Tag Archives: Art Deco

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”.

From China to Shanghai

20 Dec

This post is long, long overdue. It’s about a walk I did over a month ago now. I’ve been turning and tossing over it. There are so many things to say that I could write at least four posts about this single day. In fact this is a second post as the “Sun day, laundry day” one was just one element of that day. Anyhow, I have written about it now but have had to filter quite a bit. Other aspects of the walk will inevitably come up in future posts. In the meantime, I hope this makes some sense and conveys at least in part my enthusiasm and the progression from the point of departure to the end destination.

So a while back now, I went on a long walk from our flat on Tai Xing Lu eastwards along Suzhou Creek, the small river running west to east and leading to the Bund and the bigger River Huangpu, both of which I was going to see for the first time. Around that time, we had just moved into our flat and had been too busy flat hunting, getting everything we needed for our new home and taking care of administrative paperwork. So even after two or three weeks, we had never seen the Bund (i.e. river embankment), which is usually the first place newcomers to Shanghai rush to.

My itinerary (overlaid on the Lonely Planet map)

The walk was really great. It took me through all sorts of places and showed me another face of Shanghai than what you would see along Nanjing Road or Huaihai Road and their numerous shopping centres filled with Western brands or the French Concession and its very pleasant, sort of westernish or Parisianish atmosphere.

Following the southern bank of Suzhou Creek was not a continuous path. There are few areas where you can follow the waterfront but inevitably, at many points, particularly where you have bridges, you have to get off it, back on a main road or through a popular neighbourhood to be able to get back to it. Although, I did find it annoying at times, it gave a great insight into life nearby.

It started off with streets near my place which were quiet, mainly filled with drying laundry and some activity. It got busier and busier once I had crossed Changdu Road (the internal highway running north to south). Lots of shops around, many people sitting on their low stools or chairs on the pavement and getting on with various activities. Buzzing traffic everywhere, odd looks directed at me. I was one of the very few non-Chinese people to walk around there. Living conditions also seemed to decline compared to neighbourhoods further west. Everything seemed lower, tighter, denser and messier, and sometimes just simply dirtier.

The way “Chinese” neighbourhoods are organised in Shanghai is like a big block defined by main roads. On the external sides of the block, facing the main roads, are the commercial activities; generally tiny shops and workshops. These long stretches are then broken up by more or less tiny alleyways from which people access their homes. From my observation, it looks like residents only go inside to sleep and maybe eat. I never dare to venture into the heart of neighbourhood. Shanghainese are not very forthcoming so, despite my strong curiosity, I feel it would be a bit too invasive to do it.

Continuing further east, the urban character changed again from local Chinese to colonial. Buildings got taller and newer again and there were gradually more and more non-residential historic buildings, starting with industrial ones and ending up with smarter ones. It started up after Middle Sichuan Road, with the 1929 factory, then the renovated old boathouse and church a bit further along. You could then feel you were arriving to the Bund, with the massive Art Deco-meets-Brutalism Broadway Mansions Hotel first looming in the horizon and the bottle opener and the Oriental Pearl Tower in Pudong.

I have no clue what this is...

The old boathouse to the left and church

The Broadway Mansions Hotel and the Russian Consulate (in white), with Pujian Hotel (Astor House) behind it

Arriving on the Bund after this walk was probably even more impressive than had I gone through another route. By then, I had seen so many different layers and textures of Shanghai that everything about the Bund and the river seemed grander. Being on the Bund on a glorious day with 1930s, Art Deco Shanghai to the west and the wide Huangpu River and Pudong to the east is not overrated! The western bank shows that Shanghai was leading the regional economy in the early 20th century. Despite what I’ve said in my previous post about Pudong itself (that, on its own, it’s a reductive aspect of the city), the view of Pudong from the Bund is quite extraordinary. I think the fact that it is situated on a natural curve of the eastern bank amplifies its effect.

I guess you have to see it for yourself but hopefully I haven’t ruined the surprise and may even tempt you into following the same route some time…

Where Suzhou Creek and the Huangpu meet

The People's Memorial at the northern end of the Bund

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