Tales from Normandie Apartment
Driven by their passion for preserving heritage, Chen Danyan and her team of writers and professors are due to showcase a compelling narrative of one of Shanghai’s most iconic residential properties
A40-minute documentary and a collection of manuscripts and photos about the Normandie Apartment, a French Renaissance style, flatiron building constructed 90 years ago in the former French Concession in Shanghai, will be exhibited at the Shanghai History Museum next year.
This documentary project, which took two years to complete, was the brainchild of Shanghai-based writer Chen Danyan, who had grown up in the area where the building is located. She had enlisted the help of a group of writers and professors who are similarly passionate about the city’s historical structures.
“Apart from preserving the physical qualities of this property, we must also preserve the spiritual part of it. It is only with the stories of the residents in such old buildings can we get an accurate account of the history of the place,” said Chen during a media briefing about the project in Shanghai on May 18.
“There are 64 streets in Shanghai that have been banned from being widened and more than half of them are within the former French Concession, a place which bears so many stories. Different communities in Shanghai have unique personalities and you can even recognize which community a person is from just by looking at his or her facial expressions. The community within the former French Concession in particular has a very strong cultural inheritance,” Chen added.
The Normandie Apartment, which became known as Wukang Building after the 1950s, is widely regarded as an architectural masterpiece by Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec, the same person behind other iconic Shanghai buildings such as the Park Hotel and the Grand Theater.
The building was in 1953 taken over by the Shanghai Municipal Government and renamed Wukang Building. In 1994, the property, which was then home to about 140 families, was listed as a city-level historical building.
Sha Yongjie, a member of the project team and a professor at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning of Tongji University in Shanghai, praised the design philosophy of Wukang Building.
“The gate of the building looks inconspicuous, which is a way to show modesty to the surroundings. Also, the spacious lobby can be seen as a sign of respect to the residents,” said Sha.
The project includes invaluable input from a dozen residents, including senior managerial staff at foreign enterprises, university professors, doctors and nurses, as well as foreign residents who have lived in the eightstory apartment building. Chen said that the enthusiasm of her interviewees surprised her.
“We had to set up large video cameras and lighting in their rooms and the interview would take the whole afternoon but instead of feeling inconvenienced, they were happy to be making a contribution to this project,” said Chen.
Adam Sinykin from the United States said the building surprised him when he first laid eyes on it as it looked very much like the famous flatiron building in New York.
“We feel lucky to be living in such a place. Foreigners, especially those with children, think it is romantic to be living in an old building,” said Sinykin, who moved into the property with his wife and daughter in 2007.
The International Savings Society, a French financial institution, had purchased a triangular plot of land around the 1920s at the intersection of Central Huaihai Road and Wukang Road before building a French Renaissance style building and naming it after Normandy, a northwest region in France. It was one of the city’s earliest modern residential buildings and most of the residents
Apart from preserving the physical qualities of this property, we must also preserve the spiritual part of it. ”
a Shanghai-based writer, and leader of the project
The building was considered to be one of its kind when it was first constructed, offering residents amenities that many other properties didn't.
The Normandie Apartment was and still is a favorite with foreigners because of its rustic beauty and unique architecture.