Commemorating Ordinary Heroes, Wutopia Lab Has Transformed an Abandoned Water Tower at Dongtanyuan into the Memorial of Everyman

A memorial to ordinary people who performed heroic acts in desperate times

Initially, the client wanted to convert an abandoned water tower into a complementary architectural space to the conference center hotel next to it, programmed as a cafe or a suite with special features. This project was put on hold for 40 days due to one of the founders of Wutopia Lab being hospitalized due to illness and her husband (the co-founder of the studio) had to accompany her in the hospital in confinement under China’s epidemic management requirements. He shares that by the time he got out of the hospital and revisited the project, he had already lost interest in turning the water tower into some novelty space that would excite city dwellers. 

While discussing the background of the project however, a touching anecdote caught his attention - during a historical project of "reclaiming land from the sea", a worker named Lu Jingjuan, saw a pipe surge in the dike due to the rough tide, which could lead to a dam failure and thus make the whole sea construction project fail. She therefore jumped into the hole to plug it. Her heroic move also encouraged many other workers to jump into the water, using their bodies to ensure the safety of the dam.

In our modern society, where most are well fed and well clothed, it’s hard to understand the hardships of those times. During that era, in order to ensure that Shanghai had enough food supply, many youths were drafted by the government to set up farms in the suburbs, including Chongming Island, to increase food production by creating land around the sea. They were working under extremely difficult conditions, where youths were managed under semi-military organizations in the state farm. The water tower that provided safe drinking water was the central symbol of the organization's dormitory area. 

While recounting these historic acts, the co-founder of Wutopia Lab and lead designer, Yu Ting, understood the desperation Lu faced, comparing this with his feelings while the doctor explained his wife’s medical condition. This led him to feel particularly moved by the heroic spirit of Lu, who fought in the midst of despair to gain hope for the future. In comparison, consumerist suites and afternoon tea spaces are in a sense a vanish mask to conceal the real memories and happenings of ordinary people and embellish the somewhat flashy life of today, making it seem as if those struggles have never existed. Feeling this wasn’t right, he convinced the client to turn the water tower into a memorial instead - to commemorate all the ordinary people who did heroic acts in desperate times.

Design concept wise, Yu saw the water tower as the breach hole of the dike. He designed a spiral staircase with a separate structure to symbolize the heroic people who plugged the leak with their bodies in the cavity of the water tower. This is a tower within another tower. The colour gold was used to symbolize the great gesture of these ordinary people, while a 100-step staircase, symbolizing a century, is made of eighty-four 50 cm diameter metal rods to form a separate golden tower inside the water tower. At the bottom of the golden tower is a map of Shanghai, with the year on each step, to chronicle events recorded on the metal rods. On the walls of the water storage bin of the tower is a mural of photo transfers of the polder scene back in the day.

Words: Emily Leung & Nikey Cheng
Photos: CreatAR Images
Published on April 22, 2022