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January 19, 2011

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A humble reminder of Shanghai's Deco days

The Willow Court Apartments on Fuxing Road first attracted me with their silhouette.

That sunny, breezy afternoon I was wandering on that street, researching a few Spanish villas. I happened to look up and through the bare tree branches I saw the beautiful side of a yellow building against the blue sky.

The 12-story building was designed in a simple Art Deco style. The exterior was painted in a bright, warm yellow tone and decorated with three zigzagging lines colored brownish-red.

The sky was unusually clear blue that afternoon. The yellow building and the blue sky. The yellow wall and the brown lines. The bare trees and the tall building. An array of interesting contrasts induced me to explore this building.

Covering 1,720 square meters, the residential structure was built in 1934 by French architecture firm of Leonard, Veysseyre and Kruze, one of the first Art Deco designers in the city.

"The Art Deco vogue spread to Shanghai soon after it was born in France in 1925," says Professor Chang Qing, dean of the architecture school at Shanghai Tongji University. "It had an especially great impact on Shanghai."

One quarter of the historical buildings on the Bund contain Art Deco features and even the top of the Jin Mao Tower in Pudong's Lujiazui area reflects Art Deco influence, he says.

According to Xu Yihong's book "The Origin and Evolution of Art Deco Architect," this architectural trend coincided with Shanghai's real estate boom from the late 1920s to the late 1930s.

From 1929 to 1938, Shanghai built 38 skyscrapers taller than 10 floors, most of which were in Art Deco style. Expert Xu has identified 165 surviving Art Deco buildings of various kinds scattered around the city's nine districts; they include apartments such as the Willow Court, banks, office buildings, cinemas, theaters, hotels and stadiums.

After my column about the Lester Institute of Technology was published late last year (Shanghai Daily October 13, 2010), I received a phone call from visiting City Commissioner Jerry Libbin from Miami Beach, Florida, another city famous for its Art Deco buildings. He said with so many Art Deco jams in common, a series of Art Deco-related events will be held in Shanghai this year (exact date is not decided yet).

A Shanghai Art Deco photo exhibition by famous local photographer Deke Erh is now underway at the Miami International Airport and is scheduled to be exhibited at Pudong International Airport later this year.

Now back from Art Deco to our Willow Court building.

There are four kinds of suites in the building, ranging from one to four bedrooms. The one-bedroom suite has no kitchen but has a balcony and a mini storeroom. It's small but very comfortable. The two-bedroom suite has airy and bright kitchen and bathroom. In three-bedroom and four-bedroom suites, rooms are connected by corridors.

According to "Stories of Old Houses Along Wukang Road" compiled by the Xuhui District Government, the apartments were rented by senior managers of foreign companies before 1949. After that, it was occupied by Chinese government officials and a number of intellectuals including author Wu Qiang, vice chairman of Shanghai Writers' Association.

Today the building is in good shape and well-preserved. Tucked away in a lane, the building faces a small and tranquil garden.

A row of small rounded front balconies is attractive. The elegant lobby features black-and-white marble floors and antique wooden mailboxes.

I climbed to the top floor where the window offered a great panoramic view - a sea of red-tiled old villas in the former French concession.

According to Xu's book, the French firm of Leonard, Veysseyre and Kruze, which designed the Willow Court, was one of the first firms in Shanghai to switch from Classical to Art Deco style. The firm also designed the famous Beam Apartments on Huaihai Road and the Dauphine Apartments on Jianguo Road.

Since the mid-1930s, Art Deco buildings in Shanghai have been simpler in style than Art Deco buildings elsewhere. That's probably why our Art Deco Willow Court doesn't have much decoration.

Architectural master Zheng Shiling from Tongji University once said: "If you consider a panorama of Shanghai modern buildings a very long painting, then Art Deco buildings make the most magnificent part in this painting."

And the simple yet beautiful Willow Court might only be an ordinary one in the magnificent part of 165 Art Deco pearls. Although it's simple and rather hidden, it has retained the perfect silhouette that attracted me one clear and sunny afternoon.


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