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February 26, 2012

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City's Oriental Art Deco lures World Deco Congress

ART Deco, with its thrusting vertical elements, streamlined shapes and geometric ornamentation, captures the bold spirit of 1930s Shanghai that was rising, building and surging ahead as a splendid modern city. World connoisseurs of Art Deco pay their respects. Yao Minji reports.

Art Deco, which pays homage to the early 20th century "Machine Age," was once everywhere in Shanghai, overshadowing the neoclassical architecture emblematic of a colonial past. In the late 1920s, 30s and early 40s, creative architects and builders flooded the commercial and financial hub of Asia, a melting pot of ideas, cultures and styles.

The city was graced with glorious Art Deco specimens, many of them incorporating Chinese motifs together with Art Deco zigzags and curves. Traditional Chinese icons, such as waves, mountains and clouds, were given a geometric, Art Deco twist on facades and interiors. Shanghai also developed its own take on Art Deco furniture and decor; Art Deco influences can be seen in fashion, visual arts and in everyday items.

Many buildings are gone, but hundreds remain; some are decrepit but some are beauties.

Impressed by Shanghai's heritage, lovers of Art Deco will convene in Shanghai in 2015 for the World Congress on Art Deco.

Wm Patrick Cranley, an expert on Shanghai Art Deco and co-founder of Historic Shanghai, was instrumental in arranging for Shanghai to host the congress.

"It was not a hard sell," Cranley tells Shanghai Daily. "The members of Art Deco societies all over the world are really excited about the opportunity to see the Art Deco beauties here."

In the 1930s and 40s Shanghai was one of the most stylish and pioneering cities in the world and early Shanghailanders brought with them the most fashionable styles of the time, which included Art Deco.

The Fairmont Peace Hotel on the Bund, first built in 1929 as the Cathay Hotel, was the tallest building and a landmark at the time. It is mentioned in virtually every book about Shanghai in that period.

Its fa?ade is mainly composed of vertical lines, with delicately carved patterns in the middle and a mini-pyramid at the top.

Shanghai's Art Deco is unique because of its Oriental flavor and Chinese motifs integrated with the international style.

Cranley cites the Bank of China building on the Bund, which "incorporates openings on the fa?ade that reference traditional latticework windows and complex Chinese roof joinery executed in stone ...

"Not to mention the gorgeous mythical beasts guarding the entrance, who sport a decidedly Art Deco look."

Shanghai's unique lane neighborhoods (lilong) that fuse Western and Eastern styles also bear Art Deco influence. Some of the stone-gated houses (shikumen) are also quite Deco in their simplicity. Influences can be seen in general construction and interior details - the patterned flooring, the staircases and railings and sometimes even the framing of small windows.

Art Deco furniture, lamps, items of interior decor, glassware, tableware, ceramic vases and metal ashtrays are highly collectable these days, favored by many artists and expatriates, and are often quite expensive.

"The classic Shanghai calendar girl posters - depicting fashionable young ladies in their Art Deco-patterned qipao or Chinese sheath dresses - are a great source of information on Shanghai Art Deco fabric design," Cranley says.

In the course of renovation, many Art Deco residential interiors have been destroyed. Many Art Deco buildings were also torn down to make way for rapid economic development.

Cranley, who co-founded Historic Shanghai in 1998 with Tess Johnston and Tina Kanagaratnam, has seen rising awareness of the social, historic and aesthetic value of the city's historic buildings.

"But it is also true that the economics of urban redevelopment continue to argue against the preservation of historic structures in Shanghai, where property values have skyrocketed and the opportunities for developers to make obscene amounts of money through new construction have proliferated," he says.

"So the contradiction between preservation and redevelopment has sharpened as have the attitudes of all stakeholders."

He cites the renovations of the Hengshan Picardie Hotel and the Paramount Ballroom as examples of failed preservation. "My general principal is that the external fa?ade of an historic building should not be altered in any significant way, and that as much original material be retained in the interior as is practicable," he says.

Additional floors were added to both the hotel and the ballroom, which significantly altered their exteriors. In the case of the Picardie, the original interior was also destroyed.

Cranley is already planning Art Deco tours focusing on a variety topics for the 2015 World Congress on Art Deco.

Historic Shanghai already conducts a monthly drop-in tour of Art Deco buildings; it's a two-hour stroll that involves visiting the buildings and talking about the people who have lived or worked in them.

Cranley has selected four of the most significant and interesting Art Deco buildings in Shanghai for Shanghai Daily readers - a skyscraper, a lane neighborhood, a beautiful interior and a less-known building.

Art Deco sampler

The Park Hotel

For many decades after its completion in 1934, the 17-storey Park Hotel was for decades the tallest building in Asia and the most prominent physical landmark of Shanghai. Tourists and residents all wanted to have their photos taken with the Park Hotel's Art Deco facade in the background.

It is one of several dozen structures in Shanghai designed by Laslow Hudec, perhaps the most talented architect practicing in Shanghai between World War I and World War II. It was also a source of local pride, since it was the first skyscraper in Shanghai financed by Chinese companies.

Today it is dwarfed by newer structures in its vicinity, but none has played a more significant role in Shanghai history than the Park Hotel.

Lesser-known buildingFoncim Apartments

There are hundreds of Art Deco homes, apartments and civic buildings scattered across the city, most of them now simply "part of the scenery" and not recognized for their graceful design or significance in Shanghai history. But as one becomes attuned to the Art Deco aesthetic, these buildings suddenly appear in great numbers and raise many questions. Who commissioned this building, and who designed and built it? What were the different residents like over the years? Who lives or works there now, and what will be the fate of this Art Deco survivor?

This apartment complex at the intersection of Jianguo and Gao'an roads is very busy on the side facing Jianguo Road, but much quieter in the rear. "Quiet" is not the word to describe the mosaic tile floor of the entrance lobby with its bright colors and mesmerizing pattern. It is evidence that the Art Deco style encouraged designers to give play to their imaginations and to surprise and entertain.


Former Bank of Communications Building (today the Shanghai General Trade Union Building)

The exterior of the former Bank of Communications building, completed in 1947, demonstrates the clean, unadorned lines of late Art Deco design, with form, not ornamentation, providing visual interest. While form is dominant in the interior as well, the use throughout the lobby of sinuous brass fittings and colorful terrazzo surfaces creates an atmosphere combining stateliness and playfulness.

Like all of Shanghai's historic buildings, this one has an interesting story. The Bank of Communications was founded in 1908 during the Reform Period at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), to provide Chinese participation in the largely international financing of railroad construction in China.

During the 1950s and 60s, all banks in China were merged into a monolithic state bank, the People's Bank of China. As part of the country's effort to re-introduce competition and market forces into the economy, separate banking corporations were recreated in the 1980s. The Bank of Communications brand was resuscitated in 1986, but its offices are in the financial district on the Pudong New Area side of the Huangpu River. While a branch of the Bank of Shanghai occupies the ground floor today, the rest of the building houses the offices of the Shanghai General Trade Union.

Lane neighborhood

Jinghua Cun

Combining the "gate-and-lane" format of all classic Shanghai lane neighborhoods and the rounded forms of the Streamline Moderne genre of Art Deco style, this lane is one of the best representations of Shanghai Art Deco.

Like all lilong in Shanghai, this neighborhood has a name: Jinghua Cun. Before large-scale urban redevelopment began in the 1990s, most of the city center was comprised of lane neighborhoods, and published directories were organized according to the names of the neighborhoods. The vast majority of lilong have been razed to make way for the glass-and-steel skyscrapers for which Shanghai has become famous, taking with them the intimate feeling and human scale of the lanes.


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