1933

30 Mar

Historic buildings in Shanghai, unless of very high profile like those on the Bund, do not currently have very long life expectancy. The notion of urban regeneration is not really widely practiced here and wholesale redevelopment is generally preferred to re-use or adaptation of the built fabric.

1933 is a welcome and refreshing exception to the current paradigm of Chinese urbanism. It is an ex-slaughterhouse, which has been converted in 2008 by Axon Concepts into a retail venue, with some shops, restaurants, cafés (all of which are independently owned) and a few offices. It is located in northern district of Hóngkǒu.

As its name suggests, the slaughterhouse dates from 1933 and was built by a British architect. Sadly that is as much information I’ve been able to gather from the net and the few books I’ve got about Shanghai and China. The structure is mainly characterised by the use of concrete throughout and by the way it is organised. It consists of originally two fully open buildings, a round one enclosed by a large square one, which are linked by a series of steps (for humans) and ramps (for cattle), which spiral around the structure’s four storeys into a series of bridges between the rotunda and the square, creating amazing views and perspectives. The place is a real Escher-like maze and after visiting it three times, I still get lost but somehow make my way to the roof very smoothly.

Every time I go there, I am amazed by the care put into designing a slaughterhouse (!) and the refinements of the details, such as the “balcony” or passages’ geometric balustrades, the facetted columns (or flowering columns as they are called) or the wrought iron on the windows, which are either original or are faithful replica. The redevelopers have been thoughtful enough to provide some explanation (in both Chinese and English) along the way, but you still feel you need to understand the meta-organisation of the place better. Apart from the segregation between cattle movement and human movement, I still can’t tell where the slaughtering actually took place (logically somewhere on the top floors), then how the meat was channelled and where it was stored and how were the carcasses disposed of.

Funnily enough, I’ve recently seen the movie “Temple Grandin”. Temple Grandin is an American scholar specialised in animal husbandry. She is behind what you could probably call humane slaughtering of animals, i.e. creating stress-free environments for animals before they are slaughtered. Grandin also happens to be autistic and has made use of her condition to understand animals better (she has also written a lot about autism). Visiting 1933, you can clearly see that some of her precepts were applied way before her time, namely through the spiralling internal movement, the sloped ramps and the high barriers, all of which, according to Grandin, replicate the natural moving patterns of cattle and therefore significantly reduces stress. In 1933, they even allowed spaces for animals to rest and feed before they eventually met their fate.

Anti-slippery ramps for cattle

Adjacent neighbourhood

Canal on the other side

The only negative thing I have to say about 1933 is that I am a bit worried it isn’t successful enough. Every time I’ve been there weren’t many people and those who come don’t seem to spend much, however impressed they are by the place. Take me for instance, I’ve only had a cup of tea there. Across the road, there used to be an artist’s residence, which clearly didn’t work out well as it is now only used for private parties. Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciate being able to enjoy the place without it being over-crowed, but I fear that if it doesn’t pick up it might be stamped with that red character, which I’ve been told translates into “erase”.

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