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Off with that paint, down with the clotheslines - Let's see the real Normandie Building

SHANGHAI is renovating historic buildings and giving them a face-lift for the World Expo 2010 next year. Xiao Zhang looks at the landmark Normandie Building. Years of "improvements" to the "flatiron" Normandie Building on Shanghai's Wukang Road covered its lower levels in several layers of paint - gray, white, and even sky blue.

Now a more historically accurate renovation gives the triangular landmark residence a face-lift inside and out, reveals a textured granite-chip facade on the first two floors and the original creamy-gold marble lobby.

Residents have removed their clotheslines and masked air-conditioners; a vegetable vendor in the lobby has switched to a "cultural" business.

But since the eight-story mostly-brick building remains home to 70 or so residents with occupancy rights, renovation is limited to public areas.

Still, that's a start on the building sometimes called the "flatiron building of Shanghai" as it seems a smaller version of the Flatiron Building in New York.

Designed by Hungarian architect L.E. Hudec in 1923 and constructed in 1924, the Normandie Building (1836-1858 Huaihai Rd M.) is a grand example of Shanghai's historic European architecture.

The renovation leads a 120 million yuan (US$17.6 million) spruce-up of historic buildings on Wukang Road between Huashan and Huaihai roads.

The project is beautifying the city in the one-year countdown to World Expo 2010 opening on May 1.

Renovation is a time-honored practice in Shanghai - the Normandie Building itself has been renovated four times for high-profile events, such as the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in 2001.

But previous improvements aimed for "newness," rather than historic accuracy - hence, the paint.

Today there is more awareness of historically sensitive renovation. Paired with pioneering technology, this year's renovations removed layers of unsympathetic "improvements" from the Normandie, revealing its original facade.

In charge of the project is a company that has renovated and maintained buildings for the Shanghai government for nearly 60 years. The state-owned Shanghai Xufang Construction Industry Co has worked exclusively on properties in Xuhui District, and has a long track record of renovating historic properties.

Historic renovation has come a long way since the early days maintaining foreign consulates in the area, says Zhou Yi, the company's vice general manager who joined the firm 26 years ago.

"Since I joined the firm in 1983, very clearly focus has shifted from purely functional maintenance to enhancing historic value. Cultural awareness is linked to rising GDP," Zhou says.

Renaissance style

In this year's renovation, Xufang has attracted citywide attention with a pioneering method that restores the Normandie's original Shanghai composite surface - a textured wall of cement, sand and granite chips.

Rising eight stories, the municipally protected Normandie Building was commissioned by the old International Savings Society. It originally housed upmarket apartments in a mix of French and Italian Renaissance styles.

Over the years the lower two levels with the composite facade have been repeatedly painted over in gray, white and even sky blue.

This is a common problem with historic buildings in Shanghai. Many buildings on the Bund also featured the Shanghai plaster/composite surface that was painted over.

It is particularly hard to correct as the paint permeates the cement between the granite chips. Even if it is chemically stripped off, ugly uneven stains of different shades are left.

Previously, for the sake of appearances, it would simply have been given another coat of paint. This happened to the Normandie in 2001 for the APEC summit.

"There wasn't the budget, technology or awareness to tackle the problem," says Jiang Fuliang, chief workman on the current renovation who was also consulted in 2001.

Zhou describes divided opinion at initial meetings for the current renovations. While city planners wanted a handsome appearance, architecture experts wanted to preserve all the original historical details.

This time a compromise was reached.

Xufang Co developed a method that carefully "balances" the stains - darkening other areas to "match" the stained areas - while revealing the granite chips in the surface. After stripping away the paint, they used a mixture of cement and industrial glue, varying the proportions to create a uniform appearance.

The wall was painted with the mixture, then sponges were used to hand-wipe the cement off the chips embedded in the walls, revealing its original texture and color.

Mixed blessing

All over Shanghai, attention has turned to the state of historic architecture as the Expo approaches. In addition to the government's efforts on Wukang Road, Luwan District recently hosted a forum exploring the idea of turning more of its shikumen (stone-gated) areas into Xintiandi-like commercial developments. Other buildings are being renovated or cleaned to look good for the Expo.

For architecture experts this is a mixed blessing.

"I don't approve of purely decorative improvements to historic buildings," says Ruan Yisan, director of Tongji University's National Historic and Cultural Cities Research Center. "Restoring facades is not a bad thing in itself, as long as it's not overdone. It's only the tip of the iceberg of real preservation which should revive the building's original function, and allow it to sustainably exist into the future."

Though Ruan approves of the Normandie's renovation, he is skeptical of more commercial plans for historic buildings.

"In all levels of society we lack the sense that preservation is part of our culture and identity. Too often it's linked to practical uses, and commercial profit," says Ruan.

Back at the Normandie, Xufang Co has also cleaned the marble lobby - which was black with dirt and grime when workers first entered the building - discovering a yellowish, golden marble.

Externally the Normandie looks tidier by the day, but inside a complicated web of ownership rights means that little more than the common areas can be renovated, meaning the lobby, staircases and elevators.

The company has persuaded the families living in the building to dismantle their extensions, cover their air-conditioners, and shift their clotheslines to a communal rack in a back corridor.

One enterprising resident had even set up a vegetable market in a niche on the ground floor. The district government has persuaded the owners to turn it into a "cultural" business.

Zhou explains that they use new materials with traditional workmanship, so that renovations raise the structural quality for residents. At the same time traditional workmanship ensures that repairs blend in with the older parts.

For this, old craftsman are employed - not an easy task as mass production has replaced traditional skills.

Even with a 20-million-yuan budget for the Normandie alone, Zhou describes historically sensitive renovations as "a very painful process - slow and difficult to control."

As with so many problems in historic renovation, Zhou says, the Normandie was a unique situation requiring a unique solution. "It takes experience, there's no textbook you can go to for this."

Ruan, however, points out that renovation techniques, like paint stripping, are well developed internationally. "We just lack experience in using these methods, and awareness of its importance."


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