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Frank Lloyd Wright facsimile in Changning

Frank Lloyd Wright's extraordinary American house Fallingwater apparently inspired a more modest Chinese version in Shanghai in the late 1940s.

On a sunny weekend I found the house on Hongqiao Road in Changning District by following the sound of running water.

Fallingwater, an audacious masterpiece of organic architecture, juts out in tiers over the Bear Run Waterfall in Mill Run, southwestern Pennsylvania. It was completed in 1939 as the retreat for a Pittsburgh businessman, Edgar Kaufmann.

A fan of Wright's famous creation in harmony with nature, I was astonished to discover a building said to be inspired by Fallingwater, as I was reading in the archives of Changning District.

It was known as Yao's Garden and today is part of the lush park of Xijiao State Guest Hotel.

It has been renamed Pavilion of the Purple Bamboo, but it is locked and empty.

Shanghai historian Xue Liyong told me the hotel's grounds were once used for a golf course in the western suburbs early last century. To me, a garden hotel suggests a large, quiet botanical garden where one can retreat from city life.

A winding path leads to the house. As I walked along, I heard the sound of running water and followed it to a small cool spring circled by green plants.

Then the Chinese Fallingwater emerged. The simply cut horizontal lines, the floor-to-ceiling windows and its integration with the natural environment all represent Wright's philosophy of organic architecture. It reminds me of the famous Cullen House in "Twilight."

But there's a big difference. Wright's grand house is built over a large roaring waterfall and the water appears to be flowing out from beneath the house.

In the Chinese version, there's only a mini, man-made waterfall and a long water course of green lilies on the east side of the house. Probably to suggest the real Fallingwater, architects designed a swimming pool right in front of the building, but it is dry now.

According to historian Yang Jiayou's book "The Story of Shanghai Classic Houses," the house was built between 1946 and 1948, a boom period for building garden villas in Shanghai.

"Historical villas built in this period tend to be in contemporary or Art Deco style, which were trendy in the world at the time, instead of the previous classic styles. And Yao's Garden was a signature building in this period," Yang wrote.

The Yao family owned a successful cement company with an office in Shanghai and a factory in neighboring Jiangsu Province.

Returning from an overseas trip during World War II, general manager Yao Naichi brought back architecture books with pictures of trendy villas, selected his favorites and commissioned a European company to build his home. Two Chinese architects took part in the design work.

Covering 67,000 square meters, the first floor contains a dining room and a kitchen. A parlor, a sitting room, bedrooms and a terrace are on the second floor.

The sitting room has a movable ceiling joist, which makes it possible to open a huge skylight and enjoy the blue sky or full moon, especially during the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival.

After the Yao family moved to Hong Kong in 1949, the building became part of a state guest house and was called Pavilion of the Purple Bamboo. Many foreign and Chinese dignitaries have stayed there as guests of the Shanghai government, including leader Deng Xiaoping, who spent Spring Festivals in the building.

Today the villa is empty and locked.

I was stunned by the beauty of the house and its luxuriously spacious garden. Bright sunlight brightened the spring and a pool of green lilies and cast interesting shadows of trees onto the building.

It is a beautiful house though it cannot compete with the real Fallingwater and some would call it just a copy.

According to American professor Franklin Toker's book "Fallingwater Rising," Wright incorporated some elements of his own residence into the Fallingwater, the dramatic Taliesin in Wisconsin (where his lover and her children were murdered by a servant).

He might have taken some inspiration for Fallingwater from two California Houses, the Lovell Beach designed by Rudolf M. Schindler and the Lovell Health House designed by Richard Neutra.

And just as in the Fallingwater in Pennsylvania's rural wildness, the sound of the flowing water must have filled the Chinese house continuously, no matter who lived there.

No city in China has such a short and vivid history as Shanghai, so colorful, condensed, breathtaking, so East-meets-West. Shanghai has grown from a place of narrow streets to a boom city today in less than 200 years.

On the surface, Shanghai's history has vanished and made room for skyscrapers. But inside and often concealed in the depth of lanes and gardens, thousands of old buildings are telling yesterday's stories in a silent way. That's the charm of our city.

Unlike my previous Shanghai Daily column "History Revisited" years ago about famous old houses, this new biweekly column focuses on old buildings that are not known to the masses. All about the hidden beauties and the untold stories.

For each house featured in this column, I paid a visit. It's exciting to revisit these buildings, find traces of their past like a CSI investigator and put into words the fascinating, forgotten past.

I also suggest you visit some of them in nice weather, or at least cast a long glance at them when you pass by.

To me, old houses sprinkled around the city are like the broken ceramic tiles that adorn Gaudi's Guell Park in Barcelona.

They are small broken pieces, but together they make up a compelling, grand picture of the city's vivid history, bit by bit telling us how our city has grown from an unknown narrow-street town to what it is today in such a short period of time.


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