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April 6, 2011

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

City's signature Art Deco sight

My visit to the Beam Apartments, an Art Deco edifice on Huaihai Road, was unexpected.

I was spending the afternoon researching traditional shikumen (stone-gate) lane houses further along Huaihai Road.

As I was walking across an elevated bridge to pass Chongqing Road, I caught sight of the imposing brown-and-cream building resembling a huge piece of milk chocolate.

I learnt it was the Beam Apartments, the city's signature Art Deco buildings designed by the French firm Leonard, Veysseyre and Kruze. As one of Shanghai's first Art Deco practitioners, the company also designed the Willow Court Apartments on Fuxing Road which I visited earlier this year (Shanghai Daily, January 19).

According to Tongji University expert Zheng Shiling's book "The Evolution of Shanghai Architecture in Modern Times," Shanghai was dominated by Western classic styles before modern styles such as Art Deco from Europe made an impact in the mid-1920s. It was always fashionable to follow Western cultures in semi-colonial Shanghai and so this modern style was soon in vogue.

"This trend coincided with Shanghai's real estate boom from the late 1920s to the late 1930s," says Tongji University scholar Xu Yihong, author of "The Origin and Evolution of Art Deco Architecture."

"The French firm was almost the first to switch from classic to Art Deco styles. They designed the former French Club in 1924, which had a neo-classic facade but the interior, such as the colorful glass ceiling, the staircase and the sculpture, had showcased Art Deco style which was popular in Europe at almost the same time."

Covering an area of 5,200 square meters, the seven-story Beam Apartments (part of it up to 10 floors) built in 1930 was designed in a more prominent Art Deco style full of vertical and horizontal lines. It is a grand-scale building that spreads to the corner of Huaihai and Yandang roads.

According to the book "Old Shanghai Classic Apartments" published by Tongji University, the first floor of the building was originally home to the popular Renchang Yarn Store, where knitting masters often gave lessons to locals.

The above floors contained suites in all sizes - from two to five bedrooms. Each suite was considerably facilitated with a fireplace, a storeroom, a bathroom and a kitchen containing a fridge and an ironing board.

The building's original functions haven't changed over the years and today the first floor is a department store specializing in women's goods since 1956. The above floors are still residential apartments which were locked by an iron gate.

However, I was lucky enough to take a look inside the building when the gate happened to open as I walked by. The interior was well preserved, featuring the original yellow terrazzo flooring, arch gates and a smartly designed concrete staircase that offers a stunning geometrical beauty as I viewed from the top floor with a throbbing heart.

The former owners from France sold it to H.H. Kung (Hsiang-hsi Kung) for a low price after World War II broke out.

Known as one of the richest men in China before World War II, Kung was more famous for marrying Soong Ai Ling, the eldest of the celebrated Soong sisters.

Born in north China's Shanxi Province in 1881, Kung was educated at Yale University in the United States and later sponsored Dr Sun Yat'sen's revolutionary work. He was named minister of industry and commerce in 1928 and then minister of finance and governor of the Central Bank of China.

In movies or articles about the Soong sisters, Kung's wife Soong Ai Ling is always shown as having only a supporting role to her two younger sisters - Soong Ching Ling who married Dr Sun Yat-sen and Soong Mei-ling who married Chiang Kai-shek.

But it was Soong Ai Ling who ended up being the wealthiest of them all and it was she who arranged the marriage of Soong Mei-ling and Chiang. And it was also because she handed her job as secretary to Dr Sun to Soong Ching Ling that the two fell in love and later married in Japan.

"This is only one of the many Kung's properties in Shanghai. He also had other properties in the former French concession and in Hongkou District," says Tongji University architectural history researcher Qian Zonghao.

Today, the building is remembered as a noteworthy one among the 165 surviving Art Deco properties in our city.

This unexpected visit to the Beam Apartments made me experience in one afternoon two prominent architectural styles Shanghai is famous for - the very Chinese shikumen houses and the Western Art Deco edifice, both of which were once flourishing and are still surviving in our city.


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