TENG KUN-YEN is a man of contradictions. He's an award-winning architect who has never built a house. And although the Chinese edition of Esquire named him the mainland's most stylish man last year, he has no interest in fashion. Mainland media have also labelled him the most eligible bachelor and a trendsetter, but the Shanghai-based, Taiwan-born visionary has little time for such compliments. 'These titles are nothing but shallow symbols of materialism,' he says. 'I consider these an embarrassment. I hate being judged on what I wear or how much money I have.' One honour the 54-year-old does cherish is a citation he earned last year from Unesco, the UN cultural organisation, for his role in revitalising Shanghai's Suzhou River warehouse district. This is where Teng planted the seeds for his dream of establishing a 'creative heaven' in Shanghai. He had been shuttling between assignments in Taipei and his favourite mainland city for years when he spotted a three-storey grain warehouse once owned by Du Yuesheng, a 1920s mobster boss. Despite its dilapidated condition, Teng saw potential in the art deco-style brick and timber structure. He rented it and used material salvaged from demolished buildings to restore it. While he retained much of the original structure, he installed skylights to add light to his new studio space. Teng used part of the warehouse as an office and sub-let the rest to a magazine and property agent. 'It was meant to prosper as a haven for artists - just like SoHo in New York, and the Left Bank in Paris,' says Teng. He had his wish. The 1997 initiative fired imaginations. Local artists revamped and moved in to other abandoned buildings in the area, and a thriving art community emerged, supported by galleries and dining spots. Even so, Teng had to fight to preserve the 20s and 30s factories and warehouses along the river, a crucial transport link to the interior of China. The art enclave came under constant threat of being razed to make way for high-rises. Teng says that unless city planners protect these so-called communal lifestyle spaces, creativity in Shanghai will remain stunted. It will be seen as a factory to the world rather than a city of innovation and artistic triumph, he says. Thanks to his lobbying, public concern - and media coverage - Teng won a measure of protection. While the pace of demolition hasn't eased, the Shanghai government designated parts of the Suzhou River area a modern heritage zone. Teng is accustomed to taking the road less travelled. He trained in agriculture, but found his calling in design when he worked as an architect's apprentice. After turning professional, Teng won six of Taiwan's annual architecture awards and made a name for himself through his renovation work on restaurants. Yet at the height of his celebrity, he left Taiwan to travel, settling down in Shanghai 15 years ago. The Unesco award has emboldened him to lobby party officials to redevelop a sprawling factory complex in the Yangpu industrial district, 10 times the size of his first warehouse. His target: the Shanghai Power Plant Auxiliary Machine Factory, which was owned by General Motors in the 30s. 'This will surely be a bigger triumph. In particular, it won't be modelled after Xintiandi, which is a commercial development that caters to tourists and party cadres,' Teng told local media. Labelled Creative Shanghai, Teng's latest project seeks to transform the industrial yard with 20,000 square metres of floor space into a workshop for design students, and as a platform for professionals, particularly those from Asia and the Pacific, to swap experiences. The plan encompasses 12 exhibition spaces, several cafes and outdoor stages, affordable studio space and accommodation for students. 'The appeal of the warehouses is not just their large size and affordability, but their embodiment of Shanghai's history as a bustling international trading port,' says Teng. 'I want to create an environment where our artistic students can blend culture, fashion and fun altogether. 'I also want to attract foreign elite designers to introduce the most advanced concepts to Chinese people so that in 20 years, China can have its own original ideas and world-class brands. Maybe we will have our own Armani or YSL.' With the first phase of reconstruction completed, the once derelict industrial yard has taken on new life. Parts of the factory building have been turned into meeting rooms and design workshops. Outside, the yard has become a peaceful garden enclosure with flowering shrubs and magnolia trees, dotted with wooden tubs of water. But it may be at least a year before his vision can come to fruition. Some of the factory dormitories are still occupied by workers, and he has yet to negotiate the final details with its administrators. Richard Marshall, a regional director of urban design firm EDAW, says the effectiveness of Teng's riverfront rehabilitation projects is limited by their size. 'I think there's a difference in terms of the economy of scale,' he says. 'By adopting a broader development strategy and essentially swapping or transferring development rights between parcels you can achieve more than if you attempt a parcel-by-parcel process. This requires a bolder vision and government involvement to make it work. This does not discount Teng's attempts, but raises the issue of the need for comprehensive urban regeneration strategies.' Still, Teng persists with his mission. He regularly meets visiting architecture students. Dressed in a white shirt and black pants, his uniform for the past 20 years, he engages a group from Donghai University in a lively discussion on the nature of creativity. 'I feel a responsibility for the younger generation,' he says. 'I need to let them know that being creative means thinking differently and doing something that hasn't been done before. The top talents will understand what the spirit of innovation is, and they are the group I want to influence.' Having run a programme of lectures and discussions that attracted 120 students last summer, Teng has set his sights on youngsters. Although he is sought after as a creator of fashionable hangouts and designed a museum dedicated to the writer, Zhang Ailing, Teng's lack of formal qualifications means he gets little kudos from mainland architects. Rather, he is more in tune with international professionals such as Shin Muramatsu, an architecture professor from Tokyo University, who proposed him to Unesco. The disregard clearly rankles. 'I look down upon those so-called architects who get a degree after staying in school for several years. Most of them just use their professional certificate to make money,' says Teng. 'I've never majored in architecture, and that's why I can be unfettered in my creative ideas.' Ren Ning, a television producer who made two documentaries about Teng, describes him as a 'typical artist'. 'He's creative and sometimes irrational, and he shows enormous confidence upon his goal despite the consequences,' she says. Teng sees himself differently. 'I'm not an architect, artist or writer,' he says. 'I prefer to be considered a revolutionary who fights for the city's precious memory, for a respite from the corporate confines and a chance of creativity that breathes life into a metropolis.'