Art Deco influence on Shanghai’s shikumen

Shikumen Entrance Facade Art Deco 01

We all know that Art Deco has had a major influence in Shanghai starting from the 1930s at the peak of its Concession-era building boom. This city boasts one of the most extensive Art Deco landscapes in the world, and is home to the most number of Art Deco-inspired buildings in Asia.

This explains why the next World Congress on Art Deco will be held in Shanghai in 2015, the first time in the region (if you do not include Australia). The first Art Deco Congress was initiated by Miami Design Preservation League in 1991; Miami is also home to the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world. Now the Congresses are organized by a local Art Deco enthusiasts association in each city, the last few were held in Montreal, Canada in 2009, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2011 and Havana, Cuba in 2013. (As you can see from the embedded photo gallery links, Art Deco alone is a good enough reason to visit Cuba!)

A clean yet eclectic style that evolved from Art Nouveau and derived from the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Art Deco’s aesthetic is very appealing with its clean symmetrical lines, bold geometric shapes, inspired ornamentation and rich colors (though Shanghai’s Art Deco buildings do not exhibit the colors quite like Havana.)

When it comes to Art Deco architecture, I am less aficionado, more dilettante. I’ve photographed many Art Deco buildings around Shanghai over the years, drawn by their electic elegance and they tend to be better preserved than a great deal of shikumen housing. It also satisfies a childish curiosity of examining interior fixtures or emerging triumphant on the roof tops like I did at the Astrid Apartment, a stunning V-shaped Art Deco landmark on Nanchang Lu (南昌路) and Maoming Lu (茂名路). If lucky, I’d get to chat with residents while huffing and puffing my way up the flights of stairs.

The Astrid Apartment 08

The Astrid Apartment 03

Above: The façade and motif details of the Astrid Apartments, now known as Nanchang Apartments. I photographed the building over several weekends, and wrote about its history, with glimpses of exterior and interior details as well as a blueprint.

My specific interest lies with the hybrid Art Deco influences in Shanghai’s shikumen (石库门) housing, which you can see around the former French Concession, and more modified motifs around the former International settlement and even in Old Town (see first photo above). Shikumen and lilong housing were considered as vernacular housing created by European developers who, in the Concession days, had gained extraterritorial rights to rent land in Shanghai in perpetuity. The aim was to maximize rent/property sales by squeezing as many residents as possible, hence the organized nature of compact block housing derived from post World War One Western urban planning and inevitable architectural influences including Art Deco.

I agree with Shanghai Art Deco expert Spencer Dodington who noted that Shanghai’s art deco is unique “… because traditional Chinese design elements were incorporated into a basic art deco palate. … it’s a building style that invokes symmetry, art deco works particularly well with feng shui, making it popular with local Chinese.” It is not unusual to see combined Chinese lattice motifs with Art Deco geometric sunbursts and ornamentation on a single building. This explains its easy appeal when it was first introduced in Shanghai but still highly attractive today evidenced by the Jinmao Tower in Pudong.

Shikumen Entrance Facade Art Deco 02

Above and first photo: An Art Deco- inspired shikumen alley entrance in Old Town, barely south of the former French Concession border on Renmin Lu (人民路). The small alley was heavily bricked up last I was there in February, slated for demolition.

Hudec 01

Above: The China Baptist Publication Building on Yuanminyuan Lu (圆明园路) designed by Hudec, who had his office on the 8th floor of this building.

Hudec 02

Above: Christian Literature Society Building on Huqiu Lu

Dodington is one of several long-time resident experts on Shanghai’s Art Deco history, along with Patrick Cranley and Tess Johnston who will likely lead the World Congress in 2015. The local Shanghai fascination with this aspect of its Western heritage can be seen in Shanghai Tongji University Vice President Wu Jiang’s seminal Chinese book “A History of Shanghai Architecture 1840-1949” 《上海百年建筑史1840-1949》, a major reference for any Shanghai  architectural student.

For those interested in the historical influence and the major players of Art Deco design in Shanghai, I’ve listed a few sources below.

- As background, I found the British Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) site introducing all aspects of Art Deco to be both visually appealing while informative at the same time.

- Patrick Cranley and Tess Johnston created Historic Shanghai and lead popular tours around Shanghai focused on architecture and history. Sign up for their next tour scheduled in April. Shanghai Art Deco is a more specific offshoot.

- “Shanghai Art Deco” written by Tess Johnston and photographed by Deke Erh. It is the seminal (and hefty!) tome on all major Art Deco buildings and design in Shanghai. Available at the beautiful Old China Hand Reading Room bookstore/cafe in Shanghai. For those abroad, you can try the old-fashion order form or check on Amazon.

- “Shanghai Art Deco Master” by Spencer Dodington, a recently published book on Paul Veysseyre, a leading French architect who lived in Shanghai from 1921-37. French architects were regarded in being more active in creating Shanghai’s ‘new-style architecture, and Veysseyre’s firm was considered the first in Shanghai to experiment with Art Deco.

- “Shanghai Hudec Architecture” by Hua Xiahong, Associate Professor at Tongji University’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and Michelle Qiao, Shanghai Daily colummist.  It is a palm-sized bilingual guide to László Hudec’s 27 architecture buildings in Shanghai with 100 images as well as walking maps and blueprints of his most iconic works.

Enjoy!

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