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November 6, 2015

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Art Deco buffs go ritzy retro

A galaxy of luminaries attending the 13th World Congress on Art Deco will tonight sit down to enjoy a vintage Cathay Hotel banquet in the ballroom of the Fairmont Peace Hotel, a perfect ending for an event that has been held for the first time in Asia. It’s also a meaningful venue for dinner because this historic hotel on The Bund was a symbol of Shanghai architecture joining the Art Deco surge in 1929.

More than 160 Art Deco experts and enthusiasts traveled from around the world to celebrate in Shanghai the style that defined modernity and cosmopolitanism in the 20th century. Since Monday they have soaked up a week of walks, talks and ritzy retro evenings in celebrating and discussing the Art Deco style.

The World Congress has been held in a different city every two years since it was initiated in 1991 in Miami and is organized under the auspices of the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies (ICADS). Members bid for the privilege of hosting and the Shanghai event marks its debut meeting in Asia. The president, Patrick Cranley, of host organization Historic Shanghai attributed the city’s selection to hold the event to “the quantity and quality of its Art Deco, as well as its unique characteristics.”

“No other city has such a variety of Art Deco styles by architects from such a range of countries and traditions,” he said.

One of the early founders of the event, Dennis Wilhelm, author of the book “Rediscovering Art Deco USA,” attributes a fellow writer’s work to heightened understanding of the architectural style in Shanghai.

“Many people first learned about the wealth of Art Deco in Shanghai through Tess Johnston’s ‘Shanghai Art Deco’,” Wilhelm said.

As for the congress, Wilhelm credits Cranley with having submitted “an irresistible Shanghai World Congress presentation to the governing International Coalition of Art Deco Societies meeting in Rio de Janeiro,” the 2011 event at which Shanghai was handed the baton for 2015.

“I think the representatives loved the mixture of international styles and were excited to see Shanghai’s pioneering preservation efforts in Asia.”

The distinctive and enduring architectural style originated at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. It reached Shanghai soon after and had great impact on the city’s buildings and skyline. Tongji University researcher Xu Yihong has found 165 surviving Art Deco structures in Shanghai and nearly a quarter of heritage buildings on The Bund contain its features.

“The Art Deco trend interestingly coincided with Shanghai’s real estate boom from the 1920s to the 1930s,” said Xu Yihong who wrote “The Origins and Schools of Art Deco.” “From 1929 to 1938 Shanghai built 38 buildings higher than 10 floors, most of which were in the Art Deco style.”

Art Deco and modernism experts from around the world have shared their research on Shanghai’s unique iterations of the style during the past week, covering various aspects from architecture to nightlife, typography, design and furniture to grand hotels. Highlights included author Lynn Pan discussing the migration of Chinese classical motifs to the west and western classical motifs to Shanghai and Jennifer Wong, granddaughter of architect Liu Jipiao who created China’s pavilion at that 1925 Paris expo, considered the baptism of Art Deco.

It seems, however, the style has not made smooth progress through the decades since its debut.

“Art Deco had been forgotten for decades, especially in China,” recalled Shanghai Tongji University Vice President Wu Jiang, author of “A History of Shanghai Architecture 1840-1949.”

“I couldn’t find the words ‘Art Deco’ in many of the architectural books published in China after 1949. So in the 1980s I brought dozens of Art Deco books back from the US for Chinese scholars to research.”

He noted a phenomenon in China in the 1990s in which the Art Deco style was revived more by developers than by architecture academics.

“The academics were heavily criticizing ‘classic European style’ which relied strongly on individual craftsmanship and thus was poorly imitated but very popular in China. But then Chinese developers discovered the Art Deco style which was easier to build and its decorative effects could compete with classic styles,” Wu said.

He noted that rapid urban development, the need to complete “dozens of buildings a year” instead of only a few, resulted in Art Deco coming back into vogue in big cities.

Ironically, China’s building boom after the 1980s saw the commercial Art Deco style revived here again. “History is often repeated like this,” Wu chuckled.


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