that have been wracked by civil war and rank among the world’s poorest places.  But Portugal’s great accomplishment was to produce, through integration and intermarriage, a true hybrid culture that was neither fully European nor fully local.  In Macau, this was reflected in the long-standing Eurasian community of Macanese — many of whom, sadly, have dispersed since the handover to Chinese rule — and, more concretely, in the architecture, which will combine a pastel or whitewashed facade and a Chinese tile roof or place a Buddhist temple at the corner of small streets named for Don Quixote and Sancho Panca.

When I first visited Macau, twenty years ago, even its landmark buildings were pretty derelict but in the run-up to the handover in 1999 Portugal realized that architecture would be its one lasting legacy so undertook a city-wide restoration program.  Though local administration in Macau (like Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997) was supposed to be protected under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, the mainland Chinese government’s record on architectural preservation was so poor that it was clear that old buildings needed to be made newly functional or they would risk being demolished, as had happened to great swathes of Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere.  The solution — as I wrote about for Condé Nast Traveler in November 1999 — was a kind of two-fold policy of schizophrenia: relieve the pressure on the core by allowing large-scale development on new land and preserve the facades of heritage buildings while rebuilding the interiors.  This is the policy documented, project by project, in Macaensis Momentum, which was published in 1993 when many of these were still in planning stage, and visiting Macau now it is apparent that despite some painful compromises it has worked (thus far) to preserve the unique feeling of place.  What remains to be seen is whether Macau can survive the imminent life-leeching wave of Chinese domestic tourism that has already transformed similarly charming places like Lijiang, in Yunnan province, or Gulangyu, near Xiamen in Fujian province.


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