For American architect and former fighter pilot Benjamin Wood, living in Shanghai provides not only the good life but a chance for adventure.
“Just yesterday, I got to go out with an 85-year-old woman in a dugout canoe and a couple of guys from the government, who took me down the river to look at prospective sites for resorts,” says Wood. “These are the things tourists never get to do.”
Other things most tourists never get to do include buying a martini bar, zooming around Shanghai in a vintage sidecar motorcycle and converting a 100-year-old Tibetan house located in the far west of the country into a holiday home. Yet Wood has done them all.
Wood, 65, first came to China in 1998 at the invitation of the Hong Kong property developer Vincent Lo, who wanted to develop a crumbling set of Shanghai blocks made up of the city’s late 19th-century grey-brick Shikumen town houses.
While other architects had proposed to demolish the historic Shikumen, Wood insisted they must be partly preserved, albeit in a cleaner, less chaotic fashion, with many remodelled or gutted to incorporate modern features. “It wasn’t even a concept back then,” says Wood. “It was just a piece of land. I was invited to open an office here and treated to a driver, a car, a house to live in. So I got a nice offer and I took it.”
In 2003, Wood’s $200m development, Xintiandi, opened as a pedestrianised zone of bars, restaurants and boutiques in the heart of the city. It was a runaway success. Wood was not only credited with showing Chinese developers that preservation could help generate money but quickly became something of a celebrity in China.
For years, Wood travelled between China and the US, where he had his own architecture firm and offices in Boston, Chicago and New York. In 2005 he took the plunge, closed his US offices and moved to Shanghai for good. “It was really the opportunity to be able to do work that I could never do in the US. The scale and pace, and opportunities here are just huge compared to the rest of the world,” says Wood. He went on to found Studio Shanghai and its projects have spanned the country. “The work keeps coming and keeps getting more exciting,” he says.
Wood’s life path has been anything but conventional. He has a degree in civil engineering and went to law school before becoming a fighter pilot towards the end of the Vietnam war. Wood never made it to Vietnam but was instead posted to Europe and stayed in the air force for five years before opening a bar and restaurant in Colorado. Only in his early thirties did Wood enrol in a graduate architecture programme at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he found his calling.
It is not just work that attracts Wood to Shanghai but the fast-paced lifestyle of mainland China’s financial centre and its most international city. “There is nothing you can get in New York that you can’t get in Shanghai now,” he says, citing everything from sushi to the tree-lined streets that are ideal for a stroll.
Wood admits that he is “clearly dependent on China for [his] lifestyle and income”. In spite of his success in China over the past 15 years, this relationship can make him feel uneasy. “There are different rules and regulations and a little bit is lost in translation,” says Wood, whose Mandarin is basic. “You never know where you stand as a foreigner in a foreign country.” He also worries about the long-term future for China in terms of the ability of the authoritarian government to sustain peaceful rule as people become increasingly bold in vocalising their needs and desires.
But such concerns haven’t prevented Wood, who is divorced with two grown-up children, from putting down roots. He owns DR Bar, a sleek martini venue in Xintiandi, which is popular with both foreigners and Chinese. He lives five minutes’ walk away in a penthouse apartment at the top of a building he designed himself. Around the corner is his office, a space he calls the “galleria”, replete with baby grand piano and a wine bar. “My Chinese clients are fascinated when they open the door and there is no big reception desk and conference room,” he says. “It’s part of my persona.”
When Wood wants to get away he travels to the mountain town of Shangrila in Yunnan province, where he has converted a house in the picturesque old town. The timbre-framed structure has mud-rammed earth walls and a wood-shingle roof. While a single stove provides the only heating, Wood has installed electricity, a contemporary bathroom and wireless internet.
One of the best aspects about Shangrila is the largely Tibetan population. “Tibetans are just wonderful people,” says Wood. “They are nomadic so they see somebody on their property and think, ‘These people need a meal as they have been travelling’. So it is innate to their culture that they are very hospitable. The problem is you can’t turn down an invitation – some of the stuff is a little hard to take. Yak tea is basically rancid butter.”
It is the sense of adventure that excites Wood most about life in China. He recalls driving down a road once and noticing a truck filled with wooden antique doors. Abandoning his plans, he followed the truck to a warehouse. “I bought them all,” he says. Wood sent the doors, along with a small wooden temple, back to the US where he owns a 55-acre property in Martha’s Vineyard. He used the doors to create a pathway through the woods for his son’s wedding. Wood observes that “each door was different, so it was quite magical. And the temple, I will put up one day.”
Wood’s only regret about moving to Shanghai is that, unlike in the US, he cannot get permission to fly a private plane. China has not opened up its airways to recreational flying for most locals, much less foreigners. “I only hope to live long enough to be able to own my own little plane here and fly around China,” he says.
Photograph: Daniele Mattioli