Reviving a Masterpiece
Prada has breathed new life into a Shanghai mansion, painstakingly restoring it into a dynamic, modern venue that pays homage to its rich and vibrant past. Lead architect Roberto Baciocchi walks Tamsin Bradshaw through the project
Architect Roberto Baciocchi discusses Prada’s ambitious restoration of an historical Shanghai mansion
Located in Shanghai’s prestigious Jing’an district is a grand, threestorey villa with a graceful beaux arts exterior and orange dome. Now known as Prada Rong Zhai, this Western-style garden villa has a rich history, one that’s peopled with opera singers, entrepreneurs, journalists, and one of China’s wealthiest and most powerful families in the 20th century.
For the first half of the 1900s, it was the home of Yung Tsoong-King (Rong Zongjing) and his progeny. Yung was known as the “flour king of China” for his role in establishing flour mills all over the nation. He also built cotton mills and yarn factories. By 1936, given his involvement in sources of food and clothing, he estimated that he owned half of China. But Yung was also a philanthropist, founding schools, planting forests, restoring monuments, and building roads and highways.
Yung bought Rong Zhai in 1918. He was not its first owner but he was the most famous. He commissioned architect Chen Chunjiang to remodel the turn-of-the-century home. His children were born there, and business meetings, opera performances, ballroom dancing, and billiards all happened under its roof and in its gardens.
The home’s glory days ended with the approach of World War II. Yung abandoned the mansion in 1938 and fled to Hong Kong. Since then, it has housed a local institute of economic research and media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s local companies, among others. Its heyday, however, remained its time as the home of the Yung family.
It is this golden age in the mansion’s history that Prada wished to revive when the Milan-based luxury brand began restoring the home in 2011. Having restored Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and a Venetian palazzo, Ca’ Corner della Regina, Prada had the experience and the foresight to see the Shanghai mansion’s potential. Here was a future hub of arts and culture, a venue for exhibitions and events.
With the intention of demonstrating the brand’s commitment to China and to fostering cultural exchange, Prada commissioned architect and restoration expert Roberto Baciocchi of Baciocchi Associati to restore the mansion to its former glory. “The most precious thing inside the mansion is the testimony to a lifestyle: [that of ] a rich and important family, with family ties typical of the Chinese culture,” says Baciocchi.
A Meeting of Minds
“With this kind of work, the most difficult aspect is the complexity of the problems you face,” says Baciocchi. “You need to work with expert professionals and artisans, and they should have a certain sensibility for the work
they are doing. A very beautiful relationship flourished between the project’s Italian and Chinese artisans, as everyone involved was working with the same enthusiasm.
“The first phase was to identify all the elements of the building, from colours to wood treatment to locks, without leaving out any detail,” Baciocchi continues. “The second phase was to reproduce ancient artisanal techniques to obtain the particular effects on materials and colours as they originally were.”
“We conserved everything that was possible to preserve. We didn’t change anything; we only replaced the parts that weren’t recoverable,” says Baciocchi.
Prada took this approach with everything, from the windows and lights to the tiles and hardwood floors. The hardwood floors were restored to mirror the originals wherever possible, treated with a natural finish and beeswax polish. There are also beautifully detailed tiled floors throughout the home, and these needed to be reworked. Clay was formulated to match the original tile colours and then hand-poured into moulds based on the original tiles.
On the Surface
For the walls in this mansion, workmen began by removing decades of layers of gypsum, revealing the original plasterwork and the beautiful colours of the original wall pigments. “Once we found the original colours, we consulted an Italian restorer who then applied the colours as they were traditionally created, with lime and natural pigments. The method and the materials are very important, because when light hits those surfaces, it generates unique effects and reflections that only those materials could produce,” says Baciocchi.
Many rooms in the home are also clad in cloisonné tiles. Ceramiche Giotto of Italy spent two years recreating 1,600 tiles using traditional cloisonné methods to match the colours and translucency of the home’s original tiles exactly.
Italian artisans also worked carefully to
restore the original gilded ceiling in the billiards room, applying gold leaf by hand.
Let There Be Lights
Italian artisans from metalworks company Micromet recreated the home’s early 20th-century lighting fixtures. Using special moulds and a lost-wax process, the artisans managed to cast metal light fixtures that echo the originals in all their delicate elegance. To give them an antique appearance, the workmen painted them in an oxidising finish to give them a time-worn patina.
Windows of Opportunity
“For the stained-glass windows, we involved the most expert professional in this sector living in Italy,” says Baciocchi. Franco Dall’Ara led the team in charge of restoring Prada Rong Zhai’s stained-glass windows, many of which are adorned with original art deco and art nouveau motifs. “He consolidated the structure [of the windows] and restored all the glass windows,” says Baciocchi.
Two skylights required particular attention: a 15sqm skylight in the passageway between the ballroom and the meeting room, and a 45sqm skylight that presides over the ballroom itself.
Dall’Ara and his crew had to remove the entire ballroom skylight—a total of 69 panels—before replacing missing or broken pieces with period-appropriate glass from Germany, reinforcing the metal framework and cleaning it all before returning it to its position above the ballroom.
Beauty in the Details
“Even if it was very challenging and complex work, the building now expresses the great character and personality it had when it was first created,” says Baciocchi.
The level of detail and care Prada and its artisans applied to the mansion’s restoration is certainly astonishing, and the result is Prada Rong Zhai, a venue that is true to its history while serving as an exciting contemporary hub for the arts.
RETURN TO SPLENDOUR From left: The meticulous renovation of Prada Rong Zhai focused on repairing and restoring the original detailing, from stained glass to ceramic tiling and gilded ceilings; the mansion was once owned by “Flour King” Yung Tsoong-King
PRADA’S PRIDE Clockwise from top left: Beautifully detailed tiled floors throughout the home; handcarved wooden dado panelling and a glimpse into the former meeting room; the ballroom with the 45sqm skylight; the stained-glass windows in the former sunroom feature images of junks meandering past a pagoda