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

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By ZHOU WENTING in Shanghai zhouwent­ing@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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. ”

Chen Danyan,

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.

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