Over a month ago, on a cloudy spring afternoon, I found myself standing in front of a spectacular Art Deco building, all eight floors of mustard yellow and mocha exterior towering over the surrounding low-rises.
The eye was immediately drawn to the apex where an elongated ornament embellished with a spire and sunrise motif sat atop a prominent column.
And like sunrays, the angular façade streaked outwards the length of a block along both Nanchang Lu (南昌路) and Maoming Nan (or ‘south) Lu (茂名南路). Steel-framed windows wrapped around on all sides and glistened ever so slightly as the clouds shifted.
Presently, locals refer to it as Nanchang Building (南昌大楼) though it was originally known as The Astrid Apartments. Built in 1933 by property company Wing On (owned by the Kwok family), the building had been exclusively occupied by foreigners with servants living in the back quarters.
The Astrid was designed by the architect W.Livin-Goldstaedt, though little is known about him. He worked with the shortly lived Eastern Asia Architects and Engineers Corporation and the only other record of his work was the King Albert Apartments, a cluster of elegant four-storey apartments a few blocks away.
Serendipitously, as I stood outside the building entrance writing notes, a young woman exited the locked gates. She looked quizzically at me and thinking I was a visitor, kept it open.
I avoided the creaky elevator and took the stairs, steadily passing doors of small businesses, associations and private residences. With each floor, I discovered eroded floor tiles, rusted windows and dirtied walls in the dim hallways.
Yet the parsimonious elegance of the Art Deco design was evident in the doors marked by the classic geometric header, as were the window grills and moldings.
According to The Astrid’s blueprints, there are three entrances and elevators, and flats ranged from studios, two to four room flats. I had traced each wing via difference entrances and discovered recessed balconies facing another cluster of old housing.
Some flats were boarded up; one had rotting floor and junk strewn about. Otherwise, most were inhabited and renovated with metal gates and linoleum floors. Doors were firmly shut and residents kept to themselves. There was little sign of overcrowding, just the creeping decay and neglect of public housing.
Upon reaching the rooftop, I was greeted by The Astrid’s spire and ornament in a sea of laundry hung out to dry. The eight floors allowed a bird’s eye view of the surrounding neighborhood – a mix of typical Shanghai lilong housing and 1930s low-rise apartments – yet was close enough to observe people going about their daily errands.
With the balmy wind to keep me cool on the roof, I watched scooters weave in and out of traffic; children play in lanes across the street and older residents gossiping along the sidewalks.
Over several weeks, I returned to The Astrid to photograph in better light, and always wound up whiling the afternoon away on the roof. It was a quiet retreat from the buzz of the neighborhood, and Shanghai’s hectic pace. I often wondered if the roof, when it was first built, had been a special place for residents or servants to steal away to as well.
Note: For a more compelling visual and historical insight into the influence of Art Deco in Shanghai’s heritage architecture, I recommend Deke Erh and Tess Johnston’s “Shanghai Art Deco” (Old China Hand Press, 2006).