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November 21, 2014

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Art Deco and the ‘re-imagining’ of Shanghai

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IT’S difficult to describe or define exactly what is Art Deco. A vague timetable (the 1920s-30s), a “modern” and geometrical aesthetic and the fact the style has its roots in the Western world is all one really has to work with.

But if you’ve ever passed by The Paramount ballroom, the Fairmont Peace Hotel or Hamilton House in Shanghai, you have seen some of the world’s finest examples of Art Deco architecture. The visual conveys the concept in a way words cannot.

But there are other, lesser-known Art Deco masterpieces sprinkled over Shanghai’s landscape, which you may pass by every day without realizing what you’re looking at.

Spencer Dodington is an American entrepreneur and architect who has lived in Shanghai for nearly two decades. His wide-ranging knowledge of both the architectural aspects of the buildings and their stories culminate in a walking tour that is as entertaining as it is informative, helped by the fact Dodington has actually lived in some of the buildings.

While leading a group along Nanjing Road W., Dodington points out many different kinds of structures that illustrate the range and variety of Art Deco architecture; one moment he’s lecturing on the design and story behind the imposing Renji Hospital, and the next he’s ducking into an alley which houses a hidden treasure (like Pei Mansion just off Nanyang Road) or showcases Art Deco’s more “economical” side, typically apartments for middle-class or poorer families. Some examples are the apartments on Fengxian Road, the Carter Apartments and Denis Apartments, etc.

One notable difference between these inconspicuous structures and their more esteemed cousins is that, in some cases, the architects are simply unknown.

Shanghai, Dodington explains, was experiencing a massive financial and architectural boom during the Republic of China period (1911-49). Buildings (especially apartments and houses) were springing up like weeds which, combined with privacy laws for the owners of the buildings, makes it difficult to know who built what and when. Their histories, he sighs, will forever remain a mystery.

Dodington is not alone in his passion for Shanghai’s legacy, Art Deco and otherwise. The group Historic Shanghai — founded by Tess Johnston, Patrick Cranley and Tina Kanagaratnam — states its goal of “raising awareness of Shanghai’s built heritage and social and cultural history.”

They hold monthly walking tours in addition to presentations, talks and film screenings. It is through their petitioning that the World Congress on Art Deco will meet in Shanghai for the first time in November 2015.

Their most recent event, Art Deco Weekend 2 early this month (part of a series of three), served as a primer for the anticipated event and attracted an audience of mostly expats.

Presentations and walking tours (including the one with Dodington) were given over two days, with a focus on Laszlo Hudec’s works around the Nanjing Road W. and People’s Square areas. The two presenters, however, were able to expand the Art Deco concept beyond the realm of architecture.

Dr Andrew Field, from the US, has been studying Shanghai’s clubs and nightlife since the 1990s. He gave a presentation that dealt with the iconic ballroom of the era, The Paramount.

In addition to examining the building, Field elaborated on how the designs of The Paramount — both inside and out — created a “multiplicity of spaces” with a “luxurious and ultra-modern feel.”

“This was a tough period,” he says, “which is maybe why people went to such great lengths to escape it.”

Constructing a club was equivalent to “constructing a fantasy world, like the cinema,” but with one major difference: “rather than living vicariously, you actually live the drama.”

Field says Art Deco attracts him because it is “the big movement in that age and a lot of the clubs were designed along Art Deco style, but I was more interested in the production of culture that happened inside the clubs ... you can learn a lot about how intentionally or unintentionally people’s social behaviors are channeled by the design of the space.”

Karolina Pawlik, an anthropologist and historian from Poland, expanded the boundaries of Art Deco even further, exploring its breadth with some 90 slides of Art Deco images ranging from furniture to bags, clothes, make-up, cars and many other materials that one wouldn’t normally associate with the style.

Besides the variety of materials that boasted an Art Deco influence, Pawlik spent some time highlighting how the art from that era also betrays a strong debt to the style.

Paintings are a notable example, as they portray the “mutual othering” that was going on between China and Europe at the time, through re-imagined styles, fashion, cultural symbols, etc.

Art Deco typography transformed Chinese characters into “modern ornaments,” rendering them basically unintelligible. These new aesthetic depictions resulted in a “re-imagining of Shanghai, as a modern city full of reformers,” she says, dubbing this newly conceived Shanghai a “modern Cathay.”

The fact both converge on the point of Shanghai as a conceived dreamworld is no accident. Art Deco is not necessarily known for being pretty, per se.

Rather than captivating with its beauty, it captures your attention with its symmetry and industrial motif. This “streamlined” appearance produces a feeling of “modernity,” which is itself an imagined (and contested) concept.

Both Field and Pawlik hope the Art Deco Weekend and other events like it will increase the visibility of Shanghai’s history.

“I hope that other people realize the diversity of the visual environment,” Pawlik says, “and also how much has been done in the field of design at that time that was completely forgotten.”

Field agrees, saying he hopes to see people get “a greater appreciation for the depth of Shanghai’s culture. Also, it’s nice to be part of a community of people who really care about Shanghai’s legacy.”


The next Art Deco Weekend will be held in May 2015. For more information on the next Art Deco Weekend, Historic Shanghai walking tours or the World Congress on Art Deco, visit Send any further inquiries to

SOME of the hidden gems in the city

PEI Mansion

Completed in 1934, this is one of the best examples of Shanghai-style Art Deco residential structures — a transcendent combination of 1930s international design incorporated with traditional Chinese motifs. Built for banker Pei Zuyi, uncle of architect I.M. Pei, it features both horizontal and vertical lines, conscious symmetry and restrained ornamentation, together with traditional Chinese elements, such as the “spirit wall” in front of the side entrance and the tranquil stone pavilion on the front lawn. If appropriate, sneak in to see the magnificent “dragon stairs” leading to the upper floors.

Address: 170 Nanyang Rd

Apartments on Fengxian Road

This is one of the best-kept secret locations in Shanghai, although the name, architect nor completion date are clear. It features light orange terrazzo floors, “furling fern frond” ironwork bannisters and irreplaceable wooden casements for the long-unused fire hose housings. Local legend has it that Guo Shaoyu, Chinese literary scholar and poetry tutor of Chairman Mao Zedong, lived here at some point.

Address: 147-148 Fengxian Rd



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