Far from the maddening crowds on the Bund, the Rockbund Art Museum on Huqiu Lu (虎丘路) is a favored destination that singularly embodies the East meets West history, design and architecture of Shanghai.
For many long-time expats of Shanghai, most know the building more as the former headquarters of the North China branch of the of the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS), evident in the engravings of RAS in both English (right at the top) and Chinese (above the entrance) on the façade.
The RAS was first borne out of a small group of British and Americans in 1857 seeking intellectual engagement on the country’s culture, geography and history. The land was granted by the British Counsel General of Shanghai, and the original building contained a reading room, library, lecture hall and a museum featuring animal exhibits from local sportsmen.
However, it suffered from significant decline, mainly eaten systemically by termites, as elaborately noted by the North China Daily News in April of 1928. Eventually, the building was rebuilt in 1932 and opened in 1933. Its current interplay of Art Deco and Chinese influences in a clean and direct manner were the brainchild of George Wilson (1880-1967) of the architectural firm Palmer & Turner. Wilson was more prominently known as the “father of the Bund” for his contributions that included the HSBC Building at No. 12 and the Sassoon House at No. 20, but also a committed RAS member who helped raised funds to restore the building.
For many older Shanghainese, the RAS may not have been well-known to them given its exclusively foreign membership. Instead, they would have recalled it as the Natural History Museum (or gallery) where they would have viewed the various specimens which were eventually moved to a building along Yan’an Lu (延安路) and only in 2014 relocated again to a new museum in Jingan district (or more specifically, the former west section of the huge Siwen Lane (斯文里) lilong).
Nevertheless, the former RAS building is now home to the Rockbund Museum, easily one of my favorite sites not just for its modern works but the general enjoyment of both architecture and art during a visit. I recalled attending its debut exhibit in 2010 by artist Cai Guo-Qiang (蔡国强), whose “Peasant Da Vincis” collection of these homemade airplanes, helicopters and submarines by farmers around China was fantastically refreshing.
The architect David Chipperfield was commissioned to restore and convert the former RAS building. While I had no real impression of what the original interior looked like but I distinctly remembered how clean yet imposing everything felt both inside and out. From the grandeur of the arched entrances, the carvings of Chinese mythical beasts, dragons and birds (the kind from antique Chinese bronze wares) on the top of the building and upon entering, the clean Deco lines and brilliant airiness around the stairwell.
Unfussy, modern yet imbued with Shanghai’s many eclectic influences, it’s often my first pit stop on a tour for a friend before we cross the Wusong river towards Hongkou district.
“Royal Asiatic Society building packs lots of history”, Michelle Qiao, Shanghai Daily, 23 May 2014